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Sometimes I shave my legs, sometimes I don’t. I’m more likely to keep my armpits hairy, and sometimes I shave the left one and not the right for my own amusement. That’s just what I do. Several months ago, after having not shaved for some time, I shaved my legs in horizontal stripes.

Now, I shaved my legs, and in a pretty pattern, which surely made me a fun feminist. However, I still had hair, which I guess made me a disgusting hairy-legged type. Now, please to solve my conundrum for me, readers. How would you describe my feminism on the basis of my (non)hair-removal practices?

Yes, I did actually shave my legs in a stripey pattern as a facile comment [1] on how incredibly silly I find the whole ‘it’s my choice which makes it feminist’/‘there are good feminist choices and bad feminist choices as dictated by we The Feminist Movement’ dichotomy. The former has problems I think are pretty self-evident (which is not to say they aren’t worth teasing out and making explicit! They’re just not what I’m discussing today). There are conversations to be had on appearance as means of resistance and capitulation, but as long as folks are attempting to slot us all into ideas of womanhood that don’t really fit – about race and class and disability and safety (especially for trans women) and what hairiness signifies across cultures, for a start – as long as we keep mixing up the systemic and the individual, and as long as we don’t acknowledge that universalising is a bad idea, I’m not at all sure the conversations are going to be productive ones.

A dominant position seems to be ‘yeah, I know it’s conforming to patriarchal beauty standards, but I’m compromising and shaving anyway.’ Okay. That’s a dominant voice. It’s poor form to be assigning that experience universally, or universally among women at any rate. One cannot presume to know what one is dealing with in advance when it comes to questions as to whether something is a feminist action. Basing ideas of social justice on a monolithic idea of woman is not social justice. This is a woman who grows the regulation amount of hair of a particular type that looks a particular way against her skin, meaning she’s never held up as evidence as to how all women of her background are disgusting or unhygienic or animalistic. A woman who has the money to buy the requisite equipment and has the time to use it. A woman who has the energy and hand control to shave, and doesn’t have to think about how she looks slovenly and like she’s failing at taking care of herself if she doesn’t. A woman who doesn’t have to worry about being harmed, and very possibly extremely badly, if she isn’t read as a woman. A woman for whom hairiness has the particular cultural connotations these conversations assume. She exists, to be sure, but she’s not all of us, and she shouldn’t be bandied about as though she is – or as though she ought to be. Sometimes hair removal is a simple choice, sometimes one of pure capitulation or pure resistance. Sometimes, patriarchy ain’t the only factor at play, certainly not the only oppression women experience. What I’m trying to say is that these conversations about whether to practice hair removal or not assume binary options, the right choice and the wrong choice, although this is based on a reality that isn’t the case for many women.

And what really gets to me is when these women are slotted in the ‘well, everyone has to make compromises somewhere, it doesn’t make you a bad feminist’ basket. Because these women? These women whose choices don’t fall neatly into the dominant narrative but between the cracks? Are not necessarily the ones making compromises. They are the ones being compromised by feminism. These are women being compromised and ignored and explained away in order to make doing feminism neat and pretty. Moreover, pointing to a particular position that can only be held by the most privileged people as the singular right position is all kinds of problematic. And if you can learn to frame this more widely, more of us could squeeze in at the table. Picture frame. Thing.

I think it tremendously unfair to decide for another woman how she ought to live her life. You just don’t know what manner of pressures are informing her decision – if it’s a decision at all, that is. Hairiness, or a lack of hair, doesn’t always represent a choice. Maybe her carer insisted. Maybe she doesn’t grow leg hair. You don’t know. And it’s tremendously patronising to behave as though a woman is incapable of thinking it through. When I shave my legs, you can be very sure I calculated whether it was worth the spoons. And just as shaving might not represent a choice at all, it might represent a combination of things; for instance, my hairiness leading up to the stripes was initially due to personal preference, which then merged with a lack of time and spoons, but mostly a reason I am not inclined to discuss in the feminist community. I went hairy for the last little while because I decided the spoon trade off in hunting around for sharp razor blades isn’t worth it. You cannot presume to know what’s going on for a particular person in advance. Which is why these discussions are, I think, better kept to the systemic than the individual in an environment of fast impressions.

Those systemic discussions ought to include everyone in the system.

[1] And, let me tell you, as much as I grinned about my stripes, I also felt a fair bit shitty about having purposely used my body for something externally political. I’d bought into the idea that it’s okay for this body to be a political battleground, and that is not a good feeling. Shortly thereafter, I shaved off all my leg hair simply in order to regain that ownership over my body.