Real Women On Their Relationship With Their Body Hair

Remember when Julia Roberts flashed a hairy armpit at the Notting Hill premiere in 1999 and the tabloid press collectively lost its mind? This was in the days before Twitter, before Instagram – before TMZ, even. Before there was much of an internet to break. Can you imagine the uproar, had social media existed then as it does now? The scrutiny, the debate, the inevitable trolling; Jesus Christ, the memes. At least when you open a paper to find unqualified men popping a vein over the finer points of your personal grooming, there's satisfaction to be had in screwing the damn thing up and tossing it away.
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Nearly 20 years on from Julia's Armpit, women's body hair is still – somehow – an arena of public debate. A model bares her unshaven legs in an advertising campaign and it makes the news. Emma Watson admits to a fondness for pubic hair oil, prompting reams of breathless op-eds. An image depicting a line of hair snaking down from a woman's navel and disappearing beneath her knicker elastic is banned from Instagram. Such is the clamour that it can be all too easy to forget that, actually, what other people think of your body hair is of zero consequence. The only opinion that really matters is your own.
"The personal is the political" is one of the great rallying cries of 20th-century feminism and yes, there are many, many women whose body hair is a statement of defiance – a visible 'Fuck you' to those who would dare weigh in on how much (or how little) hair we should have, and where. For just as many others, body hair is intertwined with gender, sexuality, heritage. For others still, it comes down to confidence or a simple matter of aesthetics. And then there are those of us who, one way or another, couldn't care less. The point is that we all have a unique relationship with the hair on our body; my sideburn anxiety is no more or less valid than your delight in your furry toes.
To explore the breadth and depth of these relationships, we asked photographer Maisie Cousins to shoot five women, each of whom feels differently about their body hair. There's Harnaam, whose decision at the age of 16 to grow out her beard (a side-effect of polycystic ovary syndrome) made her the target of small-minded bullies but, ultimately, was liberating; Sadhbh, who says she's so accustomed to her body hair that to remove it now would feel "weird"; and Juno, whose description of her changing relationship with her body hair, pre- and post-transition, will move you. Scroll through Maisie's photos – intimate, uncompromising, reflective – and read the women's accompanying words. They may just inspire you to own your body hair, in all its beautiful, irritating, time-consuming, complex glory.
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Harnaam

How do you feel about the hair on your body?
I used to have a real love-hate relationship with it, if I’m honest. I didn't mind it at first because it was my body's naturally growing hair, but when I started getting bullied at school, I saw the hair as an 'issue' or as something 'unwomanly' and just simply 'manly'. Growing up and maturing, I’ve come to appreciate all parts of who I am.
Was there a particular moment when your relationship to your body hair changed dramatically (positively or negatively)?
It was at the age of 16, when I let my beard just grow. The hardest part was actually trying to figure out just how long it was going to grow, and how I would look after it. Bullying rained down on me, as you would expect from people who fear what's different. I don’t look like everyone in the world – I want to look like me, so I let my body just do exactly that: be me.
What words of encouragement or advice do you have for women who want to let their body hair grow but might be feeling nervous about it?
'My Body, My Rules' is the motto that I live by. I rule my body and what I decide to do with it is my decision. For too long we have placed our happiness in the hands, words and thoughts of others; it’s now time to take and gain that power back. Don’t let anyone shame you or your body.
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Alya

Tell us a little bit about your body hair. How much (if any) do you remove, and why?
Every three weeks I have my eyebrows and upper lip threaded and underarms, legs and bikini waxed – I've done so for pretty much as long as I can remember. I feel a lot more confident and well put-together when I'm freshly waxed.
How has your relationship to your body hair changed over the years?
In the past I've had periods where I've been a lot more lazy with ​hair removal. After coming out of a long-term relationship I left my bikini area, legs and underarms for a few months without ​waxing them – it felt like a rebellion of sorts – but ultimately I realised that I hadn't been removing the hair for my boyfriend at the time, or for anyone else; it was the way I liked to see myself and I felt/feel like it's more hygienic. That said, I will never hook up with a guy unless I'm smooth AF – it's arguably the best method of abstinence for me. I just wouldn't feel sexy or confident in my own skin at all; even if they happened to LOVE body hair and begged me to keep it, I wouldn't.
Do you feel pressure to change your body hair to fit in with what we see in the media?
I honestly don't think my preference for a smooth body is to do with what we see in the media, although it's very possible that the ideals are so ingrained, and have been for so many years, that that's now my ideal of beauty, too. ​I'm originally from Egypt and the removal of body hair is like a rite of passage there.
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Juno

