A false intimacy: the policing of women’s body hair

Melisa Trujillo
October 24, 2014

Walking  down any British high street on a warm summer’s day, one would be  hard-pressed to spot a single woman or post-pubescent girl with visible  leg or under-arm hair. The sight of a woman with such body hair might  cause a moment of confusion, shock, revulsion, judgment, anger or even  aggression. This woman might be assumed to be unfeminine,  ‘inappropriate,’ unclean, or just a bit batty. She might even be  labelled a ‘lesbian’ or a ‘feminist’ – especially if her penchant for  body hair stems not from inattention, ignorance or poor hygiene, but  from a deliberate choice. Indeed, not only strangers, but also a woman’s  friends, family and partners may likewise find the presence of her body  hair disturbing and undesirable.

In contemporary, late-capitalist, Anglophone societies, adult feminine  body hair removal is a near-universal practice. The small collection of  social scientists (especially in psychology) studying this topic since  the late 1990s have consistently found that over 90 per cent of their  participants remove leg and underarm hair, with slightly lower levels  removing pubic and facial hair (often eyebrow hair)1.

Indeed, in these countries, women’s body hair removal is “so socially normative  as to go unquestioned” (Tiggemann and Kenyon 1998: 874), despite the  time, effort, expense and pain women must often expend in order to  maintain a largely hairless body, and the often harmful beliefs and  attitudes which underlie hair removal practices.

Academics  researching the issue often assume that feminists are more likely to  resist the hairlessness norm than the general population2.  In the literature this connection has not yet been convincingly tested,  preventing researchers from making a clear connection between hair  removal practices and feminist beliefs. For my doctoral research, I  interviewed 40 feminist-identifying women, aged 18 to 35 years and  living in the UK, in order to shed light on these questions and explore why there might be a link between feminist identification and resistance  to the hairlessness norm.

My argument about body hair removal and intimacy is that the social norm  for feminine hairlessness creates the conditions for an artificial or false intimacy between strangers, or for violent intimacy between  individuals already genuinely intimate, in order to facilitate the  policing of women’s bodies. We must also consider the issue of body hair  removal and intimacy within the broader context of gender equality, and  to address what implications it has for the ways gender inequality is expressed on women’s bodies.

A note on intimacy

There  are three notable characteristics of intimacy, and intimate  relationships, at play in the context of women’s body hair removal:  voluntarism (choosing to enter into a relationship), consent and  vulnerability. These are difficult properties of intimacy to manage  consistently in relationships, even in the best of circumstances – that  is, forgetting for a minute the vagaries of institutionalised,  intersecting inequalities (gender, race, socio-economic status,  sexuality, and so on) and assuming respect, care and goodwill from the  people engaging in intimate relationships. Intimacy is always difficult,  constantly under negotiation, and potentially harmful. It might be  argued that intimate relationships are optimal when they manage to  maximise the pleasures of trust and equality, and mindfully mitigate the  inevitability – and the inevitable risks – of vulnerability. Now,  bringing back to the table the aforementioned social inequalities, and  individuals’ personal histories, inclinations and (not always good)  intentions, the situation becomes even more delicate and fragile. These  fragile privileges and ever-present risks of intimacy are vital to keep  in mind.

The hairlessness norm and false intimacy

The hairlessness norm includes several components crucial to our discussion. There  is an expectation that all women will engage in the practice as a  ‘normal’ part of womanhood. The presumed universality and normality of  women’s hairless bodies causes alternative forms of ‘hairy embodiment’,  such as having hairy legs, a mono-brow or a slight moustache, to be  immediately dismissed as undesirable, socially disruptive and even  perverse – and, especially, ‘unnatural.’ The association of hairlessness  with ‘normal’ (read: acceptable) and ‘natural’ femininity enables  people to police women’s body hair as a matter of course – that is to  notice or stare at a hairy body part, comment on it, ask the woman to  shave, command her to do so or even attempt to force her. It is these  aspects of the hairlessness norm that I will examine in relation to  intimacy.

