Thursday, November 5, 2015

Beastliness and Body Hair

So just to preface, this topic might be uncomfortable for some people-it's sort of become a taboo subject that we don't really talk about even though it's part of all of our lives: body hair, specifically women and shaving.
Anne Romby

It's not something I thought about much at all after I started to shave my legs years ago. But I just recently read this post on Delightfully Tacky in which Elizabeth describes her experience deciding not to shave for 10 weeks. It had never really occurred to me, but it really is kind of unfair that men are considered handsome with all of their natural hair whereas it's considered ugly, disgusting, and unprofessional on women. When women do try to go against the standards that say a woman must make her body smooth and more conventionally attractive, she often feels shame when out in public, and struggles to find herself beautiful, but then often feels guilt that she feels that way.
Ron Perlman as Beast and as self

When I first started this blog, one topic I was very passionate about was the double standards of beauty and cultural expectations. Especially as seen through modern adaptations of fairy tales-male beasts are not only acceptable, but actually considered desirable. Whether they're a brooding vampire, a deformed genius living under the Paris Opera House, or a more animalistic creature actually covered with hair, women tend to have a soft spot for these misfits. It somehow seems more flattering to be singled out by someone supernatural. As Sue Bursztynski mentioned in the comments of my recent post on the Beast in Lion form, Ron Perlman has said he was never considered attractive to women until after he played the part of the Beast in the 80s TV show. My most viewed post of all time is my post on Beastly Females, but the majority of people who click on it aren't there to read about Animal Bride variants of tales-but because so many people are googling images of Gerard Butler in his Phantom makeup.
Here you go, world

Yet when it comes to portrayals of women, in fairy tales or just in general, ugly women-or really even average women-are much harder to come by. There are a few examples, such as Gail Carson Levine's "Fairest," the D'Aulnoy fairy tale "Green Snake," and the movie "Penelope." Even when women are animals in folklore, they tend to be beautiful, graceful animals such as cats or swans-sometimes even slimy frogs or seals, but hardly ever hairy beasts like wolves or bears, which males often find themselves as (I'm not familiar with any females in folklore that turn into hairy beasts, but I'm sure there must be some exceptions out there? EDIT: There are actually many examples of hairy animal disguises for females, check out this list of Animal Brides. Thanks, Sue!). But most of those examples are unknown or forgotten today, especially by males, although the message of loving females who look unconventional is important for both genders. But in general, whether it's a very traditional story or a more feminist action heroine, the one thing main female characters have in common is that they're conventionally beautiful. Sexy females sell products, are looked at longer on billboards or magazine pages, and are generally desired by viewers of both genders.

And one thing that's become ingrained in all of us is that part of that beauty formula means to have perfectly smooth, hairless skin-or to remove ourselves from what our natural form is. I'm a huge proponent of appreciating natural beauty, in yourself and others. Not that I think it's wrong to get tattoos or dye your hair, but when the message becomes "you have to change in order to be beautiful," that should be a big warning bell. For most of human history, women never shaved, yet in the last 100 years, as women were able to shed layers of clothing, the standards for beauty and etiquette all decreed that the "objectionable hair" should be removed (see A Quick History of Women and Shaving).
Katerina Plotnikova Photography

Back when Enchanted Conversations came out with a Beauty and the Beast issue, there was a story I really liked that has stuck with me. The link doesn't work any more so I can't credit the author or title (let me know in the comments if you can!), but it was a story about the daughter of Beauty and the Beast. Her parents were separating and the Beast had reverted to his beastly form because the spell was no longer valid. The daughter was worried that maybe the spell would have been passed on to  her.
"Daughter" by Kiki Smith
Smith's combining aspects of LRRH with the wolf causes an emotional reaction 

Then one day, she started noticing hair growing. Day after day, all over her body, getting longer and thicker. She was pulling a Parent Trap at the time to get her parents to get back together, to save her father and herself from the spell. The Parent Trapping worked and her parents renewed their love, and her father became human, but-she, the daughter, was still hairy! Dismayed, she finally let her mother in on her secret. And her mother assured her that that was the natural body hair of puberty.

I thought it was a sweet way to look back at adolescence, and that terror when your body starts changing and doing things you don't necessarily want it to. But really the story also helps to illustrate very pointedly: on a woman, any body hair is considered Beastly. In a way, we all have that spell on us and we're all (or mostly) trying very hard to fight it! We spend money on razors and shaving creams and lots of time removing that hair that keeps stubbornly coming back. And it's so arbitrary when you think about it-long hair on women's heads is coveted, arm hair is acceptable, and yet on legs and armpits, hair causes people to recoil and feel strong emotions of disgust.


