Thursday, 13 September 2012

GUEST POST: Damned if you do and damned if you don't by Rosie Garland

This is the second in my short series of guest posts exploring the somewhat controversial subject of women and body hair. Links to the other posts in the series can be found at the end of this post.

I am very pleased to welcome today's guest writer, Rosie Garland.

Born in London to a runaway teenager, Rosie Garland has always been a cuckoo in the nest. She has an eclectic writing and performance history, from singing in Goth band The March Violets, to twisted cabaret and electrifying poetry as Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen, to conference presentations in the UK and overseas. As well as four solo collections of poems, her short stories and articles have been widely anthologised. She has won the DaDa Award for Performance Artist of the Year, the Diva Award for Solo Performer, and a Poetry Award from the People’s Café, New York. She is also the winner of the 2011 inaugural Mslexia Novel Competition with The Palace of Curiosities, a picaresque literary novel inspired by the life of Victorian Hairy Woman Julia Pastrana.

I’ve had an interest in the fraught female relationship with body hair since I started growing it anywhere but on my head. Years before I discovered feminism or any broader questioning of why women should present hairlessness to be acceptable.

I was the class geek. There was always one, sitting at the edge of school photos sporting a done-at-home haircut and a bewildered expression at just how unpopular a girl could be. Surrounded by pretty classmates wearing the right length skirt, the right size knot in the school tie (small one term, huge the next). Along with my mother, they gave out messages about hair. Basically, if it wasn’t on my head, it was gross and should be removed. Especially leg and underarm sproutings.

I resisted the pronouncements. I didn’t want to do it. It was just one item on the long list of things that made me an outsider, part of the same mindset that made my classmates obsessed with perfume, body spray and ‘feminine’ deodorant (you know, the stuff that brings on toxic shock). From where I stood, it seemed to be about spending a fortune on products that promised to hide the fact you were female.

No, I didn’t see myself as a rebel, but it struck me as overwhelmingly illogical (yes, I identified with Mr. Spock in Star Trek). For a start, it was such a mess: applying smelly cream, waiting for it to melt the hair away (never as successful as the adverts with their hysterically cheerful actors). If you didn’t use cream, there were cuts from shaving. Ouch. It was also a waste of time – the damn stuff grew back immediately, stubbly and far more noticeable than the soft fronds that covered my legs if I left them alone.

Being of an enquiring mind, I asked my mum why I needed to get rid of something that was occurring quite naturally, like my second set of teeth or the beginnings of breasts (I wasn’t being asked to get rid of them). She replied that body hair wasn’t ‘ladylike’. This confused me further. I was a ‘lady’, or at least one in miniature. Therefore if I was growing hair, then it was of or pertaining to the state of being a lady. I asked if I needed to shave the new growth on my vulva and was told to stop being rude. I didn’t get why it was supposed to be such a no-no.

Sure, hair or no hair can be personal taste. If you live in a culture where there is a modicum of choice then yes, you can choose to wax yourself to a standstill and ‘still be a feminist’ (whatever ‘still’ means). I don’t have a direct association of feminist = unshaved woman, which is the stereotype. If I choose to be unshaved, which I do, it goes back far earlier. I’m not of the Reductio ad absurdum opinion that intelligence evaporates with the removal of hair, in a female version of Samson being stripped of his strength when Delilah shaved him.

However. What does that ‘choice’ really mean when faced with a familial / societal / media barrage of ‘eeew’? Day in, day out, from the onset of the first spindly hair till we die – the message that it (and by extension we) = unhygienic / unladylike / unfeminine / dirty / messy / taboo and god damn it, ugly.

And don’t get me started on patriarchal / male reaction to women’s body hair. I’d need a dozen blogs for that. Feminism or not, I can still not get past this simple bottom line: the only females who are naturally free of hair under their arms, on their legs and on their pubis are children. The only acceptable females in porn are hairless. I do not need to say a word about how fundamentally this creeps me out. Let alone how mentally and socially infantilising it is. Sexual fixation on hairlessness in adult females is creepy. Go bloody figure.

Deep breath. I watched with interest as I grew into a world where nice girls depilate. Except the stuff on our heads which is our ‘crowning glory’. Just how integral these tresses are to being seen / read as female came home to me with a body blow when I got throat cancer, underwent intensive chemotherapy and my hair fell out.

I assumed that it would loosen its moorings overnight, in one go. But it left my body in a slow, piecemeal moulting which I found sufficiently distressing that I got a set of clippers and shaved my head. I chose to ‘go bald’ rather than wear the prescription wig. The wig felt all wrong, like I was trying to pass for human and ‘well’ when that was the last thing I felt like. I was not ashamed of having cancer. My hairlessness was part of the reality. Sod this, I thought. I shall not pretend, nor hide my cancer from the world, just to spare the healthy world’s collective delusion that no-one gets ill and no-one dies. As a signifier of our shared mortality, baldness is terrifying. People crossed the road so that I wouldn’t talk to them about ‘it’.

At this point I want to stress that this was my individual response to cancer. I am not suggesting it as a template. Others choose to engage with the illness differently, and each person’s response is as valid as the next.

To bolster a sense of self, I searched for positive images of bald women with shaved or bald heads. I repeat, positive. I was not interested in images of punishment, dehumanisation, imprisonment or torture. It was bloody hard work finding anything. I scraped together a meagre handful, and the first hits were from science fiction. Alice Krige as the Borg Queen in Star Trek First Contact, Persis Khambatta as Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek The Motion Picture, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien 3. All of them created as attractive, intelligent, ass-kicking or all three.

All of the above informed the creation of Eve, the central character in my upcoming debut novel The Palace of Curiosities (HarperCollins, forthcoming March 2013). I took the concept of female hairiness to its logical (that word again) extreme. Eve has hypertrichosis, a condition where the entire body is covered in a thick mat of hair. The novel is set in 1850s London, and in it I explore how Eve makes her way in a world where she is the only one of her kind. Her ‘difference’ is overwhelmingly visible, yet she is determined to get by on her own terms. She does not shave herself to pass for human. She fends off exploitation, discovers fulfilment, self-expression and self-reliance.

I’ve been told that Eve’s hairiness can be seen as an interesting analogy for being queer in a heteronormative world. I’m happy if she makes one person think about what it means to be female and have body hair.

If you would like to whet your appetite for The Palace of Curiosities in anticipation of its release next year, you can find Rosie's story, 'Cut and Paste', in the Hic Dragones Wolf-Girls anthology.

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

On Body Hair, by LJ Maher

Female Werewolves, Fur and Body Hair, by Carys Crossen


  1. I loved reading this blog, Rosie articulated exactly how I felt as a teenager and a young woman. I honestly didn't understand why one sign of impending womanhood (boobs)were things to be elevated, supported, and paraded, whilst another sign (hairiness) was supposed to be hidden or, preferably, eliminated. I decided it was silly, as I pretty much decided that make up and fashion were silly. I'd probably be classified on the autistic spectrum now if I was at school, for that lack of social understanding.

  2. I never liked underarm hair on ANYBODY. Rather than women ceasing to shave their armpits, I wish men would also shave theirs, too.