So,  what do I mean by ‘false intimacy’? If one considers the  characteristics of voluntarism, consent and vulnerability as  constituting intimacy, a falsely intimate relationship of the kind  relevant to this discussion is one that assumes the privileges of  intimacy without there being an existing relationship, and without  assuming the responsibilities inherent in intimacy. To put it a  different way, when a passer-by on the street, fellow passengers on a  train, an online troll, or casual acquaintances assume the ‘right’ to  police a woman’s body according to their assumed ‘standards’ of  femininity (often couched in terms of respectability, hygiene or  attractiveness), they are assuming a false intimacy with that woman.

This  is not to say, of course, that those in genuine relations of intimacy  with a woman have a right to police her body (indeed, that is the topic  of the next section), but that in adopting the mantle of intimacy, these  individuals create a certain legitimacy for themselves: in telling a  woman what she should do with her body they are helping her, being  caring, they know what’s best for her, she doesn’t want to stand out,  she wants to be a real woman.

And  if the individual assuming false intimacy is a man who is heckling this  woman about her body hair, telling her no one will want to have sex  with her, that she is undesirable, he is still acting under the rubric  of false intimacy with her by assuming the privilege of sharing his  desires or their lack for her body and, moreover, assuming she wants or  needs to hear it.

This  kind of false intimacy (as well as the hairlessness norm itself) is  also highly heteronormative. The assumption that all women are straight  and can only occupy public space to please men, or that all women want  to be sexually pleasing to all men is vastly problematic in a variety of  ways. In this context it highlights continuing gender inequalities by  showing how women are often dependent on men, and at risk of male  violence if they stray away from the ‘normal’ path of femininity.

It  is worth reiterating the point that within an unequal, heteronormative  social system, men and women commonly police women’s bodies differently  when it comes to body hair. My research shows that women inhabit  women-only bodily spaces for much of the time, in which mothers,  sisters, friends, beauticians and schoolmates inhabit a privileged  position. These are the people primarily involved with a girl or woman’s  ‘hairy’ life, who encourage or initiate involvement with body hair  removal, help her hone her technique and try out new products, and  police her for not doing it properly or enough. For example, Alex  recalled her time at school:

“I  think it was something that we all used to obsessively talk about as well, at school, all the time. I went to an all-girl school, so I think it kind of consolidates that sort of, uh, weird thing, like, girls being very, very good friends and stuff. So. But it was like, lunchtime  conversations largely removed (sic) around how you removed body hair  for, like, quite a long time.”

Conversely,  women-only spaces, such as feminist communities, can also be a safe  route for women out of the hairlessness norm, providing support,  encouragement and alternative visual role models to the usual hairless  images relentlessly pushed on girls and women through advertising,  magazines, films, TV, and art. Kim explains that she would not have  stopped removing body hair if it weren’t for her feminist community: “I  don’t think it could have happened, really, without the feminism,  because – well, partly I wouldn’t have had the confidence in myself  before… You know, lack of caring what the people think. Um, what other  people think about it. Like, to know that – to know securely enough that  I’m right about this and they’re wrong, so. Body hair removal is just a  stupid arbitrary rule”. Lexi told me, “I took a break [from working] to  have a sunny picnic with my friend… and the friend had armpit hair. I  was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s an option!’ And until that point, I hadn’t  realised it was an option. And once I realised it was an option, I was  like, ‘Well, that’s much easier! Why don’t I do that? That’s no effort  whatsoever!’ It was pretty much a turnaround moment.”

In  addition, women notice and experience the implicit racial hierarchy  inherent in the assumed universality of the hairlessness norm3.  Many of my participants mentioned wishing they were blonde and  pale-skinned, or were grateful that they were and didn’t have to worry  as much about hair removal as their less fortunate darker haired, darker  skinned friends. Aurelia,  for example, told me, “I’ve always been quite conscious of, um, body  hair, so I remember from primary school being quite aware of it, um, and  I think I was more aware of it because it felt like a comparison and I  felt a lot more hairy than a lot of people when I was at school, and  partly because I’ve got dark hair and Asian ethnicity, I think it was  quite noticeable.”

