Sunday, May 5, 2013

going au natural

Over two years ago I stopped shaving. Two years without buying expensive razor blades, agonizing in the shower over whether or not I need to shave based on what I was planning to wear that day, or wondering if people could tell that my legs had a few days of stubble on them...

And I can't tell you how liberating it is.

But it's also terrifying.

I didn't realize how much I'd bought in to the female standard of beauty until I so obviously decided to ignore it. I've never been interested in wearing make-up every day, especially not foundation/blush/lipstick/mascara/eyeshadow/etc. The most I've ever done was when I was in college and I wore brown mascara on my upper lashes and used a light brown eyelid pencil as both eyeliner and eyeshadow in one. (When I stopped, I honestly don't think anyone even noticed, except maybe my mom.)

But there is a big difference between not really doing something, and ceasing to do something you've seemingly always done. Despite my sensitive skin I've been shaving since I was in middle school. I remember looking around one day and realizing all the other girls had smooth, hairless legs and I didn't, but that I should. So when my mom came into my room for our nightly chats one night I asked in a whisper if she would "teach me how to shave" while my brother hid in the closet because he refused to leave even though it was my time to talk to mom and I was so terrified that he would overhear this incredibly embarrassing and personal exchange.

The next day (or maybe later that week) my mom gave me a razor, told me to use some soap and that was that. It was incredibly painful. I remember my skin becoming red and raised from razor burn and my underarms hurt so badly I couldn't imagine why anyone would ever do this to themselves.

The years passed and I switched from using soap to more expensive shaving cream then finally settled on cheap conditioner. This continued throughout my teenage years and into adulthood. Because of my sensitive skin I would usually end up shaving only about once or twice a week, but would always feel self-conscious on the days I did not have completely hairless legs. Occasionally I would have a contest with myself to see how long I could go without shaving (I believe my record was 2 months during one winter), but eventually the comments of my friends and family would embarrass me enough that I would pull out the razor again and melt into the crowd. It was easier that way.

Then I met my husband. The week we got engaged I was out visiting he and his family and I jokingly mentioned to him that first night that I had shaved my legs just for the visit. He looked me in the eyes and said, "I don't care if you never shave again. I love you for who you are, not if your legs are smooth or not." And I remember being so relieved. And so comfortable. And I also felt so free.

And that was the last time I shaved for over a year. Not even for my wedding, folks. Was I self-conscious? Of course I was! As my leg hair grew out I learned that it is the currently trendy ombré: dark brown from the ankles to mid-shin, then it lightens up to white blond continuing upward. Against my porcelain skin, that dark brown hair was far from subtle. And as it grew out it was itchy, and my skin was dry because I wasn't moisturizing it now that I wasn't shaving. And I quickly learned that my underarm hair was not only dark (as I already knew) but also thicker than my husbands. Doesn't exactly make you feel dainty, that's for sure.

Then the summer came and shorts and short skirts became my wardrobe and every morning as I got dressed I steeled myself for the comments. I work at an elementary school after-school program and I know first-hand these kids just say what they think. (I can't tell you how many times a child has patted my belly and asked if there's baby in there. For the record: no, there is not.) And, sure enough, the comments came. "You're legs are hairy!" (Yes, they are.) "Why do you have hair on your legs?" (Because pretty much everyone does and you will too when you get older.) "Don't you know you need to shave?" (Says who? I don't have to shave if I don't want to.) Or, at the pool, "Why do you have hair in your arm pits?" (Because when you get older that's what happens. "Oh. Can I touch it?" Uh, sure, if you want.) And suddenly these confrontations about how I was failing to perform my assigned gender became great teaching moments. And the feeling of the summer breeze blowing through my leg hair (as weird and kind of gross as that sounds) was really quite magical.

Then came my brother's wedding. He'd asked me to be a bridesmaid which then led to a super awkward request that I shave my legs for the ceremony: the dresses were tea-length (mid-calf). The request was very consciously and thoughtfully prefaced with him assuring me he loved me no matter what and that he wasn't trying to offend, but really if you wouldn't mind do you think you could, you know, not embarrass me on my wedding day with your unfeminine choices? I told him I would consider it and hung up the phone. I really didn't know what to do. I was frustrated and annoyed that he would ask something so specific and personal of me, and honestly a little embarrassed that he felt the need to be so specific: I know for a fact he didn't ask anyone else in the wedding party to physically groom themselves in a specific way for the big day. But I also understood and while I wanted to be true to myself, I didn't want to be a distraction to others on the day that was meant to be a celebration of his and his wife's love.

Initially we compromised: tights. As long as no one could see my legs were unshaven, it shouldn't matter if they were, right? But as the wedding date got closer and the temperatures rose I realized how ridiculous it was to voluntarily subject myself to possible heat stroke just to make a point. So I shaved them. And even though I used conditioner and made sure to only go over each part of my leg once with the razor, it still hurt. And I was reminded why I had stopped in the first place, and why I haven't done it since.

Does letting my leg hair and underarm hair grow mean that I am totally secure with my body and don't even notice my body anymore? Far from it. I still find myself pulling my pant legs down when I notice that a little bit of my ankle is showing because I don't want people to notice the hair poking out from beneath my pant hem or making sure my shirt sleeves are long enough you don't see even a hint of hair curling out. I also have yet to wear shorts or knee-length skirts this season although there have been a few days that might have been more comfortable in such attire.

But this is a choice that I feel very strongly about. I do not think that other people should have the power to tell me what is and is not okay for me to do with my body. As Nadia Morris says in her article about why she stopped shaving:
So why, with my tender 23 year old ego, do I continue this small scale personal campaign? Because I believe when the right to make decisions regarding one’s own body is taken away, it harms people’s self-confidence and independence. Because it makes me hella uncomfortable and it shouldn’t. So the more insecure not shaving makes me feel, the more I believe there need to be women like me walking around in skirts. I want to remind people what women are supposed to look like, if only we stopped fighting futile battles against our own bodies. I want to remind women, yes they really can bare their legs even if they haven’t gotten a chance to shave today. I want people to be able to make their own standards and leave me to mine.
Her article, Shaving: Save the Standards, has inspired me to actually write this post that has been hanging around in my head for quite some time now. So, Ms. Morris, thank you for your courage: it is contagious.


Erica said...

good for you! i do shave (doesn't hurt and actually having hair hurts and drives me bonkers) but i agree that you should do something because you want to and not because it's what society says you should do. my nephew watched me put on makeup this weekend, and i said that women put on makeup, not men, and then inwardly cringed. i regret saying that to him. men can wear makeup just like women don't have to shave.

steph goodson said...

you are so brave! I admire your courage.

GlobeTrekker said...

Thank you for writing this post! I have been toying with the idea of not shaving for a while now, and I think I'm finally dipping my toe in the water. I remember feeling ashamed when I hadn't shaved so I'd pull down my pants leg, or not being perfectly smooth in my bikini and made to feel hideous because of it!

I've started with my underarm hair and it's been so liberating, I've never been crazy about shaving ever and it doesn't seem like the pain is worth it for me. I've got dark hair so it's definitely noticeable, but people haven't said anything....yet. One day I hope to go out without shaving my legs and wearing a skirt, but I'm working my way up. Thanks for your story.