As a fourteen-year-old in the early 2000s - a generally bad time for feminism - I was wearing Doc Martens to school and long-sleeved t-shirts underneath my school blouse (yes, I thought I was awesome AND original), and discovering different kinds of music. At the same time I was also subconsciously being introduced to internalised and often mandatory beauty standards, namely that if I didn’t shave my armpits, I would be seen as – and effectively would be – disgusting. So I started shaving my armpits. These two parts of my life overlapped when I became obsessed with the first Patti Smith album I owned, Horses, still a favourite, and keen for more I also purchased Easter. I remember feeling simultaneously mesmerised and a bit embarrassed by owning the album because of its cover, on which there was a picture of the artist holding her pale, lithe arms above her head, with a fascinating fuzz underneath the shoulder joint.
The Patti Smith Group released Easter in 1978, during a time that was pretty good for feminism, before things took a turn and easily available porn created a society in which brazilian waxing is expected of women and vaginal lightening a popular beauty procedure. For years, I obediently shaved my underarms, through three years in my late-teens being in a relationship, thinking if I didn’t then I’d be extremely unattractive to my boyfriend. Even when I then spent three very happy, liberating years in my early-twenties not being in a relationship, (during which time I happily learned that I’d be with no man who expected any level of beauty maintenance), I still went on armpit shaving. Even if I let the ole’ leg hair go for a week or two (standard), any stubble that attempted to claim sanctuary in my armpit would be swiftly dealt with.
Then, a few years ago, for reasons unknown (j’accuse, Nivea deodorant!) I developed terrible redness and upset, badly damaged skin on and around my underarms. It was just too painful to shave, and so for a good few weeks until it healed (and slunk back to Sure deodorant forever and ever more I’m so sorry for doubting you), I stopped shaving my underarms. When I stopped, hair grew: that’s science. Hair was growing in my armpits around the time that feminism was becoming more and more mainstream, I had just finished reading Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman (2012) in which she stated that she quite liked a bit of fuzz on her underarms, and I had to admit I kind of did too. Bewilderingly, I didn’t feel disgusting or unclean at all.
Small child: Why do you have hair under your arms?
Me: Because when girls and boys grow up into women and men they grow hair under their arms.
Small child: My mum doesn’t have hair under her arms.
Me: She shaves it off.
Small child: She doesn’t.
Me: She does. Ask her.
Small child: Mum, do you?
Mother of small child: Yes.
Small child: Why?
Exactly, small child. Exactly.
I love the above bit of hypothetical dialogue, taken from a Guardian article from 2012 by Emer O’Toole entitled “Ladies: Why You Should Stop Shaving”, which also appeared on The Vagenda. When you think about it, really think about it, the mandatory nature of shaving underarms is (like many beauty standards to which people, especially women, are held) is a really, intrinsically strange thing to suggest that women have to do. It’s like when you really think about Brazillian waxing being a necessity to snag a man, or woe betide an eyebrow hair should crop up betwixt monthly threadings. IT’S JUST HAIR. I remember the inverted stigma when it became a thing a while back for some men to shave their armpits and legs, and whether it was sexy or too feminine, to which I reiterate: IT’S JUST HAIR. But at least men’s plight for underarm freedom has reached a relative “each to their own” level, and trust me chaps I’m happy for you, but long for similar female pit rights. But there’s no denying that men’s underarms do not carry the same symbolism, the same political weight, as a woman’s pubic follicles.
It turns out that hair is actually quite important to some people or, more accurately, media outlets. When a selfie was posted revealing Madonna with hairy armpits (the famous singer, not the biblical Madonna), it’s hardly a surprise that Twitter and the Internet – in the words of Jezebel – “lost its mind”. The singer captioned the image “Long hair…… Don’t Care!!!!!! #artforfreedom #rebelheart #revolutionoflove”, which is nearly as nonsensical as Madonna’s underarm “hair” that is, surely, verifiable by anyone who has ever seen hair, clearly fake. Surely we are not so far removed from the normalcy of women’s armpit hair that we think it would look like that blatantly Photoshopped monstrosity?!
I hadn’t ever expected to conduct a Google search for “Madonna armpits” in my life, but when I did it became clear that a lot of people mind about what Madonna’s underarms look like. But in the media turdstorm following Madonna’s weird selfie – weird because of the fakeness of the hair, not the hair itself – only The Gloss got it right for me, declaring the armpit wig the only thing that was gross about the selfie. Beginning the article with words similar to celebrity websites and tabloids – “Madonna wants to shock you with her gross, hairy armpits. Are you not appalled?” - it was refreshingly clear this was meant, probably for the first time in my experience, ironically.
