This sweet family photo started a spirited debate. (Photo: Peter Fleming/Corbis Images)
Full disclosure: In college I went through a no-shave phase. It was part of my well-honed Deadhead look, and I’ll admit it felt great to let my legs and pits get furry, with nary a stubbly care in the world. Society, alas, soon won out, but I’ll always have a soft spot for hairy girls — which is why I’ve been all kinds of sad about the general take on this beautiful photo (above) of baby Leonardo DiCaprio’s mom.
Posted March 1 on the Facebook page History in Pictures, the 1976 snapshot shows an exuberant mom and dad holding up an adorable, diapered Leo. It’s since been shared more than 13,000 times and has more than 7,400 comments, with many opting to weigh in on one tiny detail: the exposed armpit bush of his mom, Irmelin. Many seemed straight up stunned to see it, while others didn’t hide their disgust, calling it “nasty and lazy,” “disgusting,” “gross,” and “unladylike.”
Luckily, though, a spirited debate ensued, with plenty of open-minded folks taking over the thread to rally in mom’s defense. “Who gives a s*** about her armpit hair, it was the ’70s, peace love and happiness! Very sweet family,” noted one supporter, with another noting, “It’s so funny I am part of a generation that wants to ‘free the nipple,’ but freaks out when women have hair in their armpits.” Another wrote, “When I saw this, I thought, ‘Wow, that little toddler just got an Oscar. His parents must be extremely proud!’ Not ‘OMG, his mom didn’t shave her pits during a time where women didn’t shave their pits.’” Some supporters have even posted their own hairy-armpit photos in solidarity.
Though the practice of cultivating hairy pits is tied (not inaccurately) to hippies in the minds of many, it’s a look that’s been embraced by a range of women — even, in recent years, such rebel celebs as Drew Barrymore, Amanda Palmer, Beth Ditto, Penélope Cruz, Miley Cyrus (who once famously dyed her armpit strands), and Madonna, who posted a proud pits-out pic on Instagram in 2014 with the caption “Long hair… don’t care!!!”
Regarding Irmelin, it’s interesting to note that she and Leo’s dad, George, were “bohemian in every sense of the word,” the actor once noted. As a boy, he spent a lot of time traveling around the country to comic-book stores with his dad, an underground comic-book distributor, and his parents let him drop out of high school to pursue his dream of becoming an actor (good move).
Regarding all the hubbub this time around, Emer O'Toole, author of the book Girls Will Be Girls and self-dubbed “hairy feminist,” told the BBC, “We’ve been socially conditioned since birth to believe that women should not have visible body hair and that female body hair, as opposed to male body hair, is unhygienic and disgusting.” While armpits were covered in public before WWI, she notes, advertising campaigns directed at women, including Gillette’s in 1915, were able to convince women that body hair was “unsightly.” And 50 years later, she said, “they had been startlingly successful. To be feminine meant to be hairless, and female body hair was a site of derision and shame.“
Not so, thankfully, for Irmelin back in the day, as well as for all her vocal online supporters today — theoretically speaking, at least.