For Amy Russell, ceasing deforestation of her lower limbs was a declaration of independence.
OPINION: When I wrote on The Spinoff recently about going barefoot everywhere, and then about being a fat runner, I got a lot more positive feedback than I expected, and a lot less criticism. So I thought clearly I need to push the boat out a bit. What's something about me that people might find a little more challenging to accept? And my hairy legs replied, "How about us?"
When I asked myself why I don't remove the hair that grows on my legs, my initial reply was, "Because I don't want to." But there must be more to it than that, because I do all sorts of things I don't really want to do for the sake of a quiet life. Fewer things than most people, to be fair, but still, a non-negligible quantity.
So, after some reflection, I think the answer is: "Because the costs are too high."
Aesthetics didn't count much on either side of the ledger. At the time, I quite liked the smooth and hairless look. Also the four-day growth look (dear little hedgehog prickles). But I also knew from experience that I could retrain my aesthetic preferences, so I figured that in time, I'd come to like my legs as they now are. And that's what has happened – I think they're lovely. I like it that I look like an animal; I enjoy the reminder that once upon a time we were all tiny mammals snuffling around the feet of the dinosaurs.
Laziness and parsimony weighed in on the side of hairiness. Hair-free legs can be pricey (maybe $45,000 for a lifetime of waxing) and take a lot of time and effort, whereas hairy legs could hardly be easier.
But it was really the non-financial costs that swayed me.
The first was sensation. De-haired legs don't feel the world around them very well. I used to shave my legs in the bath, and when I'd shaved one but not the other, I would pour water over them side by side, noticing the stark difference in sensation. The shaved one felt like it had been treated with that spray they use on hardcore sportspersons to stop them noticing until halftime that they're minus an earlobe. The effect was kind of fascinating, but ultimately I decided I didn't want to go through life lightly numbed from the knee down.
Now that my legs are good and hairy, I value the tactile experiences they give me. When I'm bare-legged in a gentle breeze, or wearing a long swishy skirt, or lolling on a soft lawn, or standing in the path of a sprinkler on a hot day, the physical sensations are more interesting and pleasant because of the hair.
The second non-financial cost takes a bit more explaining. It was that shaving my legs felt to me like conformity to the beauty myth, an act of obedience to cultural rules that control women. I wanted hairless legs, true; but I also knew that I only wanted them because I'd been told to by an industry that extracted women's money and power. By complying with its dictates, I felt like I was participating in and endorsing "beauty culture" (a misnomer if ever there was one), which treats women like children by telling them how to behave and teaching them right from wrong. It also threatens them with punishment if they fail to obey, ranging from "everyone will think badly of you" to "you will never find love".
In this culture, women are instructed and trained to believe that, in order to fulfil their obligations to themselves and others, they must undertake an extensive range of costly and often painful procedures in quest of a manufactured archetype they can never fully attain, while we all watch and evaluate their efforts. Hilariously, this is often dressed up as female empowerment. I didn't, and don't, want any part of it. Shaving my legs felt like participating, and it made me feel insecure and inauthentic.
Letting my legs get hairy was a declaration of independence.
In my first few months of non-depilation, I secretly still cared quite a lot about what people thought, and was often self-conscious about my lower slopes. But I believed in principle that I shouldn't care, and I told myself that in time I wouldn't. I repeated to myself that people's only power over me is the power I let them have. I reminded myself that caring about other's unsolicited judgements of my body is voluntary subjection to an unnecessary tyranny (Bertrand Russell; no known relation; almost certainly hairy legs). I focused on how good it felt to feel things properly, and the time and money I was no longer spending trying to be someone else.
This mental retraining programme worked perfectly, and much faster than I expected. For the price of a bit of temporary self-consciousness, I bought a lifetime of viewing my leg hair as a source of zero-maintenance tactile and visual pleasure. Ladies and gentlemen, think of the savings!
Despite my obvious satisfaction with my own decisions in this department, I'm not going to tell anyone out there that they ought to cease deforestation. If you enjoy having hair-free limbs and it doesn't contribute to any feeling of insecurity about the social acceptability of your body, that's great – more power to you. Even if you only do it to meet the expectations of others and it does make you feel kind of inadequate, it's still your choice to make, and you have every right to make it without judgement from me or anyone else. Depending on your circumstances, it might be totally rational to keep doing what you're doing.
But for those who have sometimes looked with envy upon the women who've opted out and let it grow, I invite you to consider joining us. The beauty industry has billions of dollars invested in portraying leg hair removal for women as obviously desirable, morally required and universally practised. In reality it's none of these things, and it comes with real costs, financial and otherwise. If you assess the rewards on offer as insufficient to compensate you for the costs involved, feel free to put down the razor – and learn to love the furry skin you're in.