By Sourodipto Sanyal for Cake:
November is the month where people show solidarity with the ones who are suffering from cancer by foregoing shaving and grooming. The money that they save in the process is donated to spread awareness about the disease in what is popularly called as No Shave November. Even though this practice is gender neutral and the official website doesn’t say women cannot participate, the draconian grasp of patriarchy ensures that it largely remains a comfortable activity for only men. Men proudly displaying their unshaved faces with the hopes of getting more likes on Facebook has become a common sight during the month of November. Yet, due to the stigma of women having facial hair on any part of their body, society puts obstacles in the path of them trying to show their concern for cancer patients. November is the month when expectations of an intolerant patriarchal mindset are out for everyone to see. Yet, it just isn’t the month of November. Even for the rest of the year many women are burdened with a thought which ideally should be trivial and a thing of the past.
Having done my entire schooling in Delhi, the space where I grew up in wasn’t the friendliest towards girls who had body hair. Almost every boy that I knew didn’t find it a pleasing site. While boys would crack jokes amongst themselves, most girls would get their hair waxed on a very regular basis.
“There is an industry which sells the notion that women without hair on their body are more desirable than the ones with it,” says Rajkanya, a 22-year-old young professional, and a graduate of Lady Shri Ram College. She started getting rid of her body hair ever since she was 17, and usually does it once every two months. She identifies as a feminist, yet, she concedes that she, like many others, does end up judging women for having body hair. “I’m in the process of removing such thoughts from my subconscious mind as well,” she added.
Many women have internalised the notion that body hair is something they should do away with. What about men? What do they think about it?
Om Prakash, a 40-year-old man who works in Noida had interesting things to say. He says, “Fir aadmi jaisa ho jayega. Automatic accha nahin lagta.” (It’ll become similar to that of a man then. It doesn’t look nice automatically). After being reminded that eliminating body hair could be a painful exercise for women, he says, “Baal sundar lagne ke liye hatate hai. Jaise aadmi khud hi shave karta hai.” (Hair is removed for looking beautiful. Similar to a man shaving).
But is it the same thing? Bearded men are celebrated in society while the same thing cannot be said for women who have body hair. As I continue my conversation with Om Prakash, he says that women from low-income groups also tend to avoid waxing, as many see it as a financial burden. If women are less likely to afford hair-removal services, does it mean that men from similar backgrounds as them will have more tolerance for body hair? Not necessarily.
A 35-year-old auto driver who works in Gurgaon isn’t very open to women having hair on any part of their body. He says, “Unko shobha nahin deta. Bilkul bekar lagta hai. Jiske liye jo cheez upar wale ne banai hai.” (It doesn’t suit them. It looks horrible. God has made different things for different people.) Thus contradicting himself, since body hair is, after all, natural. He started laughing after I asked him a question on what he felt about women having facial hair. His laughter on the topic speaks for itself.
Class, the way it infiltrates into everything, perhaps has a role to play in how men view body hair. And perhaps not. Srijnan Sanyal, a 54-year-old corporate executive, says “My perception may be urban and possibly sexist. I don’t like body hair. I don’t associate femininity with it.” He believes that it is something very natural to consider women with less body hair as more attractive.
“If a woman wants to take the pain for making herself presentable, then what can one do to stop it?” Yet, he concedes that they possibly do so under pressure from society. While referring to both men and women he says, “We don’t exactly live the way nature has created us. We cut our hair and shave our beards.” He is aware of the fact that sexist constructs have resulted in women choosing to shave their body hair, yet it has become such an accepted part of many women’s existence that they themselves regularly do it.
“Body hair on women doesn’t gross me out,” says a 23-year-old Indian student who is currently pursuing a master’s in the USA. One of his ex-girlfriends was Korean-American while the other was Indian. Both had asked him whether they should shave. He had told them that it was completely up to them as it was their body.
For Edwin Thomas, a 21-year-old who identifies as gay, and who was born and brought up in Dubai, time had changed what he thought of body hair on women. He says, “I did not like body hair on men or women when I was around the age of 13-16.” Yet, he says that being exposed to a lot of feminist literature towards the end of high school changed his perception of beauty. He started admiring both men and women with different body types, a darker skin tone and even hair on their body.
In a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto, a celebrated South Asian author who wrote during the 1940s and ’50s, a young boy fantasizes about the armpit hair of a woman. Does it mean that there was far more tolerance for body hair on women back in the day? One wonders what Manto would have thought of a society where having something as natural as hair on the body of women has become an uphill task.