Body hair…yes, we all have to deal with it, especially us girls. Waxing or shaving, plucking or lasers, body hair on women is to be eliminated at all costs. Well at least by today’s beauty standards. According to mainstream representations of “ideal” femininity body hair is out and youthful smooth skin is in. Consider adverts aimed at and portraying women to buy various hair removal products. We’re led to believe that by using the latest “painless” procedure will not only attract a man but what’s more will make us look and feel better. A 2001 magazine advertisement for shavers stated that ‘‘with summer weeks away, the last thing you want is legs like your dad’s,” and this is unfortunately true (Toerien and Wilkinson, 2003). Mainstream advertisements have led us to believe body hair on women is unattractive and unnatural for females. Dilemma? I think so!
The fact hairlessness has become virtually synonymous with femininity in Western culture is disconcerting, not only because it’s an issue of prevailing gender inequality but it is artificially represented and deemed “natural”. Now, laser hair removal is a bit more futuristic than shaving cream and a razor, but whatever the procedure or product hair removal isn’t natural at all, regardless of sex or gender. What is natural is body hair. It can protect us from infection and even provide us with heat. But the deluded and narrow minded version of “ideal” femininity being hairless has been so far ingrained into the public psyche that any lady that shows a hint of prickly leg or unshaved underarm are to feel and be seen as mannish, un kept and perhaps even lazy! Phrases such as “Eww” or “How could she?!” may also enter the equation. Smooth hairless skin on females is the epitome of “ideal” beauty and femininity with western culture, when in reality it’s most unnatural. But it’s not just hairy legs and armpits societies are concerned about. It’s facial hair too. The idea of “women with facial hair” is unsettling, as it trespasses against cultural “norms” of femininity in a much more nonchalant and obvious way compared to prickly legs. Hairy female legs, armpits and genitalia can be disguised or hidden from public view, whereas a female moustache is a little more challenging to view.
Women with hairy upper lips are a problem and how sad that is?! For all the tolerance, even celebration, of putative transgressions in our society, for all that it seems like old certainties have given way to an unprecedented fluidity, the dominant cultural logic still operates some pretty resolute rules when it comes to embodying gender or gendered bodies. As discussed extensively, the possibilities for personhood are restricted to membership in one of two discrete categories: male or female as pointed out extensively throughout my research. As an outcome of this, certain rules, ideas and “ideals” ensue for both sexes. Body hair and beards are still seen as predominantly masculine traits so when a pretty female sports her naturally given hairy lip, society is left at a loss! To be a woman with facial hair is to engage in gender play of a deeper kind. And I feel it is due to the common sense conviction that gender owes its existence to sex.
Sex is taken to be the biological basis for dividing bodies into male and female: an obvious and absolute natural difference, the hereditary differences in the hormones, chromosomes and external genitalia. The primary female hormone is oestrogen, for males’ testosterone. A female’s sex is determined by the XX chromosome, whilst the male the XY. Females are born with vaginas and males with penises and testicles. Meanwhile, gender is a matter of cultural elaboration on that division. Due to the biological differences in hormones between the sexes, men are naturally hairier then women. Men have hairy chests, genitalia, backs, arms, feet, hands, toes, face and so on. Thus, we perceive body hair as a masculine and male trait.
Women on the other hand are naturally less hairy then men, whilst body hair can still be visible on many of the body parts its visible on men, for many it’s not as intense. And so it could be argued that the notion that body hair on women is unnatural or to be eliminated through elaborate processes (everyone loves those lazers right?) does have somewhat of a biological basis and hasn’t been entirely cultivated by culture and society. Biological differences have to a degree (or from one perspective) influenced cultural ideas of masculine and femininity. But it’s still not entirely viable as women are still naturally capable of having a lot of body hair if left unshaven, tweezed or zapped. Yet culture still engulfs us with images of hairless beauties and if anyone steers away from such an image of femininity are deemed outside the “norm”.
Women who stray too far from the acceptable norms such as sporting a moustache may be labelled “unnatural” or simply “unfeminine” when in reality (which I’ve said many times but will say once more for emphasise) is natural. The implication is that these women are seen to be acting against what their natures demand. Due to biological difference men have facial hair whereas women have a lot less. And so the idea of “women with facial hair” intrudes on these assumptions precisely because the “failure” involved appears at the level of nature, not culture. As much as we “know” that facial hair such as thick beards and moustaches does not, naturally, belong on women, that knowledge is confounded by the evidence. Women do naturally grow hairy upper lips, uni-brows and side burns and what could be more natural than hair?
