Madonna has never been shy of attention, and last Friday, she screamed out for more when she posted a photograph of herself with one arm raised above her head to show - shock, horror! - a hairy armpit.
The caption to the picture read: "Long Hair, Don't Care!!!", although if you look up close, it looks suspiciously like the hair has been artfully glued or photoshopped on. In any case, as one of her Instagram followers pointed out, for a woman who probably has $500 full body waxes, showing off an unshaven pit seems a bit rich.
Still, we can thank Madonna for drawing attention to one of the final frontiers in the struggle for equality between the sexes: body hair. The feminist struggle has secured many hard-won freedoms for women, but still, in 2014 – as the Madonna debacle shows - it is unacceptable for a woman to show her body hair in public.
In Israel, where many of us are blessed with the hairy gene, and where women's bodies are on show in the year-round sun, there is a beauty salon on every corner offering all forms of hair removal. Israeli women spend a lot of time and hard-earned cash on the uncomfortable procedures of lazering and waxing off body hair.
Maybe it's an unconscious fear of blurring the boundaries between the genders, or maybe it’s the general exhibitionism of a secular metropolis such as Tel Aviv. Whatever it is, the average Israeli woman is under enormous societal pressure to de-hair. Israel was, after all, the birthplace of the epilator.
People in the West point to the Muslim world with an accusing finger: "Look, they force their women to wear the veil," as if women in Western, liberal democracies aren't coerced into anything. But the beauty standards we live by are also coercive. As women grow up they are told, as another one of Madonna's Instagram followers succinctly put it: "Eww, its disgusting" for women to be hairy.
Women with body hair lose some of that valuable currency - their femininity, and their sexual appeal. We don't see images of hairy women in mainstream culture unless we are reading a bizarro story about a hairy woman, a pop idol like Madonna or Lady Gaga uses it as a stunt, or a hipster shop like American Apparel does something subversive with fake pubic hair on its mannequins.
If women removed their body hair out of free choice and purely as a matter of grooming, just like a metrosexual man might wax his back, it would be different. But a man is a man whether or not he has a hairy back. A woman, on the other hand, is less of a woman if she is hairy.
Madonna’s picture gave rise to a whole host of hairy-armpit follow-up articles, such as the U.K. Mirror’s “Madonna’s not the only one to flaunt hairy armpits – here’s more famous faces who forgot to shave.” The implication, of course, being that no woman worth her feminine salt would intentionally forgo shaving her pits.
The fact that mainstream media outlets actually bothered to report on Madonna's picture at all just goes to show how unusual the site of a hairy woman is. Do you remember Julia Roberts being snapped with a hairy armpit at the Notting Hill movie premier in 1999? The response 15 years ago was pretty much the same as it is now, and Roberts even went so far as to apologize afterwards.
Every once in a while, some brave journalist will treat readers to dispatches from the front of not removing their body hair, as if they are reporting from a war zone You have to be brave to undertake this experiment on our behalf, because leaving yourself hairy is highly subversive, putting you at odds with the world.
These are beauty norms that come from patriarchy, but we also do it to ourselves. Please forgive me for the reference, but in the first Sex and The City movie there is one scene where Miranda, a working mother with little time on her hands, turns up poolside on vacation with her three pals with an unwaxed bikini-line. Samantha, our favorite glamour-puss, berates her for it.
It is women who take themselves off to the salon for a wax, who wax off their moustaches, and refuse to wear shorts when they have hairy legs. But really, what would happen if we didn't? What would happen if Hollywood stars showed up to the Oscars next year with unshaved armpits and hairy legs? Maybe it’s time for more women to try the brave, unshaven experiment, and turn this beauty norm on its head. Then we can go back to removing our body hair because we really want to, not because having hair makes us less of a woman.
Alona Ferber is a reporter and editor for Haaretz.com. Follow her on Twitter: @paperdispatch.
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