Repulsed? Get a grip. ShortList editor Martin Robinson explains why we should embrace the biggest female beauty taboo of them all: lovely hairy armpits
I am not a pervert or a hippy or a serial killer, but I recently discovered that I find women’s armpit hair sexy.
Here’s what happened: over Christmas, my girlfriend and I took the opportunity to slob it up. Barely left the house, rarely changed clothes, drank anything displaying surface tension. One morning, my other half lifted up her arm, and said, with a filmy glint in her eye, “Check this out.” There it was: a smooth dark rug.
She did it to deliberately repulse me, just as I will sometimes show her the odd testicle while she is eating. Yet – hah! – it didn’t repulse. No sir. It may have been the way she was so cocky about it, but I dug it. “I dig it,” I said, unsure why I was slipping into beatnik speak, possibly because her armpit resembled Bob Dylan.
I felt compelled to touch her pit-fro, and tentatively did so. It didn’t bite me. It was velvety and not at all unpleasant. Disregarding what could have been seen as a feminist triumph, my girlfriend called me a pervert, and further access was denied. But the incident made me think.
Is armpit hair on women really so bad? I’d never truly encountered it before, and just assumed I’d be appalled. Having discovered it’s actually all right, you have to ask why it’s such a taboo. In 2012, a Swedish woman accidentally revealed a hairy armpit on live TV, and a screen-grab of it went viral on social media under the general theme ‘Laugh at the freak’. Why do we see it as so disgusting? Why have girls I’ve spoken to suggested they’d rather sport a swastika tattoo under their arms than a bush? Why has ShortList’s art editor been gagging as he’s been laying out this very feature? Why should we even care?
Well, from Armpits4August (‘Movember for chicks‘) to Cameron Diaz’s body hair-promoting book, the ultimate female taboo is cracking and hairy pits are coming your way…
So what’s wrong with women’s axillary hair, to give it its medical term? Some religions reject body hair on both men and women altogether, but for Western secular types, the problem is less clear. Is it unhygienic? No, in fact it helps prevent bacteria breeding on the skin. OK, removal lessons the risk of pubic lice, but who’s still sleeping with 17th-century prostitutes anyway?
Is it simply so bloody ugly it’s just a basic human urge to hack the stuff off? Well, no, many areas in the world don’t mind it; South-east Asia, China, Latin countries, Grimsby…
Is it an accepted standard of beauty from the dawn of time? No, it’s gone in and out of favour throughout history. Total hairlessness was prevalent in Ancient Rome and the Renaissance and reflected in public art from those times, but that worked the other way too: female body hair was a private sight, a forbidden secret. And therefore pretty goddamn sexy. Michelangelo couldn’t put hair on the nudes in the Sistine Chapel as they tend to frown upon masturbating in church. When Goya broke the rules with his proudly pubic ‘Nude Maja’ in 1800, the Spanish Inquisition locked it away for being obscene (ie too friggin’ hot, señor).
OK, so is armpit hair off-putting in a primal way, given the fact that hairiness is more associated with men? Well, you’d think it would be in our primal instincts to be actively attracted to female armpit hair, since it signifies sexual maturity.
“Hair would suggest that our mating would be profitable,” says evolutionary science writer Professor Jesse Bering. “So why would something that signals sexual maturity actually be seen today as unattractive? Well, we do have an attraction to youth, so a combination of other sexual characteristics, like obviously developed breasts, coinciding with hairless armpits, might create the overall impression of youth, but relative youth that’s not indicative of reproductive immaturity entirely.”
OK, so a desire for youthfulness may overwhelm a desire towards armpits, but that doesn’t explain the deep modern repulsion for them. Bering says their biological role is just not significant enough anymore to withstand fashion. “Armpit hair would serve as a primitive odour trap which would help to perpetuate the wafting of pheromones. But the role of pheromones in human sexual behaviour is small, or at least unknown, so it’s maybe not enough of a biological force to have any cultural effect. Culture can prevail."
There you have it. It’s an evolutionary leftover, so whether armpit hair is lauded or loathed at any particular moment is just a matter of social mores, rather than anything deep-seated.
