As women in this culture, of course we have known since we were teenagers that women are only allowed to have hair on our heads. For Debbie, deciding not to shave her legs in college was a radical decision. Laurie had a close friend who was subjected to severe and dangerous medical treatment in the late 1950s for being too hairy.
What neither of us knew was that since the 1960s, there has been a formal quantitative scale for female body hair. Mona Chalabi, writing in The Guardian, combs through this history brilliantly.
What can be dismissed as trivial is a source of deep anxiety for many women, but that’s what female facial hair is; a series of contradictions. It’s something that’s common yet considered abnormal, natural for one gender and freakish for another. The reality isn’t quite so clearcut. Merran Toerien, who wrote her PhD on the removal of female body hair, explained “biologically the boundary lines on body hair between masculinity and femininity are much more blurred than we make them seem”.
The removal of facial hair is just as paradoxical – the pressure to do it is recognized by many women as a stupid social norm and yet they strictly follow it. Because these little whiskers represent the most basic rules of the patriarchy – to ignore them is to jeopardize your reputation, even your dignity.
Chalabi introduces us to the Ferriman-Galwey scale, which is now 56 years old. It has been simplified since it was first introduced, to the eight areas identified in the picture at the top of this post. It focuses on “terminal hairs” (coarser, thicker), rather than vellus hairs (finer, shorter). Not only did we not know there was a scale, we didn’t know the names for these different kinds of hairs–although, like Chalabi, we certainly know which hairs aren’t “supposed” to be found on women’s bodies.
Chalabi identifies as hairy herself, and she writes about how women react to having what they consider to be excessive hair:
On average, women with facial hair spend 104 minutes a week managing it, according to a 2006 British study. Two-thirds of the women in the study said they continually check their facial hair in mirrors and three-quarters said they continually check by touching it.
The study found facial hair takes an emotional toll. Forty percent said they felt uncomfortable in social situations, 75% reported clinical levels of anxiety. Overall, they said that they had a good quality of life, but tended to give low scores when it came to their social lives and relationships. All of this pain despite the fact that, for the most part, women’s facial hair is entirely normal.
And then there’s the nearly-inevitable racial component. (We never forget that race is a fiction and a construct, and at the same time, it’s sometimes a pervasive construct that can’t be ignored.) Chalabi references a 2014 study (funded by Procter & Gamble) which used predictably false definitions of race and ethnicity to determine that so-called white women have the least facial hair of any group, and that among these so-called white women, northern Europeans have the least facial hair. Because the world does not admit these divisions are meaningless, there can be question why having facial hair is considered less appropriate? And is it any surprise that Ferriman and Gallwey did all their work on white women?
And how old are these concerns? Older and deeper than either of us would have guessed:
When did we sign up to an ideal of female hairlessness? The short answer is: women have hated our facial hair for as long as men have been studying it. In 1575, the Spanish physician Juan Huarte wrote: “Of course, the woman who has much body and facial hair (being of a more hot and dry nature) is also intelligent but disagreeable and argumentative, muscular, ugly, has a deep voice and frequent infertility problems.”
These signposts are strictest when it comes to our faces, and they extend beyond gender to sexuality too. According to Huarte, masculine women, feminine men and homosexuals were originally supposed to be born of the opposite sex. Facial hair is one important way to understand these distinctions between “normal” and “abnormal”, and then police those boundaries.
Chalabi ends her article with the deeply personal information that despite her research and academic knowledge, she still pays every month to have hair removed.
And we end her article with two questions:
1) Why is it so very important that women have hair on our heads and nowhere else? The omnipresent western identifier of a girl baby is hair. Women with shaved heads, outside of a few urban bubbles, are presumed either to be cancer patients or some kind of weirdos. But that oh-so-important head hair must be limited to the scalp, and not move around to anywhere else, or somehow it stops signifying femininity and starts signifying masculinity?
2) Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a comparable scale for men? Certainly men with low body hair can be tagged and teased as not masculine enough, but it is inconceivable that an endocrinologist and his graduate student (or even an endocrinologist and her graduate student) living in the patriarchy would ever consider quantifying how much body hair on men is not enough.
How many ways can the patriarchy keep women busy worrying about details of how we look, rather than the big picture of how we live? Too damned many, that’s how many.
Thanks to Lisa Hirsch and Tracy Schmidt, two Body Impolitic stringers who thought we should take a look at this article.