This is an academic book on women and body hair, a subject which has, until now, been seen as too trivial, ridiculous or revolting to write about. Even feminist writers or researchers on the body have found remarkably little to say about body hair, usually not mentioning it at all. If women's body hair is noted, it is either simply to accept its removal as an inevitable aspect of female beautification, or to argue against hair removal as a return to a ‘natural’ and un-oppressed female body. The only texts to elaborate on body hair are guides on how to remove it, medical texts on ‘hirsutism’ or fetishistic pornography on ‘hairy’ women. This book asks how and why any particular issue can become defined as ‘self-evidently’ too silly or too mad to write about. Using a wide range of thinking from gender theory, queer theory, critical and literary theory, history, art history, anthropology and psychology, the contributors argue that, in fact, body hair plays a central role in constructing masculinity and femininity, as well as sexual and cultural identities. Arguing from the theoretical position that identity and the body are culturally and historically constructed, the chapters each analyse, through a specific focus, how body hair underpins ideas of the ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ in Western culture.
The current absence of a debate around the cultural meanings of bodyhair within the many existing feminist discussions around the post-capitalist and post-colonial female body would be surprising if it did not reflect how bodyhair, ‘superfluous’ and ‘unwanted’, is hardly visible. It cannot be shown; it can only be exposed. 2
Much feminist criticism has been based on the idea of exposing the silent patriarchal structures of oppression, which can be shown as operating according to certain rules. 3 Feminism has
likely that most of the women on that plane would have been in the habit of removing some or all of their bodyhair 3 by a variety of methods, however painful or tedious. Even some radical feminists find this convention hard to resist, 4 for the recurring images of shapely depilated legs that come at us from the visual media have so conditioned our minds’ eye that even if we hold contradictory convictions, 5 the majority of Western women only feel acceptable to themselves and to society if their bodies are largely hair-free.
Women and body hair in contemporary art and advertising
Bodyhair is constantly mentioned in magazines aimed at a female reading public (but increasingly also to a male readership), and is a relatively recent entry in art. Paradoxically, women’s magazines’ preoccupation with bodyhair only relies on a series of images in which female bodies are hairless, except for the genital area. 1 Advertising campaigns about bodyhair only consider it as refuse that needs to be removed from female bodies, and therefore just refer to it, but never show it. On the other hand, in recent years
The vast majority of women in Western culture, as well as in many other cultures, remove the hair on their bodies. 1 The hair on the top of women’s heads is valued and admired, spoken, written and sung of as one of the ultimate signs of femininity. It is portrayed in movies, paintings, photographs and on television, and there is a large and profitable industry devoted to styling, colouring, and extending or replacing head hair. Bodyhair, 2 on the other hand, is described as ‘unfeminine’, ‘excess hair’, ‘superfluous hair’ or ‘unwanted
Bringing the terms of the title into relationship with each other is no easy matter. Writing on female bodyhair in English literary tradition goes against the grain: everything below eyelash level has been subject to so much total or partial erasure that it would be easier to write on it behind, beneath, outside or even despite English literary tradition. The erasure is often redoubled in passages where, realistically speaking, depilation must have been involved: the removal of something whose existence has never been acknowledged cannot be mentioned
, especially the female body.
Notwithstanding three waves of feminism, John Bulwer’s 1654
declaration that ‘woman is by nature smooth and delicate; and if
she have many hairs she is a monster’ 3 still holds true almost four
centuries later. The glut of depilatory products on the market (never
mind the proliferation of Brazilian waxing salons) advertises that
female bodyhair – in any form – remains disturbing
reading animal fur as bodyhair, a reading referred to especially in Chapters 4 and 7 of this volume. This is because, both in the texts cited in those chapters and those described there, and in the political actions and discussions that I will also be addressing, bodyhair and fur are connected with, and substituted for, each another in a variety of ways. So what grounds are given for making these connections and substitutions? Firstly, fur and hair are seen as having an obvious relation to each other: they are claimed to look and/or feel similar, and yet, if
well as patriarchal heterosexual values.
Historically, women with excessive facial and bodyhair have been presented as monsters, anomalies and human prodigies. In Ambroise Paré’s 1579 teratology On Monsters and Marvels , for example, the birth of a ‘furry girl’ is attributed to the impact of visual stimulus on the mother’s imagination during conception:
Damascene, a serious author, attests to having seen a girl as furry as a bear, whom the mother had bred thus deformed and hideous, for having looked too intensely
A reading of Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair and its criticism
oppositions – by bringing it into play, I will suggest that it is not only in destabilising the permitted oppositions of patriarchy that one may question ‘naturalised’ or ‘ubiquitous’ cultural constructions. One can also return repressed oppositions to the centre of discourse, oppositions regarded as too irrelevant, comic or grotesque to be of any real value. One such opposition is that between head hair and bodyhair. Such a move does not only offer the opportunity of questioning ‘patriarchal prescription’, it also allows us to engage with some theoretical problems with