Taboo-busting comedian Lenny Bruce put it perfectly during a bit on female armpit hair at his Carnegie Hall concert in 1961: “Why is it in bad taste? Is it from a theological point of view? Is it blasphemous? No. Is it hygiene? No, it doesn’t relate to hygiene at all, if it related to hygiene then you’d have to be consistent and shave the eyebrows, the head, the schmushka, the whole bit. So it does not relate to hygiene at all. What does it relate to? Style, that’s all. It only relates to fashion…”
Bruce was anticipating the late-Sixties hippies here, and indeed female armpit hair was perfectly acceptable into the Seventies. Mark Tungate, Paris-based author of Branded Beauty: How Marketing Changed The Way We Look, says, “I remember when I first came to Paris in 1979 as a schoolboy.
There were a lot of dark-haired French girls on the Metro in sleeveless dresses. Some of them had hairy armpits, which provoked pangs of pre-pubescent lust. It’s not difficult to work out why – it was like seeing pubic hair on public display. But this was the tail-end of the Seventies, when feminists displayed body hair as a protest against male oppression and the ‘norms’ of beauty.
“Actually women have been shaving for centuries,” continues Tungate. “For aesthetic and hygienic reasons. However, it will come as no surprise to learn that in the Western world, mass shaving of armpits by women was provoked by the beauty industry. Short-sleeved dresses became fashionable around 1915, which is when Gillette created its first razor for women – the Milady Décolleté – and ran a massive ad campaign to support it. The beauty industry has been encouraging hair removal ever since.” In this case, all it would take is for Kate Moss to weave daisies through her armpit hair at Glastonbury and within days every woman would have permed pits.
A 2005 study of UK women showed 90 per cent removed hair from their underarms and legs, and 80 per cent from their pubic areas. A recent university study in Australia showed 76 per cent of young women undergraduates were shaving off everything. There are reports of young men growing up unaware that women are even capable of growing body hair.
It’s getting absurd, so no wonder a backlash is underway.
Armpits4August is a charity event drawing attention to polycystic ovary syndrome, a symptom of which is hirsutism. They say, “We believe the shame people feel about body hair is a consequence of a society [with] narrow beauty standards … there is no ‘normal’ pattern of body hair for men or women.”
Then there’s Cameron Diaz, who recently put her body hair in the public forum, declaring in her new Body Book that “pubes keep the goods private” and are “pretty draping”. Well, she’s Cameron Diaz, she could have Brian Blessed’s entire head down there and it’d still be sexy, but she makes valid points that the hairless trend is a very recent phenomenon, a cultural construction that’s more about peer pressure than considered decision-making. Naked vaginas are the Emperor’s New Clothes.
You can also blame porn. In that world, you shave off hair to reveal more to the camera, but porn is so all-pervasive today, its style has gone mainstream. A new generation are following its aesthetic standards. This also explains the return of the mullet. Some experts, like Professor Gordon Gallup from the University Of New York, have said this shaved ideal suggests latent paedophilia. That seems a stretch. I believe it’s just a fad being followed, and one we should question. Is it really that sexy? Doesn’t an overly-groomed woman seem a bit professional, a bit uptight. Surely sexiness is a lack of self-consciousness, about not giving a sh*t what anyone thinks?
A chemical-scrubbed and cut-back mound may look like an invitation to porn heaven, but the amount
of prep required hardly suggests wild abandon. The famously banned author Henry Miller – often unfairly branded a misogynist just because he slept with anything that blinked – wrote something that stuck in my mind: “I want a woman who sh*ts.”
Nice. But his point was he wanted honesty, not pampered people pretending the mucky realities of being a human being don’t exist. We may all soon be sporting Google Glass, but we’ll still have to nudge it to one side to pick our noses.
If we can see that hairlessness is mere fashion, not a deep-rooted taboo, then it can be changed. If you’ll agree with me that this porn ideal is a bit weird and, if it continues, sex will resemble two manatees wrestling, then it may be liberating to try something different.
Praise the Pits
I’m not saying you should force your missus into growing some – it’s her choice, yeah – but if this backlash is happening, then men should support it. After all, how long before we’re shaving our armpits, too? Male hairlessness is no longer restricted to gay culture – everybody is hacking back now, and it’s only a matter of time before it all goes. And then we’ll be spending 20 per cent of our days shaving and the remaining 80 per cent itching.
No, let’s not run away from our animal sides. Encourage your partners, and let’s get some growth out there. I look forward to a time when a man and a woman can take off their clothes and not be nude. Free to fall into a hairy embrace and be stuck together forever in a Velcroish predicament.
That’s my vision. Who’s with me?
Certainly not my girlfriend:
“You can stop writing that piece, I’ve shaved them. It was disgusting.”