Don’t risk Veet

Veet’s latest advertising campaign “Don’t risk dudeness”, which shows a woman who has failed to keep her body hairless as turning into a man, is psychological warfare against women. This is one hairy-legged feminist’s response.

I was just a kid in 1999 when the movie Notting Hill, starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, hit the screens. I wasn’t any more or less interested in that than your average girl in the western Anglophone world. But to this day, when I close my eyes, I can picture the dress Julia Roberts wore to the premiere and the way she wore her hair. Why? Because a photo of her flooded the media that year. It showed her raising an arm and waving to someone, with armpit hair clearly visible, and this image burned itself into my brain forever.

It wasn’t only the utterly unfamiliar sight of a woman with unshaved armpits that etched itself into my memory (I can still count on one hand the women with visible body hair that I have seen in the media). It was also the frenzied way in which the media seized upon it, ridiculed her, that left a strong impression on my young mind. I’m sure I am far from alone in this. Whether via Julia Roberts or perhaps that slightly eccentric teacher who didn’t shave and who everyone made fun of, at some point we all learned that it is unacceptable to be a woman with body hair.

Like most girls of my generation, I began removing my body hair as soon as it showed up. I went many years with shaved legs, never questioning why society required me to do this but didn’t demand the same of men. In fact, the thought of not doing it would have seemed absurd (and how could it not, when a few hairs on a famous actress were powerful enough to cause such a media circus?). But when I started to really question it and examine why women remove their body hair, I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. If society is telling me that there is something wrong with a natural part of my body, and so I must remove it, even comparing this part of me to dirt (it’s always implied that being unshaven also means being badly groomed/unhygienic for women while nobody would suggest a man with body hair is “dirty”), then surely it is society that should change and not I, and surely whatever society is making me do to myself is anything but an act of self-love.

One day as I looked at the changing appearance of my shins, an astounding thought struck me: this is what girls should be experiencing in puberty, but we don’t. As girls enter puberty, their body hair grows, just like boys’ does, and if we didn’t live in a misogynistic society, girls would grow accustomed to this during puberty, just like boys do. But we do live in a misogynistic society; a society that reduces us to bodies that must be sexually available to men; a society that imposes harmful, costly and time-consuming “beauty” practices to make us look as different from and appealing to men as possible. And here I was, as a grown woman, only just learning what my adult body actually looked like. Hadn’t society kept me physically prepubescent, childlike, in a way? It was a scary thought.

It’s not only scary, it’s also infuriating how we are all made to see women’s natural bodies as abominations of nature in need of fixing. This society turns ‘woman’ into a costume we must squeeze into every day before we leave the house. We don’t have to adorn, cut or fix ourselves to be women. We just are. But society will not just let us be. Only two days ago, I tweeted “Why do people say women with body hair look ‘masculine’? Because men are the only ones allowed to have any. Perfectly circular.”

And then Veet, a company selling hair removal products, entered the picture and provided me with a stronger confirmation of my statement than I would ever have wanted to see. Veet has gone a step further than all the other body-shaming, misogynistic hair removal ads I have seen so far: instead of just being ‘masculine’ or ‘unwomanly’ if we don’t remove what is a natural part of our adult female bodies, their new ad campaign tells us that this literally turns us into men. Let that sink in for a second: unless we spend time, money and effort on changing our natural female selves, we are non-women.

A series of 30-second commercials shows people such as the female protagonist’s male partner, a beautician and a taxi driver reacting in speechless revulsion and horror as they catch a glimpse of the woman’s body hair – and then we see that the skinny, pretty white model has been replaced with a pudgy, hirsute white man with unkempt-looking hair and a bushy beard. With his chest hair and stomach rolls spilling out of ill-fitting and highly feminine clothes, the intended message is driven home: we are grotesque, unlovable creatures that should not be, unless we buy their product and rid ourselves of this nauseating proof that we, too, are grown human beings.

Women haven’t been expected to shave their armpits and legs for all that long. Around 1915, advertisers in the US began pushing the notion that women had to remove “objectionable” underarm hair so they could wear the new sleeveless fashions in style. By the 1920s, they had largely succeeded in normalizing the practice. Most women in those days didn’t feel any need to shave their legs even though dresses and skirts were not all ankle-length. In the 1940s, the decade of sheer stockings and pin-up models, this changed and hair on women’s legs, too, was made fully “objectionable”.

It is 2014, almost exactly 100 years since the start of the campaign to make women’s underarm hair unacceptable, and the pressure to make ourselves hairless from chin to toe has only increased. Feminism has not succeeded in re-normalizing what should be normal. Instead we have a whole generation of boys and men who, thanks to the proliferation of pornography, also find every last trace of female pubic hair “objectionable”, and girls and women who see no other choice but to do what men expect and what we have been taught to see as attractive. It is 2014, and we are now being told that we are no longer even women if we don’t conform to this practice, this fashion. And the woman-hating consumerist propaganda will not stop there, unless women fight and effect massive global change.

It is incredibly hard to defy cultural norms, and this is especially true for women trying to defy beauty norms. In male-dominated society, our perceived value as people is made entirely dependent on our sexual availability to men and our appearance. Not only do we internalize this, we also internalize what society tells us about what is an attractive appearance and what isn’t. Did I find my legs less ‘pretty’ in their hairy state? Honestly, of course I did. The few women with body hair that I saw growing up were all ridiculed and called ugly. But I told myself: they’re legs. They’re for walking. Not for being pretty. I wanted to be free from the creeping shame I used to feel, like clockwork, as soon as stubble began to show (which is basically always when your skin is nearly translucent). And as the months passed, I became more and more accepting of myself, my body, and of the way adult women actually look.

Now I look fondly at my own legs, because not only do they serve their dual purpose of taking me from one place to the next and providing a space for cats to sit, the hair also keeps me warmer and serves as a small reminder that we can overcome the feelings of self-hate and insecurity patriarchal society instills in us if we try.

Feminists are often confronted with the cliché of the “hairy-legged manhater”. Many react by vocally denying this characterization. Instead, I’d like you to remember that “hairy-legged” is only an insult if you let it be. Even if you don’t want to rebel by chucking out your razor, please respect the courage of those women who do and big them up instead of distancing yourself (“hairy-legged manhater” is also a dog whistle against lesbians).

I’ll leave you with a comment posted under an article about the only celebrity woman I have seen proudly showing leg hair on a red carpet, Mo’Nique: “When the sight of a man with a beard evokes the kind of visceral hostility and disgust that a woman with unshaved legs does, I’ll believe that the command to shave my legs is a harmless social custom rather than an attack on my womanhood.”

The beauty norms imposed on us are indeed all but harmless, and women who refuse to comply with them are rightly seen as a danger to patriarchy. We are so determined to be ourselves and to be free that we will go against everything society teaches us, and that’s dangerous. To those who are in the business of controlling women, that is.

Hear that, Veet? Not only are my hairy legs natural and womanly, they are a political statement. They are defiance of patriarchy and consumerist brainwashing, and I refuse to let you poison me with self-hate. Take your shameful misogyny back to 1915 and leave women alone.

These legs were made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do…you know the rest.

Signed, @SisterTrinity