I'm not saying we should all stop shaving, necessarily (I certainly haven't), but it's been something I've been more conscious of lately. And while it does make me sad that women are so judged for their beauty, it's not like guys are completely off the hook. I've read that male eating disorders are on the rise-they have Hollywood standards to compare to as well. And while women may be drawn to the obvious Beasts in fiction, we tend to be pretty judgmental when it comes to average guys who are maybe just a little bit overweight or nerdy or whatever isn't your "type". When someone is obviously different we tend to be hyper aware of our reactions and all of our politically correct sensors go off, but all of us tend to judge by appearance on some level (often women are the guiltiest of severely judging ourselves). Cultural beauty standards can seem like they're impossible to change, but over time we can readjust our thinking, and we can do our part by doing our best to appreciate the many forms of beauty we see around us.


  1. It's no longer true that body hair on menis considered conventionally attractive. Just compare the 1960s Bond movies to the Daniel Craig ones. It's also not true that shaving of body hair isa modern invention. In his "ars amatoria" (Art of love) from about 200 AD Roman poet Ovid notes that he would dvise the yong women to shave the hair on their legs and armpits, if he didn't know that pretty much every woman already did that.

    Body hair is just a social convention similar to make-up. And while many social conventions adhere to double-standards, men also have to adhere to certain rules in order tobe perceived as attractive, like the importance of being muscular. More attention should be called to the arbitrariness of the belief that body hair is unattractive, but in the end it is just a symptom of a bigger problem, which is the importance of appearance and the pressure to adhere to certain standards.

    1. I guess I don't pay as close of attention to the body hair on males in movies! And I had no idea any women shaved prior to 100 years ago (the article I linked didn't mention that!). But wouldn't it still be safe to assume that peasant women throughout the centuries would traditionally have not shaved, although maybe higher class women did?

      And Tony just pointed out to me, men have often been expected to shave their faces, something we women don't have to deal with! So I think you're right, a lot of it is just social convention. I like your point about it being more about conforming to specific standards, with either gender

  2. I don't feel I have to shave, because my body hair is blonde and hardly visible. I wouldn't judge someone whose hair was more visible for doing it. I don't shave my armpits. It's actually not that good for you. I do sometimes trim it in summer, because otherwise I sweat a lot more.

    Somewhere in that link you put on your last post is a story about a she-wolf bride whose human nails the wolfskin to a mill wheel. In fact, nearly all the animal bride stories were of the selkie variety - beautiful girl steps out of her animal skin, human male steals it(in some cases burns it). In that story, one of her children tells her where it is and she says thanks and goes after her wolfskin, never to be seen again - as in the selkie stories.

    But whether the subject of the fairy tale is male or female, the human underneath is gorgeous; the difference is that the females don't usually want to lose their animal identities(except the frogs!), while the men are under a spell that needs breaking.

    1. Good for you! I've heard that before about shaving your armpits being potentially bad for you, I haven't looked into it to know the details, but if that's true that's a big reason this subject should be a bigger deal! It's one thing to have arbitrary beauty standards, which will always happen to some extent, but another if we're harming ourselves to keep to them!

      Thanks for pointing out the list of tales that I just linked to...I should have looked at those before writing this post! You're right, there's the She-wolf tale, and multiple others with hair or fur-dog bride, horses, etc.! (You could even put Donkeyskin in here). I will go back into the post and edit that. I should look in to those more. But...I love your point about how the difference is that females generally don't want to lose their animal disguises! Maybe because, for a woman, it can actually be just as negative an experience to be considered very beautiful, and therefore objectified and potentially abused, than it is to be considered ugly!

  3. When you mentioned Animal Brides (akin to B&B) I remembered the myth of the Loathly Lady- a young beautiful woman cursed to be an old ugly crone until a man marries her and lets her chose to be what she wants to be. A well-known example would be The Wife of Bath's Tale.

    I wonder if that myth would count?

    1. Very interesting! I wasn't even familiar with this story. We learned about Canterbury Tales in a high school English class but I really don't remember much from it at all. It seems the Loathly Lady is not technically a part of folklore but this type of legend/myth/literature archetype is the type of thing that could easily cross over-a modern retelling of this could be fantastic!