I shaved under my arms last Saturday.
That’s not a happening that generally merits a tweet, or for that matter an Instagram post. For me, though, it’s a pretty big deal. Because years ago, in my impressionable and dogmatic twenties, I resolved that I would never again shave where the sun don’t shine.
I had my reasons. Feminism was one of them: a steady stream of Ms. magazines (the first issue plopped on our doorstep when I was 10), women’s studies classes and sister rabble-rousers had convinced me that mascara, depilatories and hair dye were all meant to make women feel bad about looking like themselves.
By 25, I’d stopped trying to straighten my naturally kinky hair (left to its own devices, it scrambled into a Jew-fro). I gave the makeup mirror (with three-way lighting) to the Salvation Army. I dressed to please myself — Army-green pants and a polo shirt one day, backless sundress and sandals the next.
But let my leg and underarm hair go wild? That was a harder sell.
I’d been shaving my legs, after all, since age 14; I’d grown used to silky hillocks of calf and thigh, the beautifully bland smoothness once the poufs of shaving cream rinsed away. Shaving was part of the routine, like cleaning my contact lenses or flossing my teeth: wet foot propped on the sink; little bundles of hair spinning down the drain; the inevitable nicked ankle with its scribble of blood, a tuft of toilet paper pressed on to stanch the flow.
It was time-consuming. It was expensive. It was what women did.
Until I stopped, buoyed by feminist friends and a sizzling critique of what we used to call The Patriarchy. I gathered up my remaining Lady Schicks and tossed them in the trash, where they wouldn’t biodegrade for a hundred zillion years.
Did I feel liberated? Sort of. My showers were shorter — something I’m sure my five housemates appreciated. I spent less money on shaving gel and razors. I felt as though I’d joined the sisterhood. But at first, I felt whoppingly self-conscious, strolling the streets of Portland, Oregon, with stubbled calves. I imagined every eye fixed on my legs, with their meadows of lengthening black hair. I imagined the hair growing and growing — Would it stop? It would stop, right? — until my limbs were as furry as a chimpanzee’s.
It was worse when I came home for a visit, and my parents’ eyes traveled from my double-pierced left ear to the tendrils at the armholes of my sleeveless top to the dark down carpeting my shins. Their faces pinched in dismay. Their mouths said, “Hi, honey — welcome home.”
I’d stopped shaving my bikini line, too, and since Land’s End hadn’t yet invented those mixy-matchy bathing suits with modesty skirts, I pulled on my usual one-piece, never mind the hairs waving immodestly from below. Then I braved the beaches of Ventnor, New Jersey, in all my hirsute glory.
People stared, jerked their eyes away, then let them drift back in my direction. I saw teenaged girls elbow their boyfriends and whisper. I heard my own cousin reassure my mother that not shaving was “probably a stage Anndee’s going through.” She nodded, apparently relieved.
Except it wasn’t a stage. Gradually, not-shaving became my default position; hairiness, my comfort zone. I started to like the feel, and even the look, of my unshorn body. My leg and underarm hair was soft, not coarse. It kept my armpit from sticking to itself in humid weather. My lovers liked its gentle tickle, its musky scent.
And I did feel liberated, not exactly from The Patriarchy — which, as far as I could tell, was still alive and kicking — but from the Sisyphean task of engaging in a battle I would inevitably lose. No matter how many razor strokes or slatherings of Nair or painful pulls of hot wax (yes, I’d tried that, too) I endured, I was never going to end up with permanently hair-free legs and underarms.
Shaving wasn’t just spendy and labor-intensive, it was a collective lie; I didn’t see the point of colluding any more. Still, I was no purist. I altered my body in ways both fleeting and permanent: the ear piercings (all three of them), the every-other-month professional haircut and — oh, yeah — the nose job I had at 15 to smooth the bump that had earned me the middle-school nickname of “suicide slope.”
So, OK, I was a walking contradiction, a feminist fatale, with my hairy legs and my fixed-up nose and an occasional, ironic swipe of fuchsia lipstick. And that’s how it went, for years. Until last Saturday. There was a family wedding, a fancy affair at an Atlantic City casino hotel. I planned to wear a strapless dress — tight velvet bodice, a rustling taffeta skirt — and I planned to dance.
Here were my options: Wear a different dress. Wear the velvet-and-taffeta number, leave the armpits alone and risk mortifying two generations (parents and teenaged daughter) in one hairy swoop. Or shave.
It required a very long shower, two razors and half a bar of soap. “I need a lawnmower in here,” I yelled to my partner after the first five minutes. “No, forget that; I need an herbicide. We’re talking major defoliation!” When I was halfway done, I eased the shower door open and looked in the mirror over the sink. My right pit: naked as a babe’s. In my left, it looked as though a small Syrian hamster had curled up for a nap.
With every stroke, I remembered why — aside from feminist critique — I’d quit shaving. Armpits curve. Razors don’t. Also, the skin is sensitive, not keen on being scraped repeatedly with beveled metal. After 25 excruciating minutes, my underarms were indeed hair-free … and stinging red.
At the wedding, I cried, ate sushi and danced with my partner to Katy Perry’s “Roar,” hands thrust overhead, swaying to the beat. My underarms felt itchy and cold, a little bereft without their usual cushion of hair. My mother smiled approval: “You have nice armpits. I never get to see them.”
If I’ve learned anything in middle age, it’s this: I care so much less what people think of me, but I care a lot more about how my actions make them feel. My cousin Jonathan was marrying his beloved Rebecca. I didn’t want my armpits to steal the show. There’s a time (nearly all the time) to challenge stupid, sexist codes of beauty. There’s a time to pick up the disposable razor and get to work.
But, Mom? If you were thinking this shaving thing might just be a phase, you’re right. The hair — I learned this a long time ago — always grows back.