Last Christmas, I was busy gesticulating wildly at one of my elderly neighbors when my mother came over and yanked one of my wrists toward her.
“Put your arms down,” she hissed, thrusting a Rudolph sweater at me.
“What?” I asked, baffled. “Are my boobs out? Because I know I taped those suckers up—“
“No,” she snapped, clearly waffling between Well-Bred Catholicism and impotent rage. “It’s—your—your underarms.”
“Ah,” I said. My hairy armpits strike again.
Ever since moving to San Francisco in September, I’d been slowly transforming from a pasty-faced coed to a stereotypical queermo twenty-something. I’d already shaved the side of my head in preparation for the family Christmas photo, and I’d taken to wearing a tangerine cheek stain that made me look like Zooey Deschanel after a Jamba Juice orgy.
And now, I was dashing about flashing my inch-long pit-hair in the face of horrified octogenarians and Republican voters alike. My poor mom’s heart just couldn’t take it.
But unlike the (rad) haircut and (possibly less rad) cheek stain, my armpit jungle wasn’t something I’d actively tended as part of my emerging “image.” I’m just straight-up lazy.
But for the first time in my life, no one was actively policing my body hair for their own comfort. And it was AWESOME.
In college, my beloved roommates tended to be the people who had to tell me when my whole “unshowered” thing was edging away from “sexy absentminded academia” and into “You smell like someone left macaroni in a nursing home” territory.
So whenever they made sad faces in the direction of my pit-stubble, I’d shrug and shave it. They were way more bothered by my hair than I was bothered dealing with it, so I decided to pick my battles. No big deal.
When I moved to San Francisco, though, I realized that my new housemates honestly did not give a shit what I did with my armpits. Most of them didn’t shave most of their parts.
And as the weather got colder and my sleeves got longer, I found myself just…kind of forgetting about it.
Until, of course, people started feeling the need to make what I’ve come to call the “Your personal choices are upsetting me” noise toward my pits. It sounds kind of like a sad Jim Henson cat, usually paired with a finger-point. You know. Kind of a “Nyaooooow.”
And the more people made that noise at me, the more defensive I got.
I’m used to being the sort of freckly, smiley, unassuming person that no one is afraid to sit next to on the bus. Older women like to touch my head in airport bathrooms, for example. (This has happened to me on at least four occasions, for reasons I cannot fathom.)
So the faces that people on the streets were starting to make when they saw my armpits made me feel kind of invincible. By simply by refusing to shave, I’d become more dangerous. And I loved it.
I find it downright fascinating that something so eminently natural as body hair can inspire as much visceral revulsion and discomfort as, say, watching someone drink a cupful of mayonnaise. With a straw.
Through literally zero effort, I’ve marked myself as the kind of bra-burning radical that might sneak in through your basement window and seduce your daughter into watching D.E.B.S. Hide your children, folks: It’s the Armpit Brigade. Rarely have I ever felt so much like a badass.
For lots of women, hair is a major social signifier. Companies throw thousands of products at us to make it shiny, to make it curly, to tame it, to rile it up, to remove it, to encourage it to flourish. And this is what baffles me -- why is long, thick hair so sensuous and desirable on the head but so repulsive under the arms?
It might be the upkeep factor: one’s commitment to aesthetics acting as a symbol of her femininity. Or maybe it’s the inherent pre-pubescence of a hairless form, suggesting youth (and therefore beauty) where there is actually none to be found.
Regardless, I’ve never really subscribed to the whole “Reject hairlessness as a mechanism of the patriarchy!” rhetoric that seems to be the purview of mythical feminists everywhere. I am definitely in the “Your body, your problems,” cabin at Camp Third-Wave Feminism.
But it is kind of hilariously fucked how comfortable strangers are with deciding that they can arbitrate my aesthetic decisions. I am mildly nauseated when people wear fringed leather jackets, but I don’t feel the need to confront them about it. Yet nary a dance party goes by without some creepazoid telling me that I’d be better off not wearing tank tops.
An old dude at the world’s most terrifying cowboy bar even recently told me I’d be “real pretty if I took care of myself better.” Though maybe I was asking for that one. I was, after all, a visibly queer girl in line to ride a mechanical bull.
Armpit-related criticisms from random strangers don’t bother me as much, though, as those I get from friends and loved ones. One of my co-workers, whom I otherwise adore deeply, persists in her belief that armpit hair (on whatever gender) is undesirable because it “smells.”
“Do you think I smell?” I asked her once, fixing her with a gimlet stare.
“Uh, er. No?” she tried.
I buried my nose as far into my armpit as it could reach. “Mostly smells like Tide to me.”
“You don’t smell,” she mumbled. Uh-huh. That’s what I thought.
It’s the worst, though, with lovers. In San Francisco, I can get away with using the pit-meadows as a Jerk Filter: if a guy feels the need to comment on them at the bar, chances are he’s not going to be worth taking home. Plus, I’ve found that pit hair is also fabulous shorthand for “If you have anything ill to say about Toni Morrison, jackass, you might as well just keep walking.”
And naturally, most of the progressive, comfortably feminist men that I’ve dated around here wouldn’t dare consciously impose their body politics on their sex partners. God love ‘em.
But what about guys I’ve been fucking for ages? Take my best dude friend, with whom I’ve been having sex for at least three years. Every time we have a nude rendezvous on the horizon, I find myself preemptively hacking away at my arm-lawn so as to not offend his delicate masculine sensibilities, which solidified long before the resurgence of my follicles.
Recently, I’ve started to feel kind of weird about this. I’m happy to keep my vag well-landscaped, since I like to encourage people to take a long ramble down there and frankly, I’ve found that it’s easier for everyone if the pavement’s not all overgrown. But it’s not as if we’re having axillary intercourse on the regular (or ever). He’s probably going to get off whether or not I have the smooth, hairless armpits of an eight-year-old girl.
So should shaving one’s armpits rank as highly on the Relationship Compromise Scale as does maintaining one’s crotchular region? Sure, he’s happy to trim his ball-fur for me, but I don’t see him taking the shears to his own not-insignificant chest rug.
And though I know intellectually that he’s my number-one fan, I can’t help but feel sometimes that he’s the Delilah to my armpit-Samson.
“There goes my badassery,” I think every time I rinse the huge clumps of hair off of my razor. Bring on the airport bathroom head-touching.
What’s a self-respecting, independent half-Croatian half-Yeti woman to do? I still haven’t really decided.
In the meantime, I guess, I’ll celebrate the oncoming spring by breaking out the sundresses. It’s time these babies got some summer highlights. My mother will be so proud.