A hairy tale of wild meets well-styled

I’m not usually one who looks forward to going to the hairdressers. Don’t get me wrong, the head rub you get as your hair is being washed sends me weak at the knees. And on more than one occasion, I have walked out firmly believing that I could give Lana Del Rey, circa. Video Games, a run for her money…

But for me, the hairdressers is often a place of discomfort. Discomfort in the neck, as my head is being pulled every which way by the hairbrush. Discomfort over my lack of ability to express my love for women, as I politely engage with conversations which inquire exclusively about the male love interests in my life. 

I could go on. 

Yet, the point I’m trying to get to, is that three weeks into lockdown, this aversion to the hairdressers dissipated. Suddenly, the hairdressers was a place I wanted to be. Perhaps it was a wanting what you can’t have situation. A way to entertain the idea of some normality. But I wanted it. I wanted it bad. 

A few months later and here we are. I have just got back from the hairdressers. Cramped neck, Lana waves and feeling good. 

Except, I have a confession to make. 

Something happened during that trip to the hairdressers that has not happened to me for a very long time. Something that has left me feeling pretty damn ashamed and dare I say, un-feminist. 

I was sat on a chair in a vest and jeans, waiting to be taken to the hair washing station, when one of the hairdressers walked over to me and handed me a robe. I froze. Oh shit, I thought. I’m in a vest. And to put on that robe, I have to lift my arms. And when I lift my arms, my year-long-grown garden of armpit hair will be revealed to this whole room of clients and hairdressers. 

The heteronormative insecurity that had led me to engage in so many conversations about boys, boys, boys had seeped into my conception of what it means to be a woman in the hairdressers and made me embarrassed of my goddamn armpit hair. 

She handed me the robe and I put it on, keeping my elbows ashamedly close to my torso. I followed her to the hair washing station and sat down into a puddle of self-disgust.

I must say, my hyperbole in recounting this situation is most likely spurred on by my Hollywood hair. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that this encounter really got to me. 

Why did I care so much whether people saw?

In her hype-worthy book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, Florence Given writes “I stopped shaving my body the second I realised the reason I did it wasn’t anything to do with my own discomfort, but was in fact entirely due to patriarchal brainwashing leading me to believe that my body hair was unattractive.”

For me, the initial growth came from working on a farm for an extended period of time and forgetting to bring a razor. That said, I grew attached to it pretty quickly and decided that it was not something I was willing to get rid of, in an attempt to live up to rigid societal standards of femininity. In fact, I began to see my new hairs as a way to challenge these standards; to play with them. 

Don’t get me wrong, I know that growing out my armpit hair is not a radical feminist act. 

Being a white, cisgender, able-bodied woman, I have not suffered many consequences from this choice. In her book, Florence acknowledges that this ability to grow one’s armpit hair, largely free from judgement, is a privilege. One which is granted to women whose whiteness, cisgender identity and able-bodied-ness means that, even with ‘unacceptable’ body hair, their femininity will not, for the most part, be challenged.

I am extremely lucky to be able to play with the rules of femininity in a largely unchallenged way. In this acknowledgement, I ask why my encounter at the hairdressers posed itself as some sort of challenge to my choice to play with these rules? 

Initially, the incident got me thinking about spaces. How femininity plays out differently in different spaces. How different spaces create and express different standards and measures of femininity. The hairdressers is a place where people go to feel beautiful; with beauty defined within the measure of a well-styled hairdo. To be feminine within this space is to indulge in being beautifully groomed.

Perhaps, I thought, in this space, my choice to grow out my armpit hair was not beautiful. A thought which, in its conception, denied the multifaceted nature of beauty. A denial which I deemed to arise from the space of the hairdressers. 

The thing is, however, that no one person in that space made me feel this way. In fact, I don’t think anyone even saw what I was so urgently trying to hide. The embarrassment to not live up to the beauty standards of what I perceived this space to represent actually all came from me. 

This is not an easy thing to admit. 

Because to accept this is to acknowledge the extent to which the “patriarchal brainwashing”, convincing women that body hair is unattractive, has had a lasting impact on the way I see beauty. To accept the embarrassment I felt, is to acknowledge the ways in which I have internalised, and projected onto myself, the rigid social measures of beauty that I fundamentally disagree with and try to fight against. 

But surely, acknowledgement is the first step towards change. 

In reflecting on my armpit hair embarrassment, there are a couple of things I have to accept. Firstly, there is something about being in the hairdressers that makes me want to hide parts of myself, in order to play by the rules of femininity that I believe this space demands. Furthermore, this self-inflicted pressure to withhold aspects of myself has led me for years to be silent about my sexual orientation, lest I invoke discomfort in another woman, who would more than likely accept me. And more recently, it has made me conceal hairs on my body that I think are so powerful. This does a disservice, both to myself, and to all those whose identity and expression exists outside of the heteronormative expectations of their gender. It also comes from a place of expecting the worst in people, when we should constantly be striving to expect the best. 

Rather than taking a sense of shame from this experience, I intend to view it as a lesson. A reminder to catch myself when I experience moments of internalising the insidious messages that I actively choose to resist. In catching myself, I rise out of this space and reclaim what I know to be true and beautiful. 

If the space of the hairdressers does not accept me, then the Lana waves will be sacrificed, and my neck will be soothed. But I don’t think this is the case. I think the experience I have told you about in this hairy tale is, at its core, an instance of me not accepting myself. Yet, if we really try, I believe that accepting our bodies in all of their untamed and unique beauty is something we all have the internal power to do. In every space. 

Beth Simpson, Society and Community Editor