Last weekend, a friend of mine stood up in a room of Tech Integration educators to give a presentation, and spoke about not shaving her legs.
I stopped shaving my legs in 2002. And yet, only in helping her prepare for this speech did I realize that I didn't know my own answer to the question of, So why don't you shave your legs? Believe it or not, people never ask. My friend Margaret said that after 20-some years of seeing people look at her legs, and feeling the embarrassment they felt for her, she felt compelled to answer that unasked question. Her courage inspired me to articulate my answer, too.
I stopped shaving on a trip to Ecuador. As I traveled through rural villages and learned to appreciate the hard and proud lives of indigenous women and men and children, shaving just disappeared from my radar as a valuable use of my time. In that raw glimpse of humanity I witnessed every day, the hairiness of my legs was not relevant to my identity, and I loved that feeling. Not being wrapped up in my physical appearance made every part of me feel more real and alive.
Most women I know, including myself back then, would argue that they shave their legs because they like the feeling, and that they do it for themselves. I was surprised, then, returning to America, that my hairy legs were an issue, and I felt huge pressure to change that part of myself in order to be accepted. People cringed and made snide remarks, and my legs felt very ugly. The only thing that made me more uncomfortable than being an American woman with very hairy legs was the fact that I couldn't reconcile this with the furry freedom I'd just relished in Ecuador. In my quest to live intentionally, I wanted to know, when geography was set aside, which was the most authentic me?
I decided to keep my legs hairy until I was comfortable enough that I could tease apart the expectations from my personal preference. I reasoned that only when I didn't feel judged by others, when I stopped feeling pressure because no one around me cared anymore, when it finally felt as small as my own individual choice -- only then could I finally determine if shaving was something I really liked or not. I was never exactly committed to making a particular statement, or even committed to having hairy legs at all. I just wanted the space to open-mindedly decide.
And so the years have gone by.
Not shaving has taught me about the absurd amount of societal pressure we don't realize we live in and perpetuate, regarding what we do with our bodies. This "choice" clearly has an appropriate answer we're expected to follow. I get long looks if I wear a bathing suit, or when I wear a skirt in public. Teenagers have whispered and snickered at my legs in disbelief. A number of people asked me whether I planned to shave my legs for my wedding. (I know no brides who get asked if they're considering growing their leg hair out for their wedding.)
I didn't realize it at the time, but this process was shaping something very powerful inside me. With the buck stopping at my hairy legs and the disapproving looks all directed there, I felt exempt from the countless other physical expectations of women. Perhaps this was because, to others, I obviously wasn't even playing in the same ballpark anymore. So, not wearing make-up didn't seem like a problem. I stopped shopping at trendy stores with business practices I didn't support. I took random jobs to gain rich life experiences, without any regard for building a career or family in my 20s.
I noticed that I lived with a free pass to be myself mostly when I lost it -- when I did try shaving my legs a few times over the years. Each time I felt completely exposed, naked. When my legs stopped being so noteworthy, I was pulled back into the riptide of being measured by the hundred other standards set for being a woman. I felt more judged, not less, which I think is a part of what American femininity is about. Judged by ourselves, by each other, by the men we want to impress, by those younger than us, by those older than us, by our perceptions of what the magazines and movies and billboards expect. On those few occasions when I shaved my legs, my mind went down an old rabbit hole that I'd never realized I used to call home. Those days it seemed obvious that next I should pluck my eyebrows. Then it felt most appropriate to wear a bit of make-up again. Blow-dry my hair. Wear a more flattering outfit because people say to show off these great long legs of mine. I found myself back in the sea of messages about femininity that my hairy legs had distanced me from, and I wasn't strong enough to swim there and know for sure who I was. It became more work for me to feel less beautiful than ever.
I never intended for my legs to be a statement, but they have grown into a private little message of self-preservation to the American standard of beauty, one that says I am tagging out of this game. I've happily discovered that while the world is busy looking at the wild jungle on my legs (or even if it's just that I think they are), I'm left with a tremendous amount of freedom to decide everything else about what I want to look like for myself -- to explore authenticity in countless other ways. And that is how I ended up loving my hairy legs: because they have offered me this amazing protection and buffer from trying to measure up.
Margaret spoke of moments when her hairy legs had empowered others, and I don't know if that has ever been true of mine, but I do know that they have empowered me. So whatever you choose to do with your own legs, three cheers to you. I just ask that you respect that mine are standing with me, hairy, as my sacred daily reminder to be more authentic. And ironically, authenticity is the key to beauty anyway.