Could you give up waxing, tweezing and shaving?
Television presenter Cherry Healey thought she was brave enough to do almost anything on camera – until she met the challenge of hirsute pursuits.
In the name of immersive documentary-making, I’ve drunk myself into oblivion and given birth on camera. So when my producer challenged me to stop shaving my legs and armpits (and everywhere else) for four weeks before filming an episode for my new series,’ Can Your Looks Change Your Life’?, I didn’t think it would be a problem. I was brought up to believe that it’s bad to be vain. I endorse all the clichés: that beauty is only skin-deep; that your value doesn’t lie in how you look. And for the show I’d be interviewing a woman with tattoos all over her body and a sunbed obsessive. How bad could a bit of stray body hair be?
Much to my surprise “letting it all grow out” was much more of a struggle than any of my previous challenges. I’m never going to regret giving birth, or demonstrating the ill-effects of booze on camera, but as soon as I left the house sporting a vest top and a couple of days’s growth under my armpits, I was confronted with my own deep-rooted view on female body hair: that it’s repulsive.
I suppose, looking back on it, I’ve been of the opinion that it’s “bad” to be hairy since before I got my first period. I followed the example of older girls at school and women in my family and started waxing my legs before I’d ever started growing hair on them. And when I was 15 a boyfriend told me, “You’d better sort out the hair on your arms,” so I started waxing them too. Instead of feeling angry, I felt embarrassed about what I’d put him through. Now, as a relatively sane 31-year-old, I know this is ridiculous and that it’s only natural for women to grow body hair. But I still felt self-conscious – and monstrous – last month as I made my way up the street with underarm hair.
I’d never considered that hair removal is part of my identity – just like a tattoo or a piercing – and if I stopped doing it I’d challenge my definition of who – and what – I am. I began to calculate just how much time I spend in the bathroom each day removing unwanted hairs from intimate and not so intimate parts of my body. It’s often more than half an hour. I shave my armpits every day, and my legs at least twice a week – I like them to be smooth like the women on the Gillette adverts – and then, and I hate owning up to this, on Sunday nights I get rid of my moustache and my monobrow and I wax my toes. Only once I’ve done all this, do I feel I’m in an acceptable, feminine, condition to leave the house.
What I don’t admit to myself is that all these hairs are all still lurking beneath the skin. I’m a woman, and like all women, I grow hair in my armpits. But, like most people in this country, male and female, I’m also of the opinion that it’s unclean and unsavoury for women to grow hair in certain parts of their bodies.
The thought of even a day without shaving made me worry that Roly, my husband, would find my stubbly arms and legs a turn-off. I’m sure it’s the same fear of rejection that leads people to inflict brutal treatments on themselves such as laser hair-removal, facelifts and tummy tucks. But when it came to it, Roly was very supportive (probably because he knew it was for the sake of the show; had I proclaimed that this was something I was planning to do for ever, he might have turned green) and so razors, hair removal creams, tweezers and epilators were banned for four weeks.
My favourite part of the challenge was reclaiming that time in the morning. It felt strangely liberating to nip in and out of the shower in five minutes. And I can vouch for the fact there is nothing unhygienic about body hair. It’s there to keep you warm and wick away sweat; I can honestly say that being hairier did not make me smell or perspire.
But this didn’t make up for the fact that every day I was terrified to be seen in public. I hated the thought that people might assume I was unkempt, or unclean, or trying to make some kind of aggressive feminist statement. I tell you, you have to take on a punchy persona to carry off a pair of hairy armpits on public transport in Britain. It’s so much easier to conform.
Conversely however, this fear propelled me to continue with the challenge for longer than the four-week time frame. I wanted to conquer my demons and rethink my attitude towards body hair. Why do the British mind so much how other people look? Not all nations take offence at female body hair; in France and Spain no one minds whether women have it or not.
Ultimately, I couldn’t hack it, though. I’m ashamed to say that after two months I wimped out of certain parts of the challenge. Surprisingly, the hair that’s remained adorns the most intimate part of my body where, rather than repulsing me, it makes me feel womanly, sexy and gorgeous. It’s the one place where I don’t feel I need to shave to “release my inner goddess”. I got rid of my armpit hair though, and the leg hair went for more practical reasons. I found it prickly and uncomfortable. I also started waxing my arms again because my paranoia about them is so deeply ingrained that I can’t stop. But I do all these things with a heavy heart. I’ve seen how brave you have to be to go against the grain and I feel bad for chickening out.
I hope by the time my four-year-old daughter, Coco, is in her teens, she won’t have the same ridiculous insecurities about her body hair as her mother. I’m sad that I can’t set an example to her but I’m going to make an effort to teach her that all hair is beautiful; eyelashes, eyebrows, toe hair, the whole lot. If she meets a boy who says he finds her leg hair disgusting, I want her to be fortified with the knowledge that it’s his issue, not hers.
Will there ever come a time when body hair is back in fashion? Yes, if it’s pioneered by the fashion industry. Just five years ago women were walking round with pencil-thin eyebrows, yet now thick ones like Lily Collins’s are seen as sensual. Imagine if Chanel sent its models down the catwalk with hairy armpits, looking sexy and beautiful. It would drop a nuclear bomb on how we perceive hair.
A lot of the things we do to our bodies – not just tattoos and piercings – are forms of self-harm, and I’d add hair removal to the list. It achieves a release and makes us feel good about ourselves. But it’s gone too far.
I’d love to hear my grandchildren saying: “Can you believe that in the old days women used to rip all the hairs off their legs using strips covered in wax?” When you say it out loud it sounds so wrong.
• Cherry Healey: How to Get a Life is on BBC Three at 9pm on Wednesday
As told to Anna Tyzack