During my sophomore year of college, I was hired as an RA for a women’s house in a co-ed building. With habits like growing wheatgrass in my room, calling out other RAs for referring to my residents as “girls” rather than the “women” they were, and tacking up “wear a condom” stickers to my door, I quickly became the weird RA.
And that was OK.
Because being the weird RA also meant having a free pass to put up bulletin boards on LGBT history and registering to vote. It meant hosting viewings of "The Purity Myth" and advertising for women’s rugby games. It meant posting body acceptance pledges in the bathroom and warnings of the distorted perceptions of beauty on mirrors.
And it also meant my residents knew they could come talk to me about anything. And I mean anything. Conversations with my residents ranged from joining clubs to supporting suicidal family members to questioning identity to how much we despised Stephen Moffat (can we PLEASE have a woman be the Doctor??).
Being an RA meant having the ability to directly influence a community of young women. I often took this opportunity to challenge others -- and myself -- through consciousness-raising discussions and events.
In the age of Netflix, a lot of times this meant bribing my residents to leave their rooms. As in “Come to my program about sex -- they’ll be free condoms!” or “Help me put up this bulletin board on fair trade and I’ll give you candy!” I found out quickly that cupcakes, pizza, and gift cards were the way to encourage participation in the educational events I put on for my community. However, not even gift cards could encourage the majority of my residents to participate in one program.
After hearing many men’s houses planning to participate in No Shave November, a month of simply putting down the razor, I decided to host it for the 50 women in my house.
Preparing for pushback, my monthly bulletin board encouraged participation in the event. I posted historical information about women’s shaving in the U.S. (thanks, Gillette and wartime capitalism). I listed reasons not to shave (“There’s no hygienic purpose,” “You could win one of three gift cards”). I supplied non-shavers with talking points for the haters (“Remind them you have the right to decide what to do with your body”).
I decorated the bulletin board with catchphrases to keep the focus light-hearted, but meaningful: “Why have gender roles when you can have pizza rolls?” and “Not your pits, not your problem!”
While I didn’t want to hit my residents over the head with feminism, I planned this program to promote conversations about body hair acceptance and gendered beauty norms. I didn’t exactly expect all 50 women to toss out their shaving creams and raise their fists in solidarity, but I at least thought the gift cards would entice a substantial percentage to put down their razors, especially since the Midwest winter forced long sleeves anyway.
On November 1, seven women consciously decided not to remove body hair -- six decided to stop shaving their legs, and three decided to stop shaving their armpits. Two (including myself) let follicles flower at both sites. (Since I was a university employee, I decided publicly focusing on any other body hair would not be the smartest idea.)
In hindsight, seven out of 50 wasn’t so bad for an entire month of dedication. But being an academic feminist, I focused on percentages. Only 14% meant I failed. Goddess forgive me! bell hooks scorn me now! It wasn’t until I started collecting updates from my residents that I realized the importance of the program.
My residents talked to me about how quick their showers were, and how some of them now had time for breakfast before classes. Some started questioning the other beauty rituals they participated in, spending less time on make-up or styling their (head) hair, and then using that saved time to study for their upcoming finals.
But they also talked about how some of their dating partners objected, policing them with masculine insults. How they had to be sure to cover their legs when they went home for Thanksgiving break to avoid criticism at the family table. How frustrated they were that simply letting their hair grow naturally sometimes meant social punishment.
My plan to start these conversations among my house worked. I started the month thinking that my solidarity in No Shave November was for the benefit of my residents, but it ended up challenging me more than I imagined it would.
Wearing jeans all day and sweatpants at night, I hardly noticed my growing hair in the first week, save for the occasional itch from new hair growth. But by week two, it was hard to ignore the new texture of my legs, which felt strangely soft. The patch of hair under my arms seemed so out of place, yet I welcomed it.
As the established weird RA, with very supportive and very feminist friends, I experienced next to no personal pushback. My residents who chose to shave avoided looking at my legs and didn’t talk directly to me about my hair, just like they didn’t bring up my “Wear a condom” sticker.
During the third week of hair growth, I went home for Thanksgiving, visiting with family, friends, and a new dating partner. I found myself using my residents as an excuse, brushing it off as a silly no-shaving program I joined for kicks. I avoided connecting shaving to topics of women’s liberation and gender constructions, minimalizing the very political and social issues I aimed to challenge. “Not your bits, not your business?” Forget about it -- body hair is funny, not radical, and certainly not feminist!
I especially de-emphasized its importance with a new suitor. He said he supported feminism, saying he liked that I was independent and valued my intelligence. Yet when we were at a cold movie theatre and my leg hair pushed up through my leggings, I joined in with laughing at the concept of No Shave November. He said it was silly for women to not shave and I didn’t defend myself. I didn’t defend my residents. I didn’t defend feminism. What happened to solidarity? I found myself crumbling in confrontation.
That relationship ended soon after Thanksgiving for reasons unrelated to body hair, but my relationship with my hair and body itself was just beginning to blossom. I returned to school and to my residents, hairy after the month’s completion. I gave out three gift cards to the hairiest participants and distributed candy as consolation prizes to my other fuzzballs. With a new perspective, most of my residents returned to their razors. Life as the weird RA went on. But so did my hair growth.
It wasn’t until after finals, halfway through December, that I decided to shave. I’ve heard it takes 21 days to break a habit, and whether that’s scientifically founded or not, after twice as much time, I struggled to find a reason to pick up my old companion and remove my body hair.
Mostly out of curiosity, I readied myself to reveal the skin under that forest of hair. Arming myself with an especially depressing Bad Books album, a bathtub full of eucalyptus-scented bubbles, and a brand new razor, I put the blade to my skin....and immediately nicked my shin.
Razor burn had never felt so deserved.