To shave or not to shave

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-8 19:38:02

Armpit hair competition stirs discussions on women empowerment

Charlie Liu decides to keep her armpit hair and takes a stand by doing so. Photo: Cui Meng/GT


Charlie Liu, a 25-year-old environmental researcher in Beijing, has just entered an unorthodox photography competition.

In the black-and-white photo she submitted, Liu wears only a bra with her arms resting on her head, proudly showing her armpit hair.

"I love my armpit hair, which is a part of my soft body hair. I hope girls will show it off without fear," Liu said in her contest entry.

Liu's entry is one of 40 in the "Armpit Hair Competition" on Sina Weibo as of Friday, which kicked off on May 26 and lasts until June 26. The photo contest organizers are giving out prizes for the most "characteristic, beautiful, and confident" displays of armpit hair, and the response has been huge. The hashtag #WomensArmpitHairCompetition has been viewed nearly a million times and has generated thousands of comments among Net users, feminists, and scholars.

A hairy issue

Xiao Yue, a 26-year-old feminist activist started the contest to bring attention to the idea that women do not need to be hair-free to feel beautiful.

"Women's armpit hair is considered to be offensive, rude and ungraceful — how come it makes people so uncomfortable?" she said. "Women's underarm hair can be adorable, interesting, humorous, sexy, serious, connotative and ever-changing."

This ongoing competition is receiving photos mostly from young women in their early 20s, with the oldest participants born in the 1970s. The contest is not the first of its kind. A similar competition took place on Sina Weibo last summer. 

An poll of 852 women last year revealed that just over half of Chinese women choose to remove some of their body hair in the summer, while 15 percent choose to remove hair on all of their body parts. Sixty-three percent of people who opt for hair removal do so for a better appearance, while "comfort," "health" and "keeping up with the trend" also contributes to the decision.

Traditionally, Chinese people do value women's skin to be smooth and clean, but are not especially sensitive about body hair. Chinese girls did not learn about body hair grooming from their mothers, but from commercials and their peers. According to Xiao, the concept of armpit hair being uncivilized is from the West, and it has been spreading quickly.

Now, the young generation faces the decision that their forerunners did not have to worry about.

"My mother is unperturbed, and said she doesn't even have much hair," Xiao said. Xiao started shaving when she was in middle school, and she said this was mainly because she watched hair cream commercials and was influenced by her peers.

Xiao's competition has received mixed responses, with some of the negative reaction coming from women who say that "not shaving oneself is unhygienic and disgusting." Some people comment that they find the movement to be too "radical" and "it's no place for them to force others to shave or to not shave."

To Xiao, the competition is not a radical declaration, but a chance to start more dialogue. "We are not trying to force people to not shave, but we are against the social norm that armpit hair is unacceptable and disgusting," said Xiao.

Women are taking action to bring attention to armpit hair internationally, with some scholars supporting such resistance and others questioning it. Photo: Li Hao/GT


Between me and my body 

Liu said she used to shave her armpit hair in college, but after she took a gender studies course and participated in the production of China's version of the Vagina Monologues, she started thinking more about the relationship between her and her body, and her attitude toward shaving began to change.

During a practice session of a photography workshop she takes part in, Liu asked her fellow photographer classmate to take a photo for the contest.

Originally from a small city in Jiangxi Province, Liu said it wasn't long after she posted the picture that she got a call from her mother. Her mother was worried and asked her if she had been kidnapped or forced to take the photo.

"She didn't even notice the armpit hair," Liu said. "She just thought a photo [of nudity] was crossing the line."

Liu said that most of her female friends were impressed and said her photo was a "good deed," while most of her male friends were surprised and quietly "freaking out."

But not all men are feeling that way. Yang Yi, 27, who works for an independent media agent, submitted a cartoon to the contest that he drew of a female friend, in which her armpits grew bouquets of flowers. 

Currently in a relationship, Yang said he does not care if his other half has body hair or not.

"To me, a discussion about underarm hair is more a debate among women themselves," he said. "Guys do not participate or only few of them think of underarm hair as a big deal. Guys might care more about how pretty a girl's face is."

