When I was an undergraduate I did the Vagina Monologues with a bunch of women in Bedlam. It was an exciting experience for all of us, and a genuinely affecting one for me. Despite the age and ‘that old chestnut’ nature of the piece even back in 2007 (it was already over a decade old by then), I think I can safely say that it was a transgressive experience for everyone. I think we rehearsed twice. The first was on the floor of the Bedlam office and primarily consisted of giggling. It took us a while just to get over the word ‘vagina’. I can pretty much date my usage of the word from that day. My monologue was the one that starts ‘My vagina is a flower, an eccentric tulip’. Good times. One of the other women, Alex, started, if I recall, with the word ‘Hair’. Maybe it was repeated. In my mind it was just once.
I swear, Alex Hall saying the word ‘hair’ in this deep, round, American accent (did she do it in an American accent?) has gone round and round in my head over the last few years, as the issues of hair have gone round and round my head too. Round and round my head, my ocsters and my crotch.
It’s over a year since I started Facebook Thursdays. I feel I should have marked that auspicious day somehow. I keep meaning to celebrate the anniversary of my vegetarianism as well. That’s in February. Or I could mark my 100th invoice as a freelancer which will be coming up before the end of the year? But, nope. I want to talk about a year of … hair.
About a year ago – I don’t have an actual date – I started stopping shaving. That’s right. I started stopping. I say that because it didn’t feel like I became more passive, that I stopped doing something. It felt like action. It felt like I was doing. Maybe I should say I started growing my ocster and leg* hair a year ago. But that sounds like I was aiming for long hair in those areas, whereas actually I was just experimenting with what would happen if I left it. I actively became passive, and actively-passively watched the experiment unfold. I was interested in four things:
1) How long would it grow and what would it look like? I had, due to peer enforced rules among my school friendship group, been shaving my underarm hair since before I had any underarm hair. I genuinely once forgot to shave for a week or so and showed my ocster, shame-faced, to a chum who counted 7 hairs. I didn’t know what my adult body looked like. That felt weird. Or, rather, it felt weird that that wasn’t weird. Every guy tries a beard just to see at least once. I wanted a shot at my own beard.
2) How would I feel about it? Would I forget that I had done it because I was so coooool, or would I end up like that old deodorant advert with my elbows pinned to my sides in shame? I was a feminist. I am a feminist. And yet, I was making daily adjustments to my body to put it in-line with a standard of beauty I felt was harmful. Could I put my money where my mouth was, and my hair where my ocster was?
3) How would other people feel about it? Would people notice? Would they comment? Would I constantly catch people catching glances? Would the sight of my wisps instantly empower the young girls that I teach to throw off the shackles of patriarchy and dance into a new dawn?
4) How long would I be able to keep it that way? Would I get to a point where I bottled out? Would I find it made no difference to me at all and I didn’t even care?
And so I set off. It was slow-going, but I was super-conscious of it. Pretty much all the time. Now might be a good time to tell you that I have pretty much no hair. At all. My hair is all fine, and fair, and even now, after 12 months of active-passive not-not-not cutting of the hair, you probably can’t see it more than about 5 metres away. Friends who were forced to look at the hair (for the first 3 months or so, I showed everyone, all the time) would scoff and dismiss it. ‘Don’t worry, you can’t even see it.’ I wasn’t sure what I wanted them to say, but it wasn’t that. Their words partly came from a place of annoyance. My nervously-prideful display of my octsers was very similar in tone to when I parade a pluke about the room. I rarely get spots (I’m asthmatic, lactose intolerant, eczema-riddled, with a compromised immune system, so don’t go hating, haters) and for people for whom acne is a bane and a pain, my I HAVE A SPOT speeches were tasteless at best. When I showed them the hair that I was deliberately growing, they maybe wanted to reassure me that I was having it both ways – a) moral rectitude of being a hairy feminist, b) social desirability of having hairless pits. Or maybe they just thought, SHUT IT, POKEMON, YOU’RE EXPERIMENT IS BULLSHIT BECAUSE AFTER TWELVE WEEKS YOU STILL HAVE LESS OF A SOCIALLY-CONSTRUCTED-GENDER BENDING THING GOING ON THAN I HAVE AFTER 48 HOURS OF NOT SHAVING MY DISPROPORTIONATELY THICK, DISPROPORTIONATELY BLACK OCSTER HAIR. BUT BECAUSE WE’RE FRIENDS AND YOU’RE SO PROUD OF YOURSELF FOR THIS TINY THING I WILL REINFORCE WHATEVER SHIT YOU NEED ME TO SAY. Jokes on you, friends! You said the wrong thing to placate my fragile ego-maniacal political personality. Ha!**
My view was, though it was not very visible, the fact that was most shocking to people was the clear point that I had not shaved. Deliberately. Stubble could be sloppiness, half inch hairs is a statement. I just wondered what statement people were reading. What statement I was even making. Man, I’m glad I’m not filing 1000 words on this for a magazine, they would ask me to take a position. This is basically just me thinking with a keyboard. Anyway, I thought about those potential statements A LOT. There came, in my head, to be a few significant hurdles to, well, hurdle, where statement-reality was the trickiest balance. I wish I’d written them down in order, as they happened, but here’s a rough structure:
- Deliberately showing pals – although we’re all feminists, what would they think? Also, some folk’s feminism really doesn’t stretch to that sort of weirdness.
