I don't shave my legs. I never have. I never will, though my hair is dark brown and stands out against my olive skin.
It probably all started with my mom. She never shaved her own legs, and I never noticed that other grown women did. When my legs started to look more like my mom's, it was an ordinary part of growing into a woman, just like starting my period and growing breasts. In my mind, it's not ugly or attractive -- it just is, and it's not harming me or anyone else, so I see no need to spend time and resources on removing it.
Sexually, I was a late bloomer. I went through my teens totally uninterested in the bodies of others. It took until I was 21 for me to be interested -- but by then, I was also well aware of the stigma against hairy women. Wondering what potential partners would think of me, I masochistically searched the Internet for opinions on hairy women, lurking on long dead forum threads or in the downward spiral of Yahoo Answers. Most posters couched their insults in crude homophobia and animal comparisons: mammoth, butch, gorilla, neanderthal, dyke. Others tried to take a more highbrow approach: it was an issue of hygiene, or professionalism, or it was, "Oh god, how could anyone be so lazy?"
When it came to unshaved vulvas -- mine is trimmed, but not shaved -- the comments were only marginally more positive. The bottom line was, society thought of me as some kind of dirty, backward freak. Shorts and short skirts weren't just a fashion statement anymore -- for me, they were an act of proud defiance.
But the day I first had sex, I was nervous. Not just because it was my first time, but because the man I was with had never seen my legs. We'd met in the winter, in a northern state. I psyched myself up to deal with rejection, telling myself if he didn't want me -- well, he probably didn't deserve me anyway.
We were in his room before I finally spoke up.
"I have hairy legs."
He paused. "How hairy?"
Wordlessly I lifted my skirt and rolled down my trouser sock, and waited for exclamations of disgust, going over pre-planned comebacks in my head. He chuckled.
"Well, as long as they're not hairier than mine," he said, and rolled up his pants to show a level of hairiness one expects more from lumberjacks than engineering students.
For various reasons, mostly centering around our shared unreadiness for commitment, we split up, and while I wasn't interested in a relationship, it seemed obvious to me that finding another man who would accept me would get perilously close to needle-in-haystack territory.
My second was a friend of my sister's from work. When we met I was wearing shorts: we had been on the way to the mall in the middle of summer. But when he later expressed interest in me via text, I was doubtful. Was he serious? Hadn't he seen my legs? I texted him on impulse, wondering if it could possibly be that easy.
"I don't shave."
"Long hair, don't care," he replied with a cheeky winking emoticon.
"I mean my legs, too."
The reply came back almost immediately.
This was a trend that has continued to this day. Granted, I've only been with a few men, and I tend to move in more alternative circles, but the admission that I thought would make me a sexual leper has been met with understanding, acceptance, or at worst, indifference:
"Well, my legs aren't shaved either."
--one night stand
"I don't mind body hair."
--current friend with benefits
"No, I get you. I already hate shaving my face, legs would be just...too much."
--male acquaintance, upon noticing my unshaved legs
Then there was guy I met online who replied with enthusiasm that he was so glad to have met an unshaven woman by accident, because he felt like women would consider him "dirty and strange" if it was listed as a preference on his profile. Unfortunately, his broad face and smile, and the length of his hair, gave him a resemblance to my younger brother that rendered any sexual attraction to him virtually impossible.
All this has got me thinking that the stigma against unshaved legs is not as widespread as many women seem to believe. Even among feminists, the idea that you have to choose between body hair and social acceptance is considered an undesirable but undeniable truth. But I've never been rejected for it or even seriously insulted about it, not even on the beach or in shorts. In fact, the only ones who have said anything negative are other women.
At one point, I was a member of forum populated by many open-minded people, many of them members of fringe political groups or subversive subcultures. It was a very "anything goes" atmosphere. On the topic of female grooming, one of the biggest posters, a self professed goth and feminist, sent me this private message:
"It's our duty to shave. We're not animals anymore, it's just basic grooming."
Just last week, a woman walking with her child saw my calves and stated flatly,
"There's not supposed to be hair there."
And I will always remember the day in early spring when I first wore a skirt to work. My leg hair was smoothed down with lotion, because I like it to all face in one direction. It didn't look messy or dirty, or in any way unusual except that it was on a woman's legs. I was sitting and chatting with a co-worker when she paused mid-sentence, a bit of powdery donut crumbling on to her shirt as she stared at my legs. Her eyes widened a bit, and took on a look of morbid fascination.
"I never noticed you don't shave," she said at last.
No one-liners came to my rescue. "Oh -- no, I don't" I said, laughing a bit awkwardly. "I mean, I don't mind it, and it saves time, so..."
"Oh, I see," she said, her tone both disapproving and vaguely envious. "I could never do that."
Now I'm a firm believer in body autonomy, and if a girl actually enjoys going smooth, well, more power to her. I'm not saying that no man prefers smooth legs. But women aren't the only ones who have words put in their mouths by the media -- it happens to men as well. And in my own (admittedly limited) experience, many men don't really care about shaving so deeply as we've been led to think.
Judging from online opinion and personal conversation, it seems to me that many women consider shaving a mandatory step toward social, professional, and especially sexual acceptance, when maybe, just maybe, that's not always the truth.