The battle feminism lost

What is it, do you suppose, that marks out us modern women from our 19th-century sisters, trussed up in their bodices and Sunday bonnets?

You may respond that we have the vote, or perhaps equal rights and pay. You may say that we are free to chair the board or wear the trousers. Yet you would probably overlook a key difference between us: that we 21st-century women spend a hellish amount of time, money and effort on depilation.

And she? She walked the planet with unmown shins and bushy armpits, a stranger to her husband’s cut-throat razor.

If this sends a shudder down your spine, you’re not alone. After all, it has somehow become the accepted wisdom that women should be bald from the forehead down, save for a mild eruption at pubic level — and only then if it’s kept as trim as a well-groomed box hedge.

The problem is, that’s not how we are built. Whisper it softly, but most of us have bristling knees, armpits and shins. Some of us have moustaches.

You wouldn’t know it, though, for we spend great amounts of time perpetuating the myth that we’re as smooth as barn eggs. And why? You might hate the bitter truth, but it has everything to do with the fact that men prefer us that way. And if that’s the case, surely this is something we should have overcome by now — in the same way that we have ditched eyelash fluttering, corsets and bustles.

While women have won many battles, depilation is the battle that feminism lost. To my own shame, I am among the worst serial depilators I know. By recent calculation, I have spent £2 500 on waxing over a decade.

I’m a junkie for the well-marketed arsenal of hair-nixing weapons, each one more ludicrous and time-consuming than the last. My favourite is the Epilady — a hand-held device that rips out hair, follicle by follicle. If you haven’t tried it, it’s similar to poking yourself in the eye with a toothpick. Then there’s electrolysis. This uses a current to electrocute the buggers, eliciting small packets of vicious pain.

Even the mild depilatory options are obnoxious: what woman doesn’t abhor the eggy smell of Immac, the searing ouch of a blunt razor dragged up her shin bone, the embarrassment of opening the door to the postman with crème bleach still clinging to her upper lip?

Perversely, the most up-to-date methods of depilation are the most torturous, involving the kind of pain once lavished on the village witch.

Chief among these is the Brazilian bikini wax, which was surely developed in Hades. Not only is it a humbling and hideous experience, during which you proffer your undercarriage to an unknown girl, it also hurts like bejaysus.

Its sole benefit is that it allows you to look nice in a thong, especially when bending over to lace up your espadrilles. To all Brazilian devotees, three questions: how much time do you spend gazing at your own perineum? Does it need to be bald? Are you mad as a frog?

So why do we do it? Men wouldn’t. Men don’t. And that, in part, is the answer. In her study on the relationship between a woman’s politics and sexual orientation and the shaving of her legs and underarms, Dr Susan Basow, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College, says: “The implication of the hairless norm is that women’s bodies are not attractive when natural and must be modified.’‘

Great. If you don’t depilate, you’re either a man or a dyke. It’s yet another branch of beauty’s pernicious directive to conform. And at its heart is fear — fear of looking too masculine, of deviating from the established aesthetic that dictates women be hipless, breastless and, above all, hairless.

I’m not even sure that radical feminists themselves have the balls to make a show of their natural body hair these days, as they did for a brief moment in the 1970s.

So, instead of letting it all hang out, we’re trapped in an endless, Sisyphean cycle of tweezing, waxing and plucking in some vain attempt to quell the beast within. But perhaps it’s time to break the stranglehold that our hair has on our lives. Cardinal rules — such as the classic “once shaven, always stubbly’’ — could be taught in school, alongside how to fit a condom on a banana and how to make pastry using the rubbing-in method. Or perhaps coming out would work. They could do a Sex and the City special and make body hair hot.

In time, it might even be perceived as a thing of beauty. If we were all to let it grow rife, I’m convinced we would soon find that hair in all the usual places isn’t quite such a turn-off after all. Give us more of Julia Roberts’s armpit fur, more European tennis champs. Put it on the cover of Vogue.

After all, it is incredible that the subject is still taboo. We freely discuss anal sex, female sexual dysfunction, paedophilia and boob jobs. But still body hair in the wrong place is off limits. Isn’t it time to come clean? Isn’t it time to ditch the depilation, storm the shelves of chemists, burn the bleach and spike the tweezers?

Of course it is. But, hey sister, you first. — Â

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