Tag Archives: patriarchy

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.

Today in Intersectionality: Disability, Gender, Sexual Orientation, and More

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Debbie says:

queer-crip

Once we get Intersectional theory into our framework of thought, it crops up absolutely everywhere. Intersectionality is the concept that we are best served by looking at overlapping (i.e., intersecting) identities and “related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.” Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who first coined the term in 1989, would be interested in these two posts:

First, Andrew Gurza, writing at the Huffington Post, connects the dots of queerness, disability, and depression:

When I was a young disabled kid, I was told by everyone around me to speak up for myself, and to go after what I want. I learned that I had to do this, to be seen and be heard; to be taken seriously as a disabled person, I had to be obtuse about it. I had tried to apply this same principle of directness to dating dudes while disabled. I was dismayed to learn, almost every time, that asking for what I wanted, standing up for myself as a young queer cripple, didn’t work in this arena. I was knocked down by ableism time and time again. Each time, the guy couching his ableist rhetoric in “unawareness” and “honesty.” They would tell me that they were telling me the truth, and being real with me about how my disability affected them. They’d say this in easy tones, as if I should be thankful to them for hurting me. They could care less about how their words affected me, leaving a scar bigger than the last.

This kind of subversive ableism that runs rampant in our community is not okay. It is dangerous and divisive. Moreover, the disabled individual dealing with this has nowhere to turn. No one to talk to. Our friends, no matter how kind or empathetic, “just don’t get it”, and therapists are ineffectual, and altogether financially inaccessible to the queer cripple. C’mon, would you want to pay $150 an hour to have the person charged with helping you, tell you that they never even thought of how things might affect people in your circumstance? Yeah, didn’t think so.

That last experience happened to him, when he laid bare his issues to a therapist who said, “Oh, I never thought of it like that.” It makes me think of a friend of mine who was discussing BDSM with her therapist, and the therapist, having been trained to believe that all BDSM was simply about power dynamics, said naively, “You mean it hurts?”

***

Second, Matthew Rosza, writing at Quartz, addresses gender stereotyping and autism diagnosis, also paying some attention to racism. (Warning: lots of out-of-control web ads at the site can take over your browser. But the article is worth some patience.)

“I believe that my experiences as an autistic person has definitely been affected by my gender and race,” says Morenike Giwa Onaiwu of the Autism Women’s Network. “Many characteristics that I possess that are clearly autistic were instead attributed to my race or gender. As a result, not only was I deprived of supports that would have been helpful, I was misunderstood and also, at times, mistreated.” …

“Social awkwardness? Of course not; apparently I’m just rude—like all the stereotypes of ‘sassy’ black women rolling their heads and necks in a circle while firing off some retort,” Onaiwu says. “Lack of eye contact? Apparently I’m a ‘shy girl’ or ‘playing hard to get’ or ‘shifty.’ Or maybe I’m just being respectful and docile because I’m African and direct eye contact might be a faux pas. Sensory overload, or maybe a meltdown? Nope, more like aggression or being a drama queen. Anything but what it really is—an Autistic person being Autistic who happens to be black and happens to be a woman.”

The issue, according to Rosza, can go both ways. Girls can be underdiagnosed, transitioning women can be considered “not feminine enough to transition,” and autistic men can get some degree of acceptance unavailable to women.

“Some of the behaviors displayed by those on the autism spectrum scale seem to be the way many men in patriarchal societies (like ours) conduct themselves,” explains Esther Nelson, an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth College. Nelson, who believes her husband’s symptoms are consistent with an ASD diagnosis, has written about the intersection between autism and feminism, especially in terms of relationships. For example, Nelson notes that men who seem “rigid,” aggressive or lacking in empathy may not stand out in the way that women exhibiting the same behavior might. Even people who are aware of autism and are educated to some degree are more inclined to give her spouse a pass for certain negative behaviors.

Kudos to Rosza for bringing in race, gender identity, and various ways privilege expresses itself beyond straightforward sexism. And kudos to both authors for shining a light on intersectional relationships rarely examined.