~ WAXING LYRICAL ABOUT FEMALE ON-SCREEN BODY HAIR ~
[A version of this essay was published on news and culture website, Shit You Should Care About.]
Cover image by the talented Kim Kyne.
When When disaster strikes in a Hollywood drama, what does a fierce, female-identifying protagonist require to survive? Water, shelter, transport…and a shaver?
On-screen heroines somehow always manage to find the time and resources to remove their body hair — while also trying not to die! The lack of body hair on women in film and television irks me for two reasons: feminism and realism.
Immersive storytelling is part of what makes films so appealing. It’s an accessible escape from everyday life. With the push of a button, we can insulate ourselves within the intimate confines of someone else’s skin and steep ourselves in different worlds. However, to feel immersed, a level of authenticity is required, both visually and via the narrative. We must ‘believe’ the story as it unfolds, no matter how fantastical its underpinnings.
Productions like The Handmaid’s Tale, V for Vendetta, Mad Max Fury Road, Outlander, The Walking Dead and The Blue Lagoon do a brilliant job of transforming their fictional worlds into something with a level of fidelity. However, none of these settings — post-apocalyptic landscapes, dystopian countries, deserted islands, antiquated Scotland — are conducive to body hair removal, even at the best of times.
Actors understand their obligation to authenticity, and many will undergo extensive transformations to capture the essence of their character. Losing or gaining vast amounts of weight is customary, as is practically ‘living in’ uncomfortable costumes and prosthetics for the duration of shooting. Inexplicably, the effortless process of growing out a small tuft of body hair is not a prerequisite in the pursuit of realism.
Similarly, with hair and makeup it seems all too often attention is only paid to hair situated above the neck.
A lapse in a story’s authenticity can catch you like an undertow. Poor production design, surface-level acting, dated visual effects, an ill-fitting music score — these are just a few instances capable of hoisting you, unceremoniously, out of the narrative and tethering you back to reality. For me, witnessing hairless female forms in situations where hair (or at the very least, stubble) would likely be present, has precisely the same result.
Why is female body hair considered so offensive that it must be removed while men’s hair drapes proudly from whence it grew? Shows like The Walking Dead bombard their viewers with graphic violence — complete with literal guts and gore — but then conclude we cannot stomach a small, wiry crop of female armpit hair. It’s understood a lot of these stories are fantasy, and art does not have to imitate life, but then why all the other attention to real-life detail? (And whose fantasy is it, anyway?)
Hair, in storytelling, has been synonymous with power ever since Delilah cut off Samson’s locks, robbing him of his herculean strength. So, is Western (and other) society’s hairless beauty standards an attempt to nullify a woman’s power? Hairlessness homogenises women. It also infantilises them. ‘Standardised’ and child-like women are, in theory, easier to control. Sigmund Freud claimed that a grown woman’s sexuality was, “veiled in an impenetrable obscurity.” Perhaps, felling the forest that extends across a woman’s landscape is an attempt to lift that veil? After all, knowledge is power.
I’m not saying every woman in Hollywood should suddenly grow out their leg hairs. And I’m not declaring that a feminist cannot, or should not, have a manicured lady-garden. But how about, at least, having body hair represented when it would probably (or definitely) be present?
Let’s start changing the narrative around body hair — for the sake of authenticity of both the story and womankind.