Maybe the most bizarre article I read relating to this was in The Daily Mirror, which had collated a gallery of “embarrassing” pictures of female celebrities who had dared to allow themselves to be photographed with hairy armpits throughout history. “That was embarrassing” the Mirror jeered under a photograph of Julia Roberts, waving her arm in the air at the Notting Hill premier in 1999; “Oh Queen Bey please remember to shave” it jibed at a picture of Beyonce with reference to what looks more like a shadow than hair to me; and mocked a picture of Britney Spears, who was clearly deliberately showing her underarms. Just how stupid does The Mirror think women are? (No, wait, don’t answer that.) The Mirror might mistake underarm hair for laziness or a general failure to fulfil womanly aesthetic duties, but they also call deliberate acts “embarrassing”, so you don’t need to worry about their opinion so much.
It looks like armpit hair is finally starting to lose its scandalous reputation. Simply avoiding underarm razors is no longer a radical act; it’s just a thing we might do because we don’t feel like shaving today. We’re thrilled to see that the world seems to be coming to terms with armpit hair, because we never got what the big deal was in the first place. It’s just armpit hair. - Elizabeth Licata, The Gloss
These sorts of celebrity displays – not so much the Madonna pit wig – are a really great thing, particularly when done by women known for their beauty, making mainstream what feminists have been advocating for years: it’s actually not a big deal. And as much as I respect the women who publicly appear with hair on their underarms, I long for a time where celebrities posting armpit selfies (armpelfies?) is exactly what it should be: non-news. Until that time, I’d like to see more women being open about their thoughts around armpit hair being a normal, easily liveable aesthetic choice – whether they shave or not – as it’s dangerous when celebrities are the only representatives of underarm hair; it’s too easy to dismiss them as quirky novelties doing it to be edgy.
But whilst things have been going in the right direction, and armpit hair no longer is considered “the pits” (I’m so sorry), there’s still a long way to go before some websites and blogs, even those whose very purpose is to question and engage with women’s issues, can talk about armpits comfortably without qualifying along the lines of “Oh but we don’t do it ourselves, oh no, perish the thought.” For example, five years ago Jezebel did just this in an article called “Hairy Pits: Appealling or Appalling”, which finished with an article that was essentially encouraging hairy armpits:
Intellectually, we know she’s right. Why should we be ashamed of all of the hair — armpits, legs, bikini area — that is a natural part of being a grown-up? Only kids and Barbie dolls have smooth, hairless skin. But are we brave enough to wear a sleeveless top without shaving? Not. A. Chance.
I think this is a real shame, but things have come forward in five years, right? Well, after reading a piece on the topic on online magazine Never Underdressed (an online magazine I usually rather like for its blend of women’s issues and beauty), promisingly titled “In Celebration Of Women With Hairy Armpits”, I was left a bit disappointed. The online magazine tweeted a link to the article, prefacing it with “Now, we’re not saying we’d do it ourselves” as a kind of unnecessary disclaimer, and the subtitle on the website – “Well done them. Now pass the razor” – smacked of vague snark to me.
Hairy armpits do not mean a woman is not attractive, or that she is lazy and doesn’t care about her appearance. My issue is not whether you shave or not, and I’m not for one moment suggesting you’re not feminist if you don’t shave your underarms. Personally, I frequently do shave, but I also frequently don’t, and in recent years I’m proud to say that these days I quite like having a bit of armpit hair. I finally feel comfortable with it to the point that it’s not even a statement, which is a view many women today share, and I hope very soon will be the consensus view. The time is gone for French stereotypes and talk of hamsters. I don’t smell, I don’t itch, I don’t avoid vest tops, I don’t doggy-paddle when swimming to hide my armpit tufts. I do the blimmin’ front crawl, with as much of a full-arm stretch as I can bloody well muster.
Some days, a shaved armpit just looks a bit … boring. If I’m hanging with my homies, it’s quite nice to go a bit George Michael – a bit ‘Faith’, with a flash of four-day fuzz. There’s something pleasingly musky about it – like you’ve been too busy living the bohemian dream, and souping up your hot-rod, to do something as mimsy as shave. - Caitlin Moran
Unlike Madonna’s, Patti Smith’s armpit hair on the cover of Easter is wonderfully real, and my confused embarrassment of owning that album is an early moment I look back on when I started becoming interested in beauty and feminism, and on some level started to question the ridiculous beauty standards that still pertain our society. Because armpit hair and all, a part of even my repressed fourteen-year-old self could tell Patti Smith looked fabulous. I’m pleased that my fourteen-year-old self got over feeling a bit self-conscious about an album cover with a hairy-pitted woman on the front and got proud of it instead. So please, for the good of yourself, your children and for humankind, let’s relegate underarm hair to what it needs to be regardless of sex or celebrity: a non-issue.
Update: This post is not intentionally without comments, I am currently experiencing a problem on this post alone with Disqus, for reasons as yet unknown. I am working to resolve the situation as soon as possible and do apologise if you would like to comment. If you like please email me and I’d be happy to have a chat about this post personally, or add your comment manually once the problem is sorted. Thank you for your patience!