This is the fourth and final post in my short series on female body hair. Links to previous posts in the series can be found at the end of this piece.
Today's guest writer is Carys Crossen, recent PhD graduate and my collaborator on the 2010 She-Wolf: Female Werewolves, Shapeshifters and Other Horrors conference.
Carys Crossen was recently awarded her doctorate, entitled '"There is God and the Devil in Them": Gender and Sexuality in Post-1800 Werewolf Fiction and Film' by the University of Manchester, and is currently working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the university’s Department of English and American Studies. Her main research interests include the Gothic, psychoanalytic criticism, Monster Theory, Victorian literature, Young Adult fantasy and horror fiction, feminist theory and anything with werewolves. Her publications to date include a book contribution on celibate male vampires, a review of a new collection of stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and a forthcoming contribution to Hannah Priest's forthcoming collection on female werewolves, on the little-known authors Clemence Housman and Rosamund Marriott Watson.
Imagine this: you’re a werewolf. More specifically, you are a female werewolf. Life as a werewolf isn’t bad, despite what the films tell you. The full moon lends a whole new meaning to ‘that time of the month’, admittedly, and you like your meat rare, but it’s by no means a curse. If you eat the neighbours, you can always get new ones and property prices will recover soon. And you can cope with the fangs, the claws, the hair...
And it is here that, if you are a werewolf devotee, you may notice something odd. Hair. Not that being hairy is at all peculiar for a werewolf: sprouting hair every full moon is traditional and looks fantastic in cinematic transformation scenes. However, in the vast majority of werewolf fiction and film, particular that featuring a female protagonist, body hair is scarcely ever mentioned, let alone discussed in any detail. As an academic whose PhD thesis was focused on the contemporary lycanthrope, I thought this absence a striking one. Body hair is mentioned briefly in Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker (2009) and Sparkle Hayter’s Naked Brunch (2003) but only mentioned. The one pulp fiction series that deals with it in any depth is Karen MacInerney’s Tales of an Urban Werewolf series, in which the heroine has a ‘bic razor habit.’ (1) Rather frustratingly however, the series does not discuss body hair as signifier or cultural taboo, and focuses primarily on the disappointingly conventional removal of hair from legs, arms and other areas. And the classic Ginger Snaps film trilogy does indeed have hairy anti-heroines, but once again focuses on the removal of body hair rather than the hair itself.
Considering how the popularity of the female werewolf has mushroomed in recent years, it seems astonishing that these were the only instances of lycanthropic, female body hair being mentioned that I discovered during four years of research, but it is so. Body hair simply is not looked at, talked about or made visible in relation to the female werewolf, that hairiest, fuzziest of monsters. Moreover, it is hair that seems to be unmentionable – fur is another matter entirely. Fur has different connotations than hair: it implies luxury, decadence, softness, beauty and is just a little bit illicit in this enlightened era. Loving descriptions of beautiful wolf pelts are not uncommon in lycanthropic fiction. But hair brings with it an entirely different set of associations, particularly in relation to the female body. As Karín Lesnik-Oberstein in the appropriately titled academic text The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair (2007) comments, ‘women’s body hair is configured as a taboo: something not to be seen or mentioned; prohibited and circumscribed by rules of avoidance; surrounded by shame, disgust and censure’. (2) This taboo is so strong, it seems, that it extends to fictional female werewolves, for whom hairiness is an unavoidable fact of lycanthropic life.
The hairiness of the werewolf is an essential aspect of its monstrosity. As Marina Warner comments, ‘hairiness indicates animal nature: it is the distinctive sign of the wilderness and its inhabitants’. (3) The significance of the werewolf’s hairiness is obvious in this context – it is, if not quite an animal, the ‘beast within’, a representative of wildness, beastliness and ferocity. So, why exactly have female werewolf texts failed to examine the issue of body hair? Texts featuring female werewolves are seldom averse to embracing the lycanthrope’s potential beastliness – just look at Ginger Snaps or Clemence Housman’s story 'The Werewolf' (1896). So why have they resisted using the signifier of beastliness and animalism? Well, one thing I’ve noticed about a great many female werewolf heroines – often gutsy, independent and clever – is their overwhelming desire to be ‘normal’ or at least mimic normality. This usually means holding down a job, having a relationship, and most importantly conforming to society and its expectations. And society simply does not accommodate hairy women. As Lesnik-Oberstein comments, ‘"hairy" women, on the other hand, are monstrous in being like men, or masculine’. (4) In other words, you want to be normal, girl, that beard’s got to go. Never mind if your pack thinks it’s cute. Of course, not all female werewolves cling to their desire for normality, especially when they discover the perks of being a werewolf, but nor do they renounce it to the extent that they embrace their hairiness and all its negative cultural connotations. Ignoring hairiness, or removing hair, is a quick and easy way to integrate into human society, a discarding of an important indicator of wildness.
Moreover, the very fact that the werewolf is nearly always a hairy monster may be the reason why its hairiness is so seldom mentioned; it is hidden in plain sight, so to speak. The female werewolf’s hairiness is revealed for all to see when she is transformed; ergo there is no need to mention the issue. Hair, often an emblem of deviant sexuality, beastliness, and masculinity, is displayed on the transformed body and hence there is no need to address the issue of hairiness, not when it is flaunted by the lycanthrope in her transformed state. Or else, as I suggested earlier, feminine hair is more taboo than being a werewolf, which, looking at Western notions of feminine beauty may not be as far-fetched as you might imagine.
So, onto my final question – will feminine lycanthropic hairiness ever be embraced, or at least discussed in werewolf texts? I haven’t got a clue, I can’t predict the future. But I certainly hope so. There are stories about female werewolves and body hair out there, academic discussions are slowly starting up, attention is being paid. I’ll leave you with a quote from a story by Helen Cross, entitled ‘Fur’ – guess what it’s about? ‘In fact wolf lies deep in female nature. They are all capable of this, all of them have it in them – once they choose to let themselves go.’ (5)
(1) Karen MacInerney, On the Prowl (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), p. 9.
(2) Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, 'The Last Taboo: Women, Body Hair and Feminism, in Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (ed.), The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), pp. 1-17, p. 2.
(3) Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 359.
(4) Lesnik-Oberstein, p. 3.
(5) Helen Cross, ‘Fur’ in Hannah Kate (ed.), Wolf Girls: Dark Tales of Teeth, Claws and Lycogyny (Manchester: Hic Dragones, 2012), pp. 219-226, p. 226.
Read the other posts in the Body Hair blog series:
On Making and Publishing The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein
Damned if you do and damned if you don't, by Rosie Garland
On Body Hair, by LJ Maher