Crossing Ninth Street at the corner of Christian, I locked eyes with one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen. She had dirty blonde hair, long legs and olive skin. She was waiting at a stop sign. The road was clear for her to cross, but she did not do that.
She looked at me and raised her eyebrows apprehensively, sizing me up in a way that women have perfected – not quite checking me out, but smugly daring me to make the next move. She smirked.
The breeze picked up. Instinctively, I reached up to keep my hat from flying off. She was still staring. Her eyes widened when she saw my underarms, and just like that, her façade vanished. It was all I could do not to stop and help her pick her jaw up from off the ground.
This summer, I made the decision to stop shaving my armpits. It had become clear to me through careful self-evaluation that I did not actually want to be spending money on expensive shave products, that I did not actually enjoy the angry red bumps that would appear and burn when I put on deodorant. Other people thought my underarms looked nicer, more pleasant without any hair. But I did not.
I was fed up. So I let my razor blades rust.
The girl in the Italian Market is not alone – turns out, I’m really, really into my armpit hair. I wear tank tops in T-shirt weather. I stand on the subway just for an excuse to hold onto the overhead railing. I raise my hand enthusiastically in class.
When strangers inevitably crinkle their noses at my pits, I grin. Their obvious discomfort at my outré appearance only serves to make me feel more empowered. I like that my body hair scandalizes people because it scandalizes exactly the right people. It’s a bulls— detector. When men catcall me, my armpit hair shuts them up before my middle finger even gets the chance.
I was not able to adopt this aggressively blase attitude without some pitfalls. I began to feel ostracized from the female community. I stayed quiet during lengthy sirventes on the difficulties of shaving and waxing. The sight of my unkempt underarms has more than once resulted in a chorus of “eww” – always from women, always from my friends.
This summer, as a few of us lounged on somebody’s rooftop, I put my hands behind my head.
“Did you just stop shaving, or what?” one of my friends asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
Her immediate response was indignant. “Why would you do that?”
Because it feels good, I wanted to say. Because I want to. I could not understand why that wasn’t reason enough.
In the past, people have raised eyebrows when they’ve learned that I openly consider myself to be a feminist. Young, foolish and unwittingly in complete contradiction to the movement, I was always quick to appease them.
“But not the bra-burning kind,” I’d say. “Not the kind who lets her armpit hair grow long. I don’t hate men.”
I’m unsure as to why these things were grouped together in my head. Why did I see lax body hair policies as direct male opposition?
It took me years to realize that body hair is not a war tactic, nor is it offensive. It exists just like every other part of my body, and what I choose to do with it doesn’t say much about me, save for my personal aesthetics.
In other words, people don’t see my short hair or unpainted fingernails as violent political statements. I don’t catch flak when I don’t wear makeup – although all of these choices are considered to be masculine, they’re not seen as flagrant rejections of sex appeal.
As my hair grew out, the man I was dating did not break up with me. He did not throw micro-aggressions at me to convince me to ditch my hairy pits.
Instead, he gifted me a book – portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, a modernist photographer who happened to be her lover.
I became obsessed with the photographs. Stieglitz’s shots of O’Keeffe are intimate. They are charged. And – despite her unmade-up face and liberated armpits – they are alluring. Together, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz created a kind of honesty that’s rare to come by in art and nearly impossible to encounter in person.
That’s what it comes down to: the genuineness I see embodied in Stieglitz’s photos and in my armpit hair is sexy. The theatrics of womanhood are sexy, too – stilettos, bare skin and winged eyeliner. Where a woman chooses to fall on this spectrum of reality and dream is exactly that – her choice.
I have no plans to start shaving again. I don’t think my choice is the correct one for all women – I don’t think there is any one choice for a group of people so diverse. But it is the correct one for me.
Grace Holleran can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @coupsdegrace. The Essayist is The Temple News’ recurring series of personal essays.