One  of the less well thought about aspects of body hair removal is that it  consists of a set of learned technical skills: which products to use and  when, how to avoid injury and maximise results, and how to negotiate  setbacks such as infections or allergies. One woman’s body hair will be  very different from another, in colour, length, texture, and  distribution, and her skin vary in sensitivity. The hairlessness norm  easily hides, through its assumption of universality, the differing  amounts of physical and emotional labour, skill and pain required for  different women to look hairless to the same extent.

The  point here is that my research shows that women will often police women  they are in relationship with – the aforementioned mothers, sisters,  friends – while men tend to be conspicuously absent in these spaces  apart from popping up occasionally to make often highly damaging  comments about how their body hair is “disgusting,” strange or otherwise  undesirable.

So  why call this phenomenon ‘false intimacy’ rather than something else,  such as street harassment, peer pressure, the enforcement of unfair  beauty norms, or simply leaving it at ‘policing women’s bodies’? Of  course, it is all those things, but it is also crucial to position these  forms of policing within the realm of intimacy because they serve to  delineate and control not only women’s bodies in public, but the ways  that women can be embodied in private, in intimate relationships, even  when by themselves. The false intimacy fostered by the hairlessness norm  furthers the intrusion of sexist bodily norms into women’s psychic  lives at the same time that it lets women know in no uncertain terms  that their bodies are public property, that intimacy is not a privilege  that is theirs to negotiate with people of their choosing, to choose and  consent to, but that they must always be on their guard.

Another  example we may use to illustrate the idea of false intimacy in the  context of women’s embodiment is that of pregnancy (and then,  motherhood). Many women when pregnant feel that their bodies become, in  effect, public property, with strangers constantly touching their  ‘bumps’ and offering unsolicited advice about pregnancy, birth or  mothering4.  Although some of this is undoubtedly good-natured and in the spirit of  solidarity or shared experience, there is nonetheless a highly  condescending and infantilising aspect to this false intimacy. Thus,  although the example of the pregnant body is arguably one in which the  policing aspects are (sometimes) more muted than when policing women’s  body hair, both are examples in which women’s embodiment is created and  continually reinforced as constricted, publicly available and subject to  the systematic appraisal of falsely intimate others.

Violent intimacy and body hair

So  what happens when a woman is in relationship with another person or  persons, in a state of genuine intimacy as elaborated at the start of  this discussion, and those intimate with her also police her body? I  argue that such a situation is violently intimate. That is, the  conditions of intimacy – voluntarism, consent and vulnerability – are  violated in a situation where the privileges of intimacy are abused in  order to control or command another person.

Intimacy  with another person, whether in families, friendships or romantic  relationships, comes with certain privileges that are ideally  reciprocal, but often asymmetrical. The ability, or perhaps right, to  tell the other person what one wants, needs, or desires; the ability to  make the other person aware of aspects of their behaviour or personality  one considers unhelpful, undesirable or perhaps hurtful; and, physical  intimacy – these are often key privileges within intimate relationships.  

Any  or all of these privileges may be used to police a woman’s body hair by  her partner, parents, siblings, or friends – and others beside. I call  this ‘violent intimacy’ because it is a way of using force against  another person’s agency, and moreover a person over whom one has more  power because  one is intimate with them. Some relationships are asymmetrical in power  from source, such as parent-child relationships, certain friendships  and many romantic relationships. Indeed, heterosexual relationships,  insofar as they emerge from unequal social conditions are more likely  than not to be unequal, but this is not to say that homosexual  relationships are free from inequality.

Lexi,  whom we met above, and Lucy both related to me how their mothers tried  again and again to persuade them to go back to removing body hair, with  tactics such as buying their daughter razors, attempting to ‘educate’  them about the social stigma surrounding feminine body hair, or simply  stating that it is disgusting, ugly or unfeminine.

However,  powerful social (often gendered) norms, such as the hairlessness norm,  can add another layer of power imbalance into a relationship. To give  another example, the masculine norm for stoicism can allow a friend or  romantic partner to impose undue force over a man if this man were to  show ‘unmasculine’ emotion, such as being overly expressive of their  feelings, or crying. Research shows that women often police their men  partners by telling them to stop crying, or calling them weak or unmanly  for expressing emotion5.  Male friends, it is well known, often call other men “pussies” or  “bitches” in response to the same behaviour. Such responses to male  emotion are meant to elicit shame, embarrassment and to cause the  recipient of such abuse to avoid emoting in the future – with great  success. Although such behaviour from female partners or male friends is  often considered ‘normal’ (in the same way that policing women’s body  hair is considered normal), it remains, I argue, a violent abuse of  intimacy.

