Image: Jenni Douglas, Flickr

Image: Jenni Douglas, Flickr

I haven’t been to the hairdresser in a little over two years, since just before I split up with my previous boyfriend. I remember it because I hadn’t told him I was getting my hair cut, and when I saw him afterwards he looked a bit miffed.

I haven’t shaved my armpits since 2011. I was in Japan in the middle of winter, in a long distance relationship, and I had a sudden realisation that I’d never seen my underarms in their natural state in my entire life.

I started removing my body hair around age 11 (I begged my mother to let me start shaving my legs at nine; she refused). I plucked my eyebrows mercilessly – thank god I missed the peak of the tadpole trend, or I’d never have been able to grow them back. I shaved my underarms as soon as I noticed hairs sprouting there, and I did not stop for ten years. At age 17 I got my first Brazilian wax. It hurt a lot. I didn’t stop doing it until I was 20.

Where do we start when we want to talk about women and their hair? To me, as a white middle-class Western girl, vain and introspective and with little else to do aside from dwell on superficialities, it seems an endless, exhausting conversation; there is so much more going on than just follicles and keratin.

Humans are unique among primates in our relative hairlessness. Our nearly-naked bodies are covered in what’s called vellus hair – fine, peach-fuzz relics of our ancestors’ more hirsute hides. In certain parts of the body, like the groin and armpits, this vellus hair becomes terminal or androgenic hair, the thicker, darker, curlier markers of sexual maturity. We have eyebrows to keep sweat from dripping from our forehead into our eyes, eyelashes to protect our fragile corneas and stop our eyes drying out. Each of our hairs have a different lifespan: eyelashes, about three months; pubic hair, six months; head hair, two to seven years. Hairs grow out of follicles that contain muscles and sweat glands that lift them into heat-trapping goosebumps and turn them into pheromone broadcasters. The hairs on our bodies constitute part of ourselves, our biological being.

For whatever reason, after we lost most of our body hair, we kept the hair on our head (there are a number of theories as to why; my favourite suggests that our ancestors required something to groom in order to maintain social bonds forged by physical intimacy – I love to imagine groups of early humans in hair-braiding circles around the fire). Our head hair may be the most significantly malleable aspect of our appearance. People do astonishing things with it. Hair styling rituals are crucial to the formation of social identity, from the 1920s bob to Black communities’ natural hair movements in the 1960s and 70s to the current trend of long, lush hair extensions that denote wealth and belonging in much the same way as a Chanel wallet.

I did not choose to be obsessed with hair; I was taught, by the absence of alternatives, that it was the only way for a woman to be.

Humans have cut, braided, shaved, plucked, waxed, grown and otherwise toyed with their hair since day one – and it can be a real pleasure to be in charge of this aspect of your body. My own friction with these hair rituals comes into play only when they become compulsory.

If you know Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth you’ll be familiar with her theory that the beauty industry exists in part to distract women from more important activities, like pursuing reproductive rights, equal pay and social justice, by focusing all her attention on arbitrary aspects of her appearance. What women do with their hair is a monumental distraction. How many hours did I spend as a teenager looking at Dream Haircuts in glossy magazines, buying wholeheartedly into the fantasy of perfect hairstyle as life-corrector? How many dollars did I spend on razors, tweezers, bleach and wax? When the Brazilian became popular in the early 2000s, you couldn’t open a magazine for ten years without reading one think-piece after another, in tones ranging from pearl-clutching to medically concerned to Girl Powered, about the state of women’s crotches. I spent what must be cumulative months thinking about pubic hair – mine and others’, how it was and how it should be – what an appalling waste of my time. But I did not choose to be obsessed with hair; I was taught, by the absence of alternatives, that it was the only way for a woman to be.

Now, fortunately for me, I live in a small-L liberal bubble in which my armpit hair is completely unremarkable. Still, I know that many women do not have the luxury of choosing not to depilate. The disgust that a hairy woman elicits in people is the kind usually reserved for the abject – bodily, out of place, and revolting. (This is, by the way, completely artificial – women did not start shaving their armpits until razor companies in the 1920s realised they were an untapped market and began a campaign that characterised female body hair as unfeminine.) Womanhood as it is constructed in the West requires strict capitulation to unusually high standards of personal presentation – it requires you to deny fundamental, and perfectly natural, aspects of your humanity. Women are expected to remove themselves from their animal forms in order to correctly be women: a constant, energy-sapping motion to keep our true physical self at arm’s length. No wonder so many of us grapple with our own identities. It’s upsetting that the truth remains that, often, to be a human and to be a woman are mutually exclusive. You can be as substance dualist as Descartes; I think you should still be allowed to leave the vessel you’re borne in unaltered, if you so choose.

But I’ve made my own peace with my body hair (it feels like a luxury, to not care about it – the initial period of discomfort was worth it, ten times over, just to feel the breeze in my pit-hair on a summer evening) – and besides, the debate is carried on by people much, much more knowledgeable than me. It’s my relationship with the hair on my head that I find most fascinating.

Womanhood as it is constructed in the West…requires you to deny fundamental, and perfectly natural, aspects of your humanity.

My decision to stop visiting hairdressers was both practical and political. My thinking goes like this: my hair is a non-vital part of my body. I take care of the rest of my body myself, unless something goes quite dramatically wrong and I need to see a doctor, with confidence. I don’t need an expert to bathe me or clothe me or feed me, but I have always understood (until very recently) that I need an expert to manipulate and maintain an important aspect of my appearance. Hairdressing, and its link to compulsory vanity, works to divorce me from my body.

This is not to say that I am anti-hairdresser. Salons are often sanctuaries of gentle-fingered, broad-humoured, talented women who give you a lot of compliments and head massages that border on the orgasmic. But the requirement that one visit a hairdresser is a fabrication. I haven’t just let my hair grow for two years – I cut it myself. Here’s a big ol’ secret: it’s not that hard.

I’d gone through periods of cutting my own hair even before my conscientious objection. In Japan, high on independence and with a bleach-blonde pixie cut, I dyed my roots with packet peroxide (I couldn’t really read the instructions) and cut it with 100-yen-store scissors, hacking blindly at the back of it. I did some research beforehand, but I was astonished at how decent it looked, considering I’d spent my life in awe of hairdressers’ skills and had never, even as a child, cut so much as my own fringe. Is it unreasonable to read this as an extension of a social apparatus that convinces women that their natural state is unacceptable? To not wear makeup to work is unprofessional; to not remove certain areas of body hair is disgusting; to not entrust your head hair to a professional is a grievous error. This social apparatus exists to extract money from women made anxious about their appearance. Opting out feels wonderful.

I think part of the reason it feels so good is because compulsory hairdressing does more than just take your money – it splinters your identity. This is what I mean when I say it divorces you from your body: you must entrust a part of yourself to others, because you are not trustworthy enough to take care of it. Adrienne Rich says in Of Woman Born that ‘the body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit.’ When you outsource care of your body to others – not by choice but by social necessity – you sacrifice part of your self-sufficiency; you create another obstacle to self-actualisation. It might feel like a long bow to draw, but women have struggled for independence for a long time. Why not struggle out from underneath a plastic cape and $300 colour jobs? Getting your hair cut and coloured can be delightful, relaxing, affirming and flattering, but it is not an unavoidable part of life. I do not want to shrug my body off; I like living in it. I don’t want to rely on a cripplingly expensive, fundamentally unnecessary ritual in order to be completed. Let it be a treat, not a shackle. Let me keep my clumsy crown.

On Beauty is a bimonthly series providing a critical feminist exploration of beauty rituals. Read Sam George-Allen’s other essays on Skin and Eyes.