A young girl named Hannah — eager, dutiful, pubescent — wants to shave her legs, having long observed the womanly ritual of body hair removal. But when she does, something goes wrong. Her hair gets longer and longer and longer. It becomes unmanageable, difficult to hide. She swaps her razor for a pair of scissors, but inexplicably and almost instantaneously, the strands grow, grow, grow several feet in length. Hard as she tries, nothing changes. Frantic and confused, she eventually confides in a so-called friend who then spreads the news to the whole school, ensuring Hannah’s complete ostracization.
A lesser known Dr. Seuss book? An early draft of Rapunzel? Not quite. I wrote “The Hairy Leg Story” in a blue plush “Soccer Rocks” notebook in 2002, at the age of seven. It is written in a below grade level and unintentionally direct style, featuring zingers like “No one liked her anymore. The end.” Most of the words are spelled wonderfully wrong, like some pre-standardized-English manuscript (the actual title is “The Harry Leg Story”), and it follows a plaintive diary entry about a classmate named Hannah (not a coincidence) surreptitiously borrowing and breaking my beloved pencil sharpener.
I came across “The Hairy Leg Story” when I was at my parents’ house this winter, sorting through an inexplicable number of empty shoeboxes in my childhood bedroom. Like most things recovered from childhood’s dustbin, it seemed pretty ha-ha funny — until, at least, I found myself thinking a little too much about it. Because when I did, the story of Hannah and her hair became a story of a young girl who observes feminine rituals without understanding their nuances. Shave, but don’t tell; shave, but don’t be the first or last middle schooler to do so. Look perfect, but don’t be vain; be perfect, but don’t let anyone know you had to try.
The women — her mother, older sister, and grandmother — around Hannah shave their legs to remove traces of the hair’s origins, to escape a natural process under the guise of achieving a more natural, permanent state. Hannah’s downfall was not only in having the hair, but in having admitted that she tried (and failed) to remove it, confirming its existence on herself and others, thus breaking the coolish code of silence around the performance of feminine immutability. Then, as punishment for her blunder, she was handed the sense of shame and lack of control many people feel around their bodies. It is a feeling, much like the growing hairs, that escalates in ways she can’t yet fully process. For there is no corrective, no happy ending — once Hannah makes her decision, its traces are forever with her.
Reading “The Hairy Leg Story,” I found a seven-year-old innocently processing her world as she saw it, learning that women could not falter, did not have space to practice or be flexible in their femininity. The time-worn link between the body and self-worth, the limited ways in which women are “allowed” to be imperfect — these were ideas that I had touted, however unwittingly. Cross-legged between dusty boxes, I awkwardly shuffled around in my skin, trying to roll off their continuing hold.
In the past few years, the body positivity movement and fourth wave feminism have resuscitated and encouraged ongoing progressive conversations around body hair acceptance. Billie, a razor startup, has broken an advertising taboo by actually displaying body hair, to remove with their products. Writers and podcasters like Haley Nahman and Quoi de Meuf have thoughtfully addressed their own complicated relationships to shaving. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Emily Ratajkowski have dyed their underarm strands bright colors or broadcasted their under-hair out of protest and personal empowerment. I began paying increasingly close attention to how body hair is or is not represented — like Sally Rooney’s description of a pre-sort-of-date body in Normal People: “Her legs are shaved meticulously, her underarms are smooth and chalky with deodorant, and her nose is running a little.”
Mostly, I found myself ruminating on a painting I first remember seeing in 2015, when it was on loan to the National Gallery: The Woman in the Waves (1868) by Gustave Courbet. In the painting, a Venus-like figure stretches from the sea, her back slightly arched against a rock. Seemingly alone, she fixates on something in the distance, beyond our line of vision. A sober sky contrasts with her luminous flesh; the waves lap her torso. A repetition emerges — the ruffle of the waves, the mass of her curls, a tuft of underarm hair. When I saw it a few years later, back in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that was when I really saw it, and since, I have never been able to stroll past without feeling its jolt. As I was turning over my personal history, the painting — and my slowly developed awareness — felt emblematic of the long narrative in which my crummy story and I were merely bullet points.
