The night before what was indisputably going to be the biggest day of my professional career, I should have been up late prepping interview questions, packing extra batteries for my recorder, or even catching a few extra hours of sleep. Instead, I was staring at the thick, black hair on my legs in a panic.
As a freelancer who mostly works from home, I don't often have to worry about the long tendrils of hair that grow, vine-like and visibly, down my legs. But I was going to be reporting from a major league baseball stadium in 95 degree heat, walking onto the field and into the clubhouse. As a woman relatively new to the male-dominated field of baseball writing, my goal was to be as inconspicuous and professional-looking as possible, and I worried that my visible leg hair would have the opposite effect.
As I looked through my closet at my maxi dresses (too casual), jeans (also too casual), and tights (out of place in the heat), my stress turned to anger. As I crowdsourced ideas and solutions and posted photos of myself in various professional outfits on Facebook, I wondered how many men had lost hours of prep time for their job worrying about their body hair. I wondered how many men had to balance their desire to look professional with the autonomy to allow their body to do what it naturally does - grow hair. I was enraged that, hours before a career-defining interview, I was worried about leg hair.
I was enraged that, hours before a career-defining interview, I was worried about leg hair.
For many women and femmes, figuring out how to navigate body hair in professional settings is something they think about quite a bit. Because despite the fact that the act of having hair on our legs or under our arms is something we might do for a myriad of reasons - personally, shaving is uncomfortable and causes too much irritation - body hair on women is often seen as a radical political statement.
Harnaam Kaur, a body confidence/anti-bullying advocate, explains that her body hair - she has thick facial hair as a result of PCOS - often kept her from getting work. "Because of the image that I had a lot of employers judged me at face value and didn't take into account my abilities and experiences that I had to impact their workplace," she tells ELLE.com. "When I was able to find a job, I was horribly discriminated against and bullied." As a result, Kaur says she carved out her own career, using her challenges to help her create positive change for others.
Emily Lemiska's disability makes shaving her legs a painful and difficult task. Lemiska, 30, says that her job in non-profit advocacy means that she's often speaking at large conferences or meeting with state legislators, and she feels pressure to shave her leg hair before those events. "I hate the idea that my leg hair might distract someone from my message," she says. "I also spend a lot of time already feeling abnormal and different due to my physical challenges. I don't want another reason to stand out."
When the women's liberation movement took root in the 1970s, underarm hair, in particular, became associated with a certain kind feminism. The body hair often usurped everything else about a person and, even today, sporting body hair is often interpreted as "making a statement," as demonstrated by the many sensationalist and negative reactions when Julia Roberts appeared with underarm hair on the red carpet in 1999, or Mo'Nique walked the carpet with hair on her legs in 2010.
These preconceived notions of women with body hair as "unkempt," "messy," or "gross" carry over into professional settings. In the job market, where women already face discrimination when it comes to hiring and promotions, and where "attractiveness" can affect a woman's ability to get hired and earn money, conforming to traditional Western standards of beauty, whether it's wearing makeup and dresses, or removing body hair, may be a necessary evil. This necessity can feel compounded for women of color, who face even larger barriers when it comes to hiring practices. White, cisgender women like me have more freedom when it comes to eschewing norms around aesthetics and beauty; while I am marginalized as a woman in the male dominated field of sports writing, I still have privilege in relation to Black and brown women and femmes.
"I'm hyperaware of the fat antagonism, ableism, racism (colorism in particular), and sexism (among other things) that permeates [creative] industries, whether indie or Hollywood," says Denarii Grace, a 30-year-old writer, singer-songwriter, and poet. "Someone with just one of my marginalizations often has a hard go of it, so the prospect of trying to live in my purpose doing this while also having food to eat and being able to afford my own place is, quite frankly, daunting." Grace, who has visible hair on her chin as a result of PCOS, says she often wonders how much she will be expected to change in order to succeed.
Pooja Makhijani, 39, tells ELLE.com that seeing "an open embrace of not removing hair [on social media]," is conflicting for her due to the way she was socialized to think about body hair. "Growing up as a South Asian-American woman, my body hair was mocked. I have dark hair on my skin and as a young child, I spent countless hours with my South Asian girlfriends discussing body hair removal methods; it's how we spent sleepovers," she says. Makhijani says she wears long pants and long sleeves in professional work settings, even though she waxes her arms, because she still worries how she will be perceived if she has visible body hair. It becomes hard to concentrate on the task at hand if you're preoccupied with whether people are looking at your body and judging you.
For trans women, body hair can be a complicated topic. Katelyn Burns, 35, says that her body hair was a major source of feelings of gender dysphoria for her, but that her decision to shave her body hair goes even further. "For any trans woman, how we tailor our appearance is absolutely vital to our safety," says Burns, who worked in the banking industry until recently. "Whether we like it or not, 'passing' as cis women gives us safety," she says, in both a physical sense, but also potentially in the workplace. At least one in five transgender people surveyed by the Human Rights Campaign report experiencing employment discrimination.
"For any trans woman, how we tailor our appearance is absolutely vital to our safety. . .Whether we like it or not, 'passing' as cis women gives us safety."
Some women and femmes choose to remove their body hair, whether it's because they prefer their body that way, or because they see it as a necessary component of navigating a patriarchal world. Others choose to wear pants year round, or have a collection of tights or stockings for the purpose of hiding their body hair. But regardless of the choice we make, the physical and emotional labor that goes into making it can be exhausting - "cumbersome, time-consuming, expensive… and wholly unfair," is how Lemiska describes it. "I consider how much I will be expected to change, the way folks will talk about me," says Grace, the singer-songwriter and poet. "There are times when I feel like I don't even stand a chance. [Like,] why bother?"
Thanks to a 10:30 PM Target run, I was able to procure slacks that fit and my leg hair remained intact - but at what cost? I pulled off the interview and wrote a well-received profile, but I wonder if I would have asked better questions or been able to read up more on the subject if I hadn't spent literal hours figuring out whether to bust out the razor. How much better at my job would I be if I didn't have to add "figuring out what to do about my body hair" to the list of things required for me to do it? It's a question I'll likely never have an answer to, and just one more example of the small, unseen factors that hold women back in the workplace.
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