How do you feel about the hair on your body?
I've always felt incredibly conscious of the hair on my body; pre-transition, it felt overwhelming, especially as it increased in a male pattern. I felt like I was losing a battle in the fight to be authentic in my body and my gender.
How have those feelings changed over the years?
During transition, I felt that I had to try and fit an incredibly binary notion of femininity and that meant ridding the hair from all over my body and my face. My facial hair was the cause of so much dysphoria – I spent thousands getting rid of it, it was utterly painful but it felt like a rite of passage, like somehow this was the price I had to pay. But strangely, towards the end of hair removal, I started to see it, or experience it, as quite punishing. Did I need to be completely hairless – no woman is – so why did I need to feel dysphoric with some hair on my face or body? I've become accepting of it now as being part of me.
What was your experience of being photographed? Did you feel nervous? Exposed? Relaxed? And did that change during the shoot?
On my way to be photographed, I thought about my hair – the hair on my head – and then it hit me that Maisie might want to photograph my body. I panicked and thought, 'I haven't waxed, shaved or plucked'. It's odd how I imagine I'm comfortable but my first instinct was to hide my hair. By the time I arrived I felt comfortable. Accepting. In the shoot we focused on my face; I pointed out where hair still grows and just allowed it to happen. Being photographed by a woman is vastly different to being photographed by a man – it shouldn't be but it is. We talked about reclaiming hair, about not being shamed by the naturalness of our bodies, trans or cis. I came away hoping that a tiny crop circle of stubble would show.
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Meg

How do you feel about the hair on your body?
I actually really love the body hair that I choose to keep. I have quite a lot of downy hair on my face and upper lip which I find really comforting to play with when I'm feeling anxious/uncomfortable and couldn't imagine not having it. Also, I think my sister and boyfriend would both disown me if I removed any of my facial hair as they both find it cute...each to their own I guess! I do shave my legs, armpits and remove the hair down below but I definitely do not dislike that part of me. If anything I couldn't care at all about that hair – I remove it because I want to and I'm glad I now feel that way.
Has that relationship changed much over the years?
Absolutely. It's ridiculous to think about it now but I used to get really teased at school for the amount of hair I had (which btw was ridiculously fair and practically non-existent). But because it was expected that a 10-year-old girl should shave their legs and get rid of the soft, blonde hair on their upper lip, I unfortunately became the focus of the boys' entertainment and name-calling. Looking back on those days now is easy, but the anxiety I felt towards my body hair at the time was so overwhelming that it affected all aspects of my life for a good few years after. I threaded my eyebrows to within an inch of their life, had my upper lip waxed and wouldn't go a day without shaving my legs (even though I wore opaque black tights to school?!). My self-confidence took a real hit. When I met my boyfriend, all that worry sort of left me.
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Have you been inspired by any of the women in this feature to do something different with your body hair?
When it comes to body hair, nowadays women in general inspire me. There's been such an amazing 'F you' towards beauty/hair standards, which means I'm able to focus on myself and how comfortable I feel about my hair. It's this very inspiring movement that I have to thank. Meeting Harnaam was fab – 16 is a difficult age for a girl anyway but to have such a drastic change as facial hair beginning to grow and dealing with that is nothing but admirable.

Sadhbh

What’s your relationship with the hair on your body?
Utter, utter indifference at this point if I'm honest! I used to take great pride in being hairy when I was younger and stopped hair removal – it felt like a huge feminist defiance because I was 19 and just learning about body acceptance and all the coded, sexist messaging we grow up with – but once I got out of the habit I just stayed out of the habit and it's not a big deal. I also have a mole in my right armpit I've long been scared of upsetting by accidentally nicking it, so it was a great relief to never worry about that. It's been half a decade since I last did any kind of hair removal, bar when my girlfriend thought it would be jokes to shave part of my calf 'to see what would happen' as she has never seen my legs bare. So it would feel weird to remove it now – it's as much a part of who I am as my wonky, hooded eyes. The only times I feel insecure about it are sometimes in the changing rooms at the gym and in a new professional environment – no matter how relaxed a dress code is, body hair still feels like it's unprofessional. But the other people in the gym changing room are far more involved in themselves to give me more than a passing thought, and I just never wear anything sleeveless at work.
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How did you feel during the shoot?
Cold mainly – the hair on my toes does nothing to keep them warm! And tired from holding my arms up. Other than that, I felt really comfortable.
Do you have any words of encouragement for women who want to let their body hair grow but are a bit apprehensive about doing it?
It's hard to say this in a way that doesn't sound trite, but what you do with your body hair is entirely, entirely your choice: that's why it feels so liberating when you first realise that you don't have to remove it for anyone but yourself. I'd embrace that feeling – I did – but be prepared for double takes, and occasional comments from cis straight men who think that the way you look should be catered to them. I've been called a hairy lesbian many times but it's hardly an insult – it's a statement of fact, mate. But if you sidestep the dickheads, the majority of people just won't care, I promise. We all assume people think about us as much as we think about us but they don't. And their second glances are just water off a duck's back.
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