When Courbet revisited the female nude in the 1860s, women had become, in the words of literary critic Françoise Gaillard and translator Colette Windish, an “obsessive presence” depicted through generic representations relying on extremely narrow conventions of female beauty (see Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, for example). Unlike many of his contemporaries’ portrayals, Courbet challenged the idealization of the body, presenting realistically molded, often hairy women in his finished works. Most famously, in L’origine du monde (The origin of the world) (1866), he frankly depicted female genitalia and pubic hair stripped of their classical significance, the truncated limbs and unsettling pallor framing an almost-pornographic closeup (the hair, like the pose, strikes an erotic note). His radical departure from the norm, of course, generated some vitriol — a contemporary French writer described one of Courbet’s nudes as “ugly enough to be unappetizing…to a crocodile.”
In Courbet’s rendering of a traditional Venus, he cropped the image to focus on the upper body, concentrating on the hair against her translucent fleshiness, her flesh against the subdued horizon. That repetition of the ripple — the waves, the curls, the silhouette — gives way to a sense of kinship between its appearances. How natural these things are: the perpetual creasing of the ocean, unkempt hair frizzing in humidity, those bristling underarm strands. The subject’s moment of apparent privacy offers an instinctive display of body hair and breasts; the woman could, at any point, become aware of being watched and lower her arms over her chest. What, Courbet seemed to ask, made this ginger ruffle any less real than the surrounding landscape or her sinuous form? After centuries of depilation and epilation and coiffing, why had the absence of body hair become its standard?
To Courbet, the presence/absence of body hair was an art historical question, in a way that my seven-year-old self could obviously not have understood. But however Courbet likened underarm hair to a bobbing wave on an aesthetic and intellectual level, this aspect of an adult body is all too often deemed unnatural. A century and a half later, his painting still surprised me, as did a photo of Julia Roberts at the Notting Hill premiere, Sophia Loren’s revealing halter situation, Théodore Chassériau’s Baigneuse Endormie (1850), Billie’s lovingly persistent fuzz-flaunting, and pretty much any photo associated with the “Free Your Pits” movement. When I saw Nike post an underarm-bearing ad in April, the pose still felt bold (obviously, Instagram commenters offered friendly advice: “wax your armpits” or “personal hygiene has left the building”).
As much as I wish I could dismiss my childhood scribbles as satire or pure regurgitation, at some level, I must have believed their moral.
In our affectless Instagram scrolling, as in Courbet’s time, the distance between image and reality has almost become an expectation. It isn’t only the erasure of body hair that is so harrowing, but the contradictory American eroticization of hair on a woman’s head and the assumption — aided by our complacent acceptance of the artificial — that both can escape criticism. The examples are endless, but the upset around one Instagram user accidentally bleaching off her head-hair comes to mind. Compare that with those Laser Away commercials wherein Bri, a model and Bachelor contestant, insists, “Laser hair removal is probably just the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.” Laser Away tells me how easy and time-saving laser hair removal is, assuming I somehow forgot that the easiest, cheapest, most efficient option is to do nothing.
These preoccupations establish a heritage to be passed from generation to generation, from sibling to sibling, or from advertisement to household, instilling a false reality that never quite leaves us. When/if tied to shame, the pressure to alter body hair transcends outward conformity, aesthetic preference, or even self-discipline. It becomes a coercion that alters the way we perceive ourselves, how we navigate the world.
Because as much as I wish I could dismiss my childhood scribbles as satire or pure regurgitation, at some level, I must have believed their moral. As the youngest of three girls, hair removal was, at best, a haunting chore — I clearly recall my sisters venturing in and out of the waxing salon, purchasing more shaving cream — and, at worst, a weapon of critique. On occasion, my mother would reflect on my grandmother’s untouched leg hair as an example of matrilineal disinterest in feminine grooming; my mother shaved because “that’s what normal people do.” Between hushed comments and eavesdropped gossip, I registered a sordid shame attached to woolly legs and the palliative a razor could provide. No one remembers my penning the story, but I can see myself wedged in a middle seat of the family car, asking for spelling help, then proudly reciting the tale to a laughing audience.
Around the same age that I wrote “The Hairy Leg Story,” I saw a toy razor in the supermarket and asked my mom to buy it for me. It was a practical blue-color, crafted in angular, thin plastic, and in the bathtub, I used it to practice the motions I had seen in commercials. As soap bubbles welled around me and my fingers wrinkled to prunes, I dutifully stroked my legs with the fleck of plastic, clearing away rows of shaving cream, one by one. Probably so that when the day came, I could avoid a fate like Hannah’s.