Suzannah Weiss’ first person account of leg shaving. (Photo: Suzannah Weiss)
My first exposure to the female coming-of-age ritual of leg shaving occurred during sleep-away camp at age eleven. In an almost ceremonial fashion, my cabin-mates would bring buckets, shaving cream, and razors out onto the deck for “shaving parties” on weekend afternoons. I and some other late bloomers sat quietly on the benches, observing a rite we were too embarrassed to ask our mothers about and too well-behaved to partake in without their permission.
That summer, I developed an obsession with leg-hair removal and the ladylike status I’d supposedly attain once I adopted the practice. My friend and I would sit on the beach piling sand on our legs and removing it with shells, prepping for the real thing. But every time I resolved to ask my mom about it, I would clam up, scared of being deemed too immature for mystically smooth legs.
Back then, it was a given that I would shave my legs one day; the question was only when. I took that for granted, as if hairless legs were a biological characteristic of the adult female that I would unveil by removing the unsightly hair clouding my true nature. The problem was, shaving my legs never felt natural. I don’t remember quite when I started, but I was around 13 and probably used razors I found in my bathroom without consulting my mom. There was a period of smoothness and a pleasant cold feeling when I first pulled my sheets over my legs, but there was a longer period afterward where my legs felt prickly to the touch. And there was also the occasional cut and razor burn, not to mention the extra time added to my already long showers.
I put up with the physical discomfort of shaving all the way until college because I couldn’t tolerate the potential social discomfort of having legs that stood out. But as I became more aware of the excessive standards our society imposes upon women’s appearances, I grew angry that something as benign as body hair had caused me so much concern. The ideal of smooth legs was about pleasing men, not pleasing myself (though some women have told me they shave to please themselves, and they should be able to make that choice without judgment as well). After all, men were never considered gross or unclean for having much more body hair than I did.
I stopped shaving once and for all around my junior year of college, and surprisingly, nobody has (at least openly) objected. One boyfriend even told me he liked my natural legs because they showed I thought for myself rather than blindly following conventions. When I mentioned I sometimes felt self-conscious about my legs, another boyfriend said it would be ridiculous for him to take issue with legs that were far less hairy than his.
I have, however, decided not to date men because they answered in the affirmative to the OKCupid question, “Do you think women have an obligation to keep their legs shaved?” One great barometer of how much a man respects women is whether he believes they have an obligation to look aesthetically pleasing to him. When I asked one guy to explain why he answered yes to that question, he responded, “It’s unappealing and uncomfortable if I’m sleeping with them.” I’m still scratching my head over that last reason. If it’s uncomfortable to brush up against someone with body hair, why doesn’t he shave?
Leg hair isn’t uncomfortable to touch (if anything, it’s only uncomfortable in the prickly between-shaves stage), or else we would hear more people complaining about men’s body hair; it doesn’t hold the potential to increase body odor like armpit hair; and, in my experience and that of all the women who lived before leg-shaving became a mainstream custom in the 20th century, it’s not inherently unattractive. Shaving one’s legs is a subjective decision that should be made by the bearer of the legs.
Needless to say, shaving wasn’t the mystical entrance into the cult of womanhood that I hoped for. Instead, not shaving made me feel more mature — because I rejected an illogical but powerful double standard in favor of what made more sense to me.