A Personal History of Shaving

Alice Stanley wrestles with the dilemma of having hairy legs.

Illustration by Yael Levy

August 20, 2000 AD: The day I began shaving my legs. I was about to enter the seventh grade. Sixth grade is for kids, but seventh grade, I figured, was for women.

I have an older sister, so I took one of her razors from the bathroom, lathered on the body gel, and shaved my legs. I cut my thumb twice. I’m not entirely sure how. The point is I had slick and smooth legs for the start of school. As I figured a girl should, I shaved every couple days until I was a junior in high school. Think about that for a moment: I spent five to ten minutes shaving my legs every two to three days for four years — whether anyone saw said legs or not. That’s almost 65 hours of shaving time over four years. That’s almost three whole days of putting Bic to skin.

In 2004, I was at the age of buying my own necessities and I quickly realized that the fancy Intuition replacement heads I was accustomed to were costing me a fortune. I bought a small assortment and decided to only use my good razor for speech and debate tournament mornings. This seemed like a pretty good plan. I was shaving about once a week, and it didn’t seem to make much of a difference, especially during the winter months.

But then speech season started winding down and somehow I was positive that not only was shaving once a week good for my wallet, it was essential to my success in speech and debate. It was my good luck charm. Hairy legs until game day. Districts were in March, and State was in April. One month razor free. Then, nationals were in June, and I honestly felt like the results depended on freshly-shaved legs. Like, kind of a reverse Samson and Delilah sitch — except that I was both characters. And my strength was the absence of hair. And the hair was on my calves.

By the June competition, I was actually sorry to see the fur go. I had gotten used to my legs being natural, and a feminist stew started boiling inside me. Why should I have to partake in an extra form of “hygiene” when men don’t have to? After not shaving for a while, it really did seem arbitrary.

We’ve got hair all over our bodies. Why did someone decide which body hair was unfortunate and which was totes cool? Someone told me the whole rigmarole began with World War I because men’s razor companies were down on their business. They needed a new clientele, and what better way to get it than to prey on the self-consciousness of women by creating a new standard of beauty? I didn’t find any specific evidence to support the “Schick-in-a-Pickle” myth, but I did find that most historians agree that female shaving began in the U.S. around World War I. Most sources say the cause, while perhaps also in line with a lack of men buying razors, was the rise of sleeveless dresses. With sleeveless dresses came exposed underarms. Gillette jumped on a campaign advertising bare pits, and the rest is history.

It boggles my mind that women have only been shaving for one hundred years. Maybe that seems like a long time, but as a young girl coming up to a rite of passage, it seemed like the Mayans invented it or something. Shaving felt like a part of womanhood, when actually, it was a style as arbitrary as bobby socks and side pony-tails. It just stuck.

Anyway, my seventeen-year-old self was miffed. I was working at an all-girls summer camp, so I cast my leg hair to the wind and cut the habit. I was pretty surprised by the flack I got. My peers were straight up grossed out. They would ask me not to put my legs on their beds, would ask me not to wear shorts, would frequently leave razors in my toiletry bucket. Keep in mind that this was an outdoor woods camp, where people spent most days covered in dirt, building fires in the pine forest, and frolicking in an algae-filled lake. Not everyone thought my legs were disgusting, but a vast majority did. And hardly anyone was proactively supportive.

Regardless, I stayed strong and stayed hairy. I no longer even shaved for speech tournaments. I did create the “Shave for Theater Performances” rule during a run of Singin’ in the Rain, after opening night when my sister told me it was hard to accept a Lina Lamont with visible yeti shins.

So, for the next few years, I shaved for performances, and that was about it. I tried to have little shame in exercising my gender freedom, but I sometimes felt conflicted. As a camp counselor another summer, I’m pretty sure I lost any credibility with one of my girly-girl high schoolers the moment she peeked at my gams. I started falling for a guy my freshman year of college and blurted in the middle of an early date, “I DON’T SHAVE MY LEGS, SO THAT CAN’T BE A PROBLEM.”

Meanwhile, the more I found out about shaving for women, the more sure I was of its oppressive qualities. In one hundred years the unacceptable places for hair on a woman have expanded from eyebrows to pits to legs to upper lip to bikini lines to arms to everything. The change is happening at a breakneck pace. I watched a re-run of Sex and the City recently about Carrie accidentally getting a Brazilian wax. I was rather surprised she was so surprised, because all-bare is kind of the norm. Doesn’t everyone think so? Then again, the episode aired in 2000.

I remember reading one examination of shaving called “Shaving is the Pits.” Robin Friebur explains the paradox of women reaching maturity, only to attempt reverting back to childlike bodies. For men, of course, the experience is flipped. Men participating in “No-Shave November” feel empowered by their gnarly beards. Beards are symbols of wisdom and brawn, and a light female mustache is a symbol of a butterface. The whole double standard ventures down creepier caves of the human psyche. Robin Friebur writes, “A man who is socialized to become erotically aroused by an infantilized woman may be primed to also become erotically aroused by children.” Uh… ew. The underlying tensions women face as a result of shaving are so troubling, and I realized it more with each passing year. So why wasn’t the annoyance of not shaving disappearing?

Despite my clear understanding of shaving, I still sometimes longed for smooth legs. I didn’t feel completely attractive without shaving, and the feeling wasn’t going away. I knew why: I had never seen an attractive woman with hairy anything! They don’t exist in the media, even when the media is meant to pre-date 1915. It would have been so much more accurate for Keira Knightly to have gone French for her role in The Duchess! And would it have killed animators to put some dark lines on Pocahontas’s tanned and trim legs? Seriously. She was a Native American. What did she do? Shave with a piece of bark? I digress. The point: even though I knew it was wrong, I really wanted to shave.

Flash forward to June of 2009. I was in a stuffy car with two girlfriends. Each were sociology majors in college — strong women. We had just finished having a discussion about gender barriers when one of them actually reached down, felt a bit of stubble on her leg, and said, “Ugh. I need to shave.”

I was immediately defensive. “Well, I don’t shave!” I interjected, hating my abrasiveness.

She responded cordially, explaining her very dark and thick hair. I gracefully refuted her logic. Then, the third party chimed in. She said, “I find myself unattached to either view. When I feel like shaving, I do, but I don’t worry if I don’t.” I wanted to disagree. I steamed angry feminist thoughts about standing up for women. But, it was a really hot week. And my legs wore mini-sweaters. And I was about to spend a day at the beach with my boyfriend… And, so, I did the deed. And it felt great. And I did feel more beautiful than I had, which was annoying, but also honest.

I live in a compromise. Right now my legs haven’t been shaved in about four weeks, but I know that will change at the first mention of an interview/audition/date. So, my choice to compromise doesn’t end up feeling good like a compromise should. I have just given myself the freedom to flip between two states of discomfort. On one leg, I lose credibility and feel self-consciousness, and on the other leg, I’m inherently perpetuating unfortunate views of womanhood. Even combined, I don’t have a leg to stand on. No woman does.

Illustration by Yael Levy

Alice Stanley is an MFA candidate in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University. Follow her tweets or send her an email. She also has a website.