Hair Here, But No Hair There–If You’re Female

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Laurie and Debbie say:

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.

Ace Is Some People’s Place

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Debbie says:

When I came across Simone’s story, I went back into our archives to see how recently Laurie and/or I had written about asexuality, and I’m horrified to discover that we’ve never done more than mention the phenomenon. It’s time to fix that.

“Someone who is asexual doesn’t experience sexual attraction,” [Simone] explains. “In terms of sex drive, it varies from person to person, so a lot of asexuals say they don’t have any kind of drive, whereas others say they have, but it’s like being hungry yet not wanting to eat any particular food.” Simone has never had sex but has been in relationships. “I have had brief relationships in the past but I felt like it wasn’t really for me. I would say, however, that I’m a minority amongst asexuals — most of my asexual friends are in relationships.” So, how does that work? “We tend to say in the asexual community people have romantic orientations despite not having a sexual one. People talk about being hetero-romantic, bi-romantic, homo-romantic etc. Others call themselves aromantic, meaning they’re not romantically attracted to anyone. I would put myself in the last category.

Asexuality has gotten more traction and more awareness, at least in the circles I travel in, over the last few years. Aside from being an important identity and marginalization issue, I’ve always thought of it as a body image issue because, well, sexual desire is at least in part an experience of the body–and an experience that the world expects everyone to have in one form or another. So it’s often difficult for asexual people to come to terms with their own preferences and (non)reactions: like every other kind of difference, this one can easily raise questions of “Am I okay? Is something wrong with me?”

Being asexual is completely normal, and not especially rare. A reasonable estimate seems to be that about 1% of the population is asexual. So if you have been on a crowded commuter train platform, you’ve likely shared that space with more than one asexual person, and if you’ve been to a major sports event or a rock concert, statistically there were a few hundred asexual people in the audience.

Let’s get back to Simone’s story, as told to Charlotte Dingle of Cosmopolitan UK:

“I wouldn’t say being asexual has been a barrier, as I’m quite happy being single,” she continues. “I would consider being in another relationship in the future, but whether or not that would look like a stereotypical relationship to other people I’m not sure, because I’m really not a physical person at all. This isn’t common to all asexuals. A lot like kissing and cuddling and other romantic affectionate physical gestures.”

So, what would a relationship look like to her? “If I was in a relationship, it would be more about security and practicality!” she explains. “And it would have to be with someone who was on the same page. I wouldn’t want to be depriving anyone of what they considered a full relationship, so I’m aware that my dating pool is small.”

Simone refers readers to the Asexual Visibility & Education Network (AVEN), which does a lot of good work normalizing asexuality and advising asexual people and their friends and family. AVEN does not seem to use the term “ace” for asexuals, but Simone does, and many others do as well. AVEN does a great job of describing the wide variety of asexual identities, choices, reactions, and expectations, and of responding to people’s inevitable fears and worries.

Simone stands out as someone who has really thought her own personal issues and choices through, and sounds very happy with where she’s wound up:

“You never hear straight people being asked if they might change their minds,” Simone concludes. “It’s only the rest of us (asexual, LGBTQ+, etc) who get asked. I don’t have a crystal ball. Things may well change for me in the future, but I think it would be really great if people could accept that this thing exists.” Simone is keen to stress that, although it is now being talked about more, asexuality isn’t a youth “fad.” “We’re not all young people who’ve read this on the internet and attached ourselves to it. There are older people who’ve gone through their lives wondering what’s wrong with them and then found our community and suddenly it makes sense.”

Sexuality is such an enormous component of our culture, our public lives, and our private lives that (as a sexual person) I find it easy to imagine the relief of just being in a space where no one cares about sexuality. If you’re a person who just would never care about sexuality unless it was shoved in your face, the relief of finding a community where you can get away from it must be a thousand times more intense.