Having body hair represents sexual maturity, Yang said, citing the famous shot of actress Tang Wei with her armpit hair in Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's film Lust, Caution (2007). "There's a mystery among men that hairier women have stronger sexual desires and enjoy sex more with a more open attitude," he said.

Yang said he thinks women shave because they think it is more fashionable, more Western, and more "advanced."

However, Liu said she thinks women's need to shave body hair is more of a direct result of commercialism. Growing up, Liu watched TV commercials about shaving creams, which unconsciously led her to try to pluck or even use glue to get rid of her body hair. Now, Liu said she does not like how it feels after shaving or using shaving cream on her armpits.

"After World War II, capitalism developed quickly, during which cultivating the aesthetic appreciation of a women's body was no longer just for men, but for the sake of consumerism targeted at women," Liu said.

Liu surprised many by submitting a second photo to the contest where she is topless, along with the message, "My armpit hair is a part of my 'body' that I love." Liu said she is thinking about taking it to the next level by dyeing her armpit hair.

"If I want to shave any of my body hair, it will be for a cause," Liu said.

An international trend

Similar activities to Xiao's contest have been happening overseas, from Tumblr's Hairy Legs Club, to the Armpits4August campaign online. Miley Cyrus got attention last month when she posted pictures on social media of her lengthy armpit hair that she dyed pink.

Dr Breanne Fahs, associate professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, offers her students an opportunity to earn extra credit if they participate in an exercise which requires female students stop shaving their legs and armpits during the semester and male students to shave all body hair from the neck down.

"Body hair is far from trivial and instead something that is quite powerful in its ability to incite panics and anxieties about gender roles, bodies, and sexuality," Fahs told Metropolitan in an e-mail interview.

Fahs said the way women approach their body hair is not biological, but part of a social construct.

"Women's choices about their body hair relate to many things: how they were raised, their beliefs in whether their bodies are an object (to be looked at) or a subject (something they choose), how their partners/husbands/boyfriends feel about body hair, whether they see their body as a source or site of resistance, and how they feel about personal choices related to their body."

Some cultures are far more positive about women's body hair than others, Fahs said.

"Throughout Eastern Europe, historically, women have grown body hair, just as in most of Africa, where women's body hair is considered natural," she said. "Meanwhile, women in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia have typically removed their body hair, just as women in China have removed their body hair for some time."

Armpit hair in context

It is highly possible that a country's armpit hair discussion and feminism awareness is related to its economic development, according to Fahs. In China, women are increasingly independent and thus face being oppressed and encouraged to return to a state of dependence and subservience, she said.

"Women may be interested in growing their body hair as a way to assert their independence and autonomy, and that is exciting," Fahs said.

However, Wu Qiang, associate professor in politics at Tsinghua University, has recently found himself involved in a heated debate of a different sort. "I am a male feminist, but oppose against this action [of women not shaving]," he said.

Unlike Fahs, who said women's body hair is associated with power and independence, Wu thinks shaving is a method of disciplining the body, which leads to the possibility of developing new social orders and liberation of one's own body.

He said that there's a lack of discipline of the body in China, which is proven by the generally bad hygiene habits among its people and the small amount of male skincare products on the market.

Thus, Wu doesn't think Xiao's contest will be fruitful. He said that in the last 30 years, capitalism and consumerism in China has greatly developed and people have become more sexually active, and there are a growing number of occasions where women expose themselves, such as at swimming pools. Therefore, women shaving their armpit hair has become increasingly important, and it has become a hygiene habit and a trend.

"In the past 10 years, Western feminism has made not shaving armpit hair a style of movement to fight against capitalism and consumerism," he said. "However, in China, the only people who shave their armpits are the white-collar women. It's impossible to mobilize those white collars to stand up against the capitalism living space which they now depend on."

China's feminists should not just transplant issues from the West, such as the issue of shaving underarm hair, but get their hands on issues that involve the oppression that Chinese women face instead, Wu said.

Fahs has different opinions. "I enjoy thinking of my body as a social text upon which I can write many stories. I encourage other women to do the same," she said. "I am a supporter of women using their bodies to resist and seeing their bodies as a part of social movements that have revolutionary spirit."

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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