Need Money for Your Charity? Try Hairy Armpits, I Guess
Maybe you've heard about "Armpits4August?" Essentially, it's an initiative started by women in the UK to raise money and awareness for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Though it only started last year, it's already being hailed by British publications as women's answer to "Movember," dudes' annual excuse to hide food in their upper lip, Mr. Twit-style. For the month of August, the founders encourage women to grow their armpit hair and solicit donations for Verity, a self-help group for people with PCOS.
And I have to admit: At first, I thought it was kind of bullshit.
Not the raising funds for PCOS part, obviously. Wikipedia reports that PCOS affects 5 to 10 percent of cis women of "reproductive age" (12-45); in turn, one of my friends reports that it feels like having a tiny, carnivorous fire gecko slowly gnawing its way through your underbelly. It's also one of the leading causes of infertility in women and has a mess of not-so-great secondary systems, including acne, Type 2 diabetes, and -- fittingly enough -- excess hairiness.
And Verity, the charity around which Armpits4August is organized, has been run by people who themselves have PCOS since its inception in 1997. So I'm not going to be the person to pooh-pooh helping out a legitimate organization, particularly since one of A4A's co-founders also has PCOS and felt keenly the pressure of having to shave every day for her office environment.
But I still felt a little weird about the rhetoric surrounding the movement, mostly because, as someone who frequently just lets her armpit-jungle grow wild and free mostly out of sheer laziness, the idea that the only acceptable framing for a woman's hairy pits would be out of the spirit of charity kind of rubbed me the wrong way.
Reading the Telegraph's report, it sounds as if A4A's co-founder Gina Fuller thought, like a lot of people do, that the idea of hairy armpits being so repugnant that they necessitated daily maintenance is kind of silly. But rather than just trying it out for a while, she decided to make her experiment into a wider-ranging cause.
Which, again: Whatever floats your boat. If I could get my friends and family to throw money at Planned Parenthood every time I tried out MMA boxing or something, that'd be a nice bonus to getting to punch strangers in the belly. It basically seems like the same concept as people who run half marathons in the name of charity -- like, a lot are probably doing it for the cause, but some would probably just dog out 13 miles anyway and the funding for the American Heart Association or whoever is just the sweat-salt-encrusted Gatorade bottle on top.
For me, it was the "feminist rhetoric" parts of Armpits4August that made me feel a little weird. To its credit, A4A acknowledges on its website that not every woman will be in a position where growing out her armpits is a viable, safe or particularly transgressive act. The founders seem to be doing their best to welcome input from a diverse array of participants, which isn't necessarily always the case with movements like these.
But when Fuller told the Telegraph things like "We see such a narrow stereotype of what beauty is in the media and magazines, but everybody should be able to express themselves,” I started to get a little skeptical. Because honestly, if your response to someone leering at your hairy pits is to defend that you're only doing it for charity, you're not really fighting against that stereotype at all, right?
Obviously, I don't think having bare armpits is somehow "unfeminist." But that kind of "I'm doing it for a good cause!" fallback instinct implies that having hairy pits is abnormal in the first place, and the only reason to even consider it in the first place would be out of a sense of altruism. Not because you're tired of shaving, or because you think standards of beauty that require the systematic removal of body hair are bullshit, or even because you enjoy frightening bros when you wear tank tops, but because you're a selfless young woman who would suffer the weird stares of people on the subway for a month.
This feeling of surliness was only amplified that very little coverage of the campaign that I've seen so far has concentrated on the money raised by the armpitters' efforts (which, this year, has amounted to more than 5,000 pounds). It's been a lot of marveling at how "subversive" these women are being and not a whole lot of actual dialogue on how to raise funds for PCOS research, which just feeds into the idea that it's an aesthetic choice worth marveling at in the first place.
On the other hand, though: I haven't shaved my pits since April or so. They are out in full summer force. And God, the number of comments and weird looks I get about them makes me wish that I could actually do something productive with all that pushback.
It's 2013, and strangers still feel like it's appropriate to ask why I don't have smooth baby-dolphin pits when I'm just trying to raise a shot glass. I still feel self-conscious about getting naked around people in a sexy way, lest they make that "Stiff Upper Lip" face that I've seen on guys who are bravely trying to fight past the presence of my twin thickets in the face of probable intercourse. I still get texts from my mom asking me please, please to shave before family events.
That stigma is unlikely to be diminished any whether or not all these pretty British girls rely on their charity as a defense for their aesthetic experimentation or not. Sure, it probably wouldn't HURT for them to outright present themselves as a campaign against the double standard itself, but hell, I really doubt that my one-woman fur factory is really making that many strides on that front either. If people are going to be a dick about it anyway, they might as well give money to a cause I care about.
Even though August is almost over, I probably won't be shaving my pits for Labor Day. But despite my handful of misgivings, I'm proud of the folks who spent a whole month ignoring their razors. And if participating in the campaign was enough to make some realize that rocking the hairy pits is more their jam than having bare ones, well, I welcome them to the club.
While we're on the subject, if anyone feels so inclined to pay the Center for Biological Diversity or GLAAD in exchange for me shaving every day, you all just say the word. I figure I'm ready to make the sacrifice for a good cause.
Kate is being hirsute on Twitter: @katchatters