I grew up with an understanding that the hair that grows naturally on my body is unattractive. The hair that naturally grows under my arms and on my legs makes me less of a female, less feminine and less appealing to the opposite sex. I learnt from a very young age to feel embarrassed about my body hair.
When I was 13 a boy put his hands down my pants when we were kissing. I crossed my legs, confused and rightly naïve. A week later I was the laughing stock of an all-boys school because that hand had touched my pubic hair and I “hadn’t shaved”. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and made a firm note in my mind that in order to be found attractive I would need to get rid of all of my newly found body hair. From then on I shaved, over and over again, leaving my skin bumpy, covered in ingrown hairs, irritated and painful, but to me this was without question better than having that hair “down there” and being perceived as unattractive.
I believe that growing up with these cultural stories about what it means to be an attractive, happy, female is what led my teenage years being centred around an understanding that feelings of self worth and love were something only to be felt when male attention and love was present. Unless a man thought I was sexy or beautiful, I had no reason to believe those things about myself. This not only meant that I sexualised myself from the age of 13 but that I quickly learnt to compete using that sexuality with other girls around me.
I had long forgotten this seemingly menial occurrence that happened when I was 13. But 3 years ago, finding myself struggling with feelings of jealousy and insecurity surrounding other women and also struggling with low confidence in a loving relationship, I began to actively delve into what self-love really means to me; Why do I struggled with it? How has it held me back?
Having hair on my body for example; Why do I have such a strong belief that my body hair is “gross”? Why do my friends and I apologise if our legs aren’t shaved? Why don’t I feel sexy with hair on my body?
In societies eyes, to be a successful female means conforming to attitudes and beliefs that have been embedded so deeply in our cultures they seem completely natural and normal to us. When surely to be a successful and happy female is simply that? It isn’t to be shaved, to be made up, to have a certain body shape or to look a certain way. It is just to be happy regardless of anything.
It seems obvious to me now why myself and a vast majority of my girl friends struggle with appearance, confidence and true self-love. We learn as soon as we enter this world that natural elements of our being should make us feel unattractive because they are not appealing to society. I grew up understanding that there is a certain way that a female shouldbe, and if I didn’t fit that way of being then I wasn’t worthy of self confidence.
Firstly, I think we, as a society, need to restructure our understanding of the word ‘feminine’. Feminine is a word that is used to describe a set of attributes, behaviours, and roles generally associated with girls and women, dictated by the society that they find themselves in. It has nothing to do with being a female and in fact has everything to do with female stereotyping. A feminine way of being should be one of simply owning and loving our individual sense of selves as females on this planet, whatever that may be!
The scariest thing is, that as soon as I began to confront and unravel these insecurities I held, I found my inner feminist fighting a disturbingly large part of myself that truly believes I am not worthy if I don’t look a certain way. If my hair isn’t neat, if my skin isn’t clear, if my teeth aren’t white, if my skin isn’t tanned, if I have leg and underarm hair, if I don’t have a certain bone-structure or a petite body.
There is a broad understanding of what it means to be beautiful as a female, and so many of us strive to fit that understanding, rather than remembering that it is simply that, an understanding, and not a fact. Beauty is not something that can be defined, and our society has chosen to define it, leaving so many wishing to be something other than what they are.
Our variety as females is not celebrated by a general society, but more importantly, our variety isn’t celebrated by us, by females! How will men and women ever find a place of individualised equality if we as females cannot even begin to appreciate ourselves and each other for all that we truly are?!
It’s important to me to move into this New Year with a focus on expressing myself and my ideas openly. Regaining the self belief and self-love I abandoned when I was 13 is a big part of this. As an active commitment, I’m growing my body hair over the next three months, a personal experiment to see if I can genuinely learn to love and appreciate a part of me that I have never believed is attractive. In 2016 my main aim is to focus on saying adios to anyone else’s ideas of what makes me a beautiful, able, successful, human being and start saying hello to my own understanding of why I’m beautiful, able, and successful in every way I need to be.
All Illustrations by Frances Canon