Photographer Trish Morrissey challenges all of what I’ve been discussing and more. In her series entitled, “Women with Facial Hair” (1998) Morrissey challenges our perceptions of female beauty and femininity by photographing women with hairy faces. The women’s facial hair is their own which provides concrete evidence that women can naturally grow moustaches. The women wear their naturally hairy upper lips nonchalantly, as much a conscious choice as are their plucked eyebrows and red glossy lips. And this is what makes these images so interesting and challenging to view. The transgression entailed in a display of hair on female faces (how unfeminine and unnatural right?) is set against all things feminine: coiffed hair, make-up, jewellery, sparkling eyes and soft expressions. It forces to ask: are these women feminine or masculine?
This conflict of gender signs is immense and one I want to emulate. Even the genre of portraiture suggests certain conventions of femininity. Shot from a slight angle it’s as if the females are looking up at the viewer denoting a sense of submissiveness and innocence, characteristics which are hugely popular and evident within other portraits of females within mainstream culture. I, like Morrissey, want to force my viewers to unravel what is masculine and feminine within my images and I feel Morrissey has done an amazing job at doing just that. Morrissey in a subversive way is showing that facial hair on women is natural, mocking modern day beauty standards of “ideal” and supposedly “natural” femininity. It asks: What would it mean to say that the biological processes of a female body were “unwomanly”? What would that, in turn, say about how we know in the first place which bodies are female, which bodies male? If moustaches are masculine and manly, how can we still see that these are portraits of women? This gender confusion I revel in, this image from the series (below) I find particularly powerful.
I find ambiguity in images hugely appealing, something I’d love to achieve in some of my own images of my gender breaking beauties. The image depicts a lady with blue eyes, pale skin, dark hair and painted red lips, holding a close resemblance to screen icon Elizabeth Taylor with a hint of snow white. Her shoulders are bare, her skin flawless and clear as a gold chain with trinkets sprinkling from it lies upon her neck. All the visual qualities within the image resemble all other mainstream images of women: soft, beautiful, white and polished. Then you notice her top lip: a shadow. Is it the lighting? Is it chocolate? No it’s a slightly hairy upper lip. In this image it’s not entirely clear if it’s actually hair or make up but that makes it all the more enjoyable to analyse. Within my own images I too want to play around with body hair, shaving men and letting women grow out theirs. I may use make-up and prosthetics, depending on my subjects and what it is I want to achieve. I still like the idea of creating ambiguity and the gender signs I include in my images to be subtle, but this will be dependent on the subjects I manage to locate and photograph. I may need to use people who could just pass as the opposite gender just for this project.
But Morrissey didn’t just stop at this series to blur gender “norms” and I found another image and project by her which has become quite the inspiration. Exploiting her own and her sister’s slight physique, often taking on male personae, Morrissey confronts and confounds our need to assign to a person a definite gender. In one particular photograph of two young men, January 25th 1979 , as the two sisters become two brothers, Morrissey herself has a moustache. It is not, as you might expect, of the ‘sticky tape-fake’ variety, but her very own unplucked, unbleached, and unfettered facial hair. Similarly to the women depicted in “Women with Facial Hair” (1998) Again fact and fiction are blended and the use of body hair is a great “prop” if you will to create some immense gender confusion. Well confusion for regular society and culture.
This leads me onto another point and Morrissey’s images gave me an idea. I was thinking I could perhaps find women who grow out their body hair or women who are just hyper feminine and then give them body hair to create images similarly to Morrissey. The whole motive behind my project is to challenge and a force person to question what is masculine and feminine so this could be an interesting idea to explore further.
As I was considering locating women who sport hairy bodies and faces I found real life woman Jennifer Miller a circus artist and the founder and director of Circus Amok who has a beard. That’s right. A real life female with a long flowing beard and according to Miller, it’s really not a big deal for women to have facial hair. The exact point Morrissey was getting at through her potent images. Miller stated in an interview:
“The world is full of women with beards or at least they have the potential to have a beard … instead of spending the time, and the money, on the waxing, and the shaving, and the electrolysis and the plucking. We all know someone who plucks. Pluck, pluck, pluck, as if these women were chickens! Hair is a symbol of power.”
Hair is a symbol of power seems like the perfect way to end it there.
Circa Art Magazine (2005) Trish Morrissey, Seven Years, Gallery of Photography [online] available from< http://www.recirca.com/cgi-bin/mysql/show_item.cgi?post_id=1855> (3rd May 2014)
Vox Magazine (29th September 2011) Interview with Jennifer Miller: The Bearded Lady [online] available from< http://archive.voxmagazine.com/stories/2011/09/29/interview-jennifer-miller-bearded-lady/ > (3rd May 2014)
Artists Source (N.D) Trish Morrissey [online] available from<http://www.source.ie/artists/artistsM/artmortri.html%5B/embed%5D > (3rd May 2014)