- Going to the gym – I wore a loose t-shirt over my strappy top. People might have caught a glimpse, but it wasn’t likely.
- Wearing a strappy top and wearing my feminist necklace – this was a big problem for me, as I started to wonder if, by being a hairy feminist, I was being actively damaging to the cause by seemingly conforming to a stereotype.
- Accidentally showing pals – wearing a halterneck at a party or a wedding, would it look like I hadn’t made an effort?
- Wearing a strappy top at BSL – evening class with people I don’t really know. Ocster hair will become a definining characteristic of Ishbel (BSL name, ‘tiny fringe’ – that’s right, HAIR) (BSL name is now just ‘fringe’, tiny fringe grew out).
- Getting a bra fitted – man, this is bad enough as it is. Topless, two women (one of them a trainee who had to have a go on how to put breasts into a bra – holy schamoly), hairy ocsters, having to buy new bras because I had put on weight. I was also at least 7 inches taller than both the petite women fitting me and we were all in a dressing room made for one. And I had my Cadfael fringe. I WAS SO BRAVE.
- Casting – I struggle with the fact that I do not have model looks as an actor. I am able-bodied, with no deformities, I have a healthy BMI of 22 (slap-bang in the middle of the healthy range) but, for no narrative reason, people who get cast instead of me are thinner and prettier. Always. Why was I disabling myself even more?
- Physio – male physio, lots of raising my arms above my head and lowering them veeeeery slowly.
- Getting a massage – would the massage therapist think, ‘eech, if she doesn’t shave, what else does she not do?’
- Teaching teenaged girls – I wanted to empower them, but I fear their gossip. I shouldn’t, but I do.
- Going on holiday with partner’s family, in Corfu – ended up not hurdling this one because I get plagued by mosquitoes and the more hair you have, the more you hold your sweaty smell (despite my lack of hair, I can confirm this), the more you smell, the more they bite you.
Having not hurdled number 11, I had a ceremonial shave in Corfu on day one. It was weird. This was about 9 or 10 months into my experiment. I was much more confident in the hair by this stage. But having hairless underarms meant I was conscious of being able to share my ocsters without thought. Or, in this case, with thought. But I knew them to be unremarable because they were unhairy. But my underarms had started to feel private, in the same way as genitals are private. It felt like if shaving your crotch made it okay to have your crotch out at a picnic lunch with your future in-laws. The scandal of the hair had become linked with the body part so much, that it felt strange that the body part held no shock on its own.
I have no idea if shaving my crotch would change the way I interact with that body part. Probably. It just does its own thing. I trim for comfort, and I remove a few wisps with my craft scissors (so crafty), but I know that some women would find my lower body hair levels fully disgusting. I suppose that fact was part of what drove me on with the octser experiment. I know that some people would find my pubic hair unacceptable and horrific in its non-topiaried nature, but it really doesn’t bother me. I knew that I could approach that with the pits. But it took time. A few female friends have talked about trying a month without shaving, and I know the sitution is hugely different for women who grow more hair in a month than I’ll ever grow, but I would urge you to try longer. It has been such a shifting landscape of emotion and self-discovery, this slightly hairier year. It’s a fun experiment. You should try it. Experiment with it in your own way. And the fun thing about an experiment is that there is no commitment. You can end where you like. Though ending it does become harder and harder. I’m heading towards one of my bigger hurdles. I have no idea what I’ll do yet:
- Wedding dress.
* I don’t really talk about leg hair in this. I don’t really have much leg hair. It’s even more invisible and not worthy of comment, here or anywhere.
**Ishbel would like to apologise. For, you know, all that stuff.