Lindsay finds a documentary on "Hairy Women" infuriating
How often is it that the most admirable woman represented in a documentary is a glamour model, especially when she is in the company of “average” women? On this programme, where I am to assume that the women they chose were meant to represent a cross-section of attitudes toward female body hair, the model was the only one who came across as having a realistic attitude toward the subject. As someone tuned into the diversity of experience within any societal group, I could easily criticise Hairy Women for not even touching on the differing views of women of colour, working class women, lesbians, etc. while claiming to present the universal views of ‘women’, but it is usually not worth judging television by these standards. Nor need I point out that, besides the model who shaved as a requirement of her job, these women’s choices of hair removal, salon waxing and laser treatment, require loads of money and time from the consumer that would make them inaccessible to many. Fortunately, there are a number of other reasons to be infuriated by this programme, especially when you are someone who isn’t hair-free by choice.
I was actually surprised at how far the experiences of these women were from my own, not only because I am hairy but because I am friends with other women who have made the same choice and support each other. On the programme, Peta normally waxes every two weeks and suffers ingrown hairs as a result but agreed to grow out all her body hair for eight weeks. While the netball team made up of her “friends” were more than willing to be candid about their own nipple hair anxiety in front of the camera, they were also hell bent on publicly voicing their disgust at Peta’s half-inch leg hair. Another woman featured was filmed anonymously because she hadn’t even told her friends and family about her excess chin hair. After cringing at Peta’s public shaming you couldn’t really blame her for fearing other people’s reactions. But Peta was no victim and managed to perpetuate some myths of her own, especially the one that you sweat more and have worse body odour when you don’t shave your underarms. In fact, skin-to-skin contact causes more sweating and a layer of hair actually prevents that from happening by allowing air to get there more easily. It was just a way to portray hairy women as dirty, smelly and generally unattractive, descriptions Peta goes to great lengths to distance herself from.
Another character was the PR exec who spends an hour every morning plucking stray hairs, bleaching her arms and generally freaking out about every hair on her body. At the salon, she chose the Hollywood bikini wax, every single pubic hair removed. Her friend tries to reason with her that “we all have a little bum fluff” to which she responds, “well I don’t want that” without a shred of irony. Eventually she opts for laser hair removal, priced about £250 a pop. Can you imagine the day when a beautician at a hair removal clinic tells a potential customer, “there isn’t even any hair there”?
It’s not only women presented as simple, one-dimensional stereotypes completely consumed with the white beauty ideal; this documentary unfairly represented men as having completely homogeneous views towards women’s body hair. I guess nobody here had ever heard of punk rock, hippies or even fetishes. The men interviewed don’t speak about themselves as individuals but willingly speak for everyone with a Y chromosome, something that is in no way discouraged by the filmmakers. The only man who has accepted his partner’s hair is the fiance of the anonymous woman and this appears to be nothing more than support for someone with a serious anxiety. All we hear about PR exec’s husband is that he likes the Hollywood because well, it’s good for oral sex. I imagine that some of that acceptance and enjoyment might stem from the prepubescent look of a bald vagina. Peta’s boyfriend, who happens to leave her halfway through her experiment, is presented as just a normal bloke. At one point after they have broken up, Peta looks at her underarm hair and proclaims, “I don’t feel liberated”. This comes only a few weeks after she expresses worries about the experiment because her boyfriend prefers her “slim, toned and hairless”. This is never challenged by pointing out that liberation in fact comes from the mind first, with body hair possibly following after.
With the numerous levels on which you can hate this programme, one stands out above all the rest for me. The limited range of women chosen to represent attitudes to body hair ends up completely serving the prevailing attitude that says women are not ladylike unless it is eliminated. Although I’m no psychologist, I would unquestioningly classify Mrs. PR’s behaviour as an indication of obsessive-compulsive disorder. When worries of one hair on your leg completely dictate your day and your concentration, it is nearly impossible to lead anything resembling a healthy or fulfilling life. It seems like the filmmakers might be trying to point out just how needless these obsessions with body hair are by occasionally telling the participants that it is natural or by purposely finding women who dwell so much on this particular aspect of their appearance. Unfortunately, in the limited context, what would be considered extreme anxiety looks normal and if anything, just the slightest bit excessive. It’s like trying to make a statement about abnormal body image by using an anorexic, a bulimic and someone who is naturally extremely thin and being surprised when it ends up stating absolutely nothing new or worthwhile. This is especially true in Hairy Women when every single participant ends her journey happy to be hairless, making it a real stretch to find a deeper subtext questioning society’s or even these particular women’s values.