The  situation is further complicated when a participant’s behaviour changes  during a relationship, for example when a woman decides to stop  removing hair altogether and wants to gauge her partner’s reaction, or  when a daughter decides likewise and is relentlessly pressured by her  mother to start again. This last example was a particularly common story  in my research: women who had started removing body hair as girls and  then decided to stop as young women, only to be faced with ruthless  parental (especially maternal) pressure, bullying from siblings, with  some mothers even buying the rebellious family member razors or other  hair removal products to encourage her.

Obviously,  such everyday impositions of one’s will onto others in relationships  are a common and perhaps inevitable facet of relationships (“Turn the  music down,” “Why don’t you try harder at school?” “You need to do this  for me”) and not necessarily linked to social norms. However, this type  of violent intimacy is a crucial driver for reproducing and maintaining  sexist social norms (amongst other harmful social norms).

Why  would a mother, for example, be so invested in her daughter removing  her body hair as to buy her razors and demand that she shave her legs?  On the face of it, this is a deep denial of her daughter’s bodily agency  and an obviously harmful gesture. But, as we all know (pardon the  cliché), parents want ‘the best’ for their kids – and, in this case,  ‘the best’ for a girl in this society might not be for her to have an  expansive and agentic sense of her own embodiment if this involves  flouting numerous social conventions for her to look and act a certain  way that are meant to safeguard her personal safety and desirability. In  other words, if a girl faces the best chances for social and personal  advancement by wearing make-up and feminine clothes, being thin, and  shaving her legs, a mother might consider these attributes more  important than encouraging her daughter to choose her own individual way  of living in her body. Presumably, as a woman she would have faced  similar pressures to conform to specifically constrained forms of  embodiment.

The  hairlessness norm remains insidious because it remains largely  invisible as a genuine equality issue. It is often assumed to be  unimportant or trivial, but actually fits within a broader context of  gendered bodily practices. It was estimated by Euromonitor that  the UK depilatories sector would reach sales of £137 million in 2012, a  “slow performance” due to the uncertainty created in consumers by the  economic downturn (Euromonitor 2013). This industry is embedded in huge  advertising campaigns, cosmetic surgery and the skincare industry. The  idea that what women do to their bodies plays a large part in their  broader social position has been a key idea in feminist analysis from  Mary Wollstonecraft to Judith Butler. Perhaps the most famous  formulation in recent years remains Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth,  in which she argues that the intensification of strict and unrealistic  beauty norms in recent years is implicated in the backlash against  feminism: what better way to limit the advancement of women than to keep  them occupied with expensive, time-consuming and relentlessly  repetitive beauty procedures?

Indeed,  non-compliance with the hairlessness norm still often relegates women  to the realm of ‘hairy lesbian feminists’ in popular parlance and media  accounts. Perhaps this has to do with the well-examined association of  femininity with hairlessness and masculinity with hairiness in our  culture, which many argue or assume to be natural, but which the  severity of the hairlessness norm shows up to be artificial. Examining  body hair removal and intimacy together exposes the lingering  association of feminism with a sort of ‘extreme’ feminine agency within  mainstream discourses more commonly associated with masculine agency. It  also highlights how the hairlessness norm powerfully enforces the  gender binary and keeps women ‘in their place’ by constructing ‘real or  ‘acceptable’ feminine embodiment as inhibited and strictly controlled.


1 Tiggemann And Kenyon 1998; Toerien, Wilkinson And Choi 2005.

2 Basow 1991; Tiggemann And Kenyon 1998.

3 Obviously, These Implicit Racial Hierarchies Are Not Exclusive To  Feminine Beauty And Bodily Norms. However, My Research Only Concerns  Women, And As Thus I Cannot Speak To Masculine Body Hair Norms.

4 Just One Example, From The Guardian.

5 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly.

All by
Melisa Trujillo