Is Growing Armpit Hair A Revolutionary Act?

Now I’m 45 and greying everywhere, my pit hair is no longer as luxuriant as it used to be.

It’s not as thick or lush or curly. It’s no longer such a radical act to let it grow. There was a time when I could seriously plait it. Other times, in my backpacking days, my friend would trim it for me with her nail scissors the same way we would trim our pubic bushes, careful not to give ourselves an inadvertent episiotomy.

I remember a voluble Mexican I met in Madrid, who said he didn’t ‘usually like women with hair there’ but would make an exception for me. I didn’t know whether to be offended or flattered.

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As above, down below. Armpits are like little twin vaginas. People are alternately turned off or aroused by them. Disgust and desire entwined. Why does a bit of hair there seem so confronting?

Why do men leave theirs be (wispy, sweaty and straggling) while many women feel the need to shave, pluck or wax them into oblivion? Why is it that notions of feminine beauty often include cutting, tucking, eradicating? Why can’t we embrace our natural beauty and sex appeal? Is this the last frontier of the body-positive movement?

Why is a woman's pit hair so confronting? (Image Getty)

In my early teens I made my dad show me how to shave my pits at the bathroom mirror. I had no shame. (I used to make him buy my sanitary pads as well, poor man).

Actually, the fear I did have was that if I allowed any hair to grow there I would smell bad. Don’t know where I got that one from -- the collective unconscious, or my desultory application of deodorant. Anyway, I figured my dad was the only one in the family with the experience of shaving every day. My mother and sister home-waxed their legs, pits and everything else religiously. I couldn’t be bothered.

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Then again, I was never very hairy, except for my head, under my arms and pubes. And they were pheromonally abundant enough for anyone.

Sam, 54, said she used to remove body hair.

"Then I had daughters and realised I was training them to do the same, so I stopped."

My daughter lets her armpit hair grow with no shame -- I wish I had her wisdom at her age. (Image: Getty)

My 13-year-old refuses to touch her pit hair and does not bow to peer pressure. She goes swimming with her mixed-gender class, wears singlets and bikinis, sporting the kind of healthy growth any green thumb would be proud of. Her choice is truly empowered. She tells me she doesn’t see the need to get rid of something that’s there for a reason. If only I had her wisdom at that age.

Gillette sold its first razor marketed to women in 1915, making the worry about ‘embarrassing’ hair real. Before that, removing hair was not a necessity.

The Egyptians, Ancient Greeks and Romans did scrape off their hair, but they also lived in hot climates and preferred hairless limbs for both men and women. Their cultural constructs of beauty were very similar to today’s: heightened athleticism, defined muscles, perky breasts and buttocks. Having no body hair was part of the sexy package.

Gillette razor marketed to women in 1915.

There’s been a growing resurgence of pit hair among celebrities such as Madonna, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus -- and Lady Gaga with her dyed blue pit extensions -- harking back to the burn-the-bra days of '60s and '70s feminism.

Madonna’s 21-year-old daughter Lourdes boldly exhibited her hairy pits this year while posing for a photo with her mother.

Maybe it will become a trend. Research shows that one in four millennials in the US have stopped shaving. Not a tsunami by any means, but something.

Forgive my cynicism, but it’s relatively easy for rich and famous white women (and for me as well) to make a token feminist stand over our pit hair. It’s much harder for less privileged, non-Western women to muster the energy or courage to do the same.

Particularly as part of an immigrant minority, sometimes it’s a matter of survival to escape scrutiny and abide by cultural and societal norms.

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Artemiss, 47, said that "as a dark-skinned, thick-haired woman, I feel that blonde Anglos who grow their armpit hair can be seen as activists/revolutionary, while if someone like me does it it’s seen more as barbaric/unhygienic."

A 1920s ad on Harper's Bazaar. Image: Harper's Bazaar, 1922.

I was comfortable growing pit hair when I owned my own bookshop cafés, but once I started working in a university I shaved my hair off. Self-censorship can be as damaging as society’s prejudice.

Amanda, 47, said, "I wear my pit hair with a little feminist pride", although in the past she conformed to family expectations.

So, is it all the fault of that pesky male gaze? Or have we so internalised patriarchy and outdated notions of dirty/clean that we’re now imposing these restrictions on ourselves? Are we angling for the approval of other women?

Many men I speak to have no preference. They can admire a woman whether or not she’s hairy. Some women take a harsher stance. A friend’s mother-in-law, before the marriage, looked at her in a sleeveless wedding dress and said: "A little too pubic for me."

I have to admit, growing my pit hair these days is not a drastic choice. It’s less a revolutionary act than a slow coming together. I have hair and these days it’s not such a big deal.

Granted, I live in hippie-hipster Northern NSW. Granted, I don’t go around raising my arms in a feminist salute wherever I go. Maybe I should. Yet the tyranny of conforming to an ideal of beauty is gone and for that I’m grateful.

I still have a razor in my shower. I haven’t used it in more than a year. Maybe it’s time to throw it out.