On Backpacking While Being a Very Hairy Woman

He looked down at the practically inch-long hair on my legs. I interjected the stares of the boy who was flirting with me in Ibiza and explained, “Yeah… I don’t really shave sometimes…”

To my surprise, he remarked, “Vello es bello.” Body hair is beautiful. Before I could respond, I almost started crying I was so happy. Someone who understands me! (Don’t get excited. It still didn’t work out.)

In my discussions on leg, map of Tasmania, and underarm hair, there has been him…and what felt like the rest of the world.

The encounter with my Ibiza admirer was night and day compared to the death stares I received while traveling Europe with Kimberly this summer.

In Cinque Terre, at the height (or length!) of my leg/arm/pub hair, I caught one man transfixed by the curly-q’s sprouting from my calves. While walking the Camino de Santiago, a friend of ours was clearly disgusted every time Kimberly lifted up her arm, exposing her underarm hair growth. That was pretty entertaining to be a party to.

(It is important to note that yes, because I was a tourist, I frequented tourist areas. This also may influence people’s opinions)

Why Are People Disgusted?

In February of 2014, I wrote an article on pubic hair, one of my most favorite articles I’ve ever written. In response to American Apparel’s use of pubic merkins, I posed the question “Will this year mark the ‘year of the bush?’”

That was over a year and a half ago. And clearly 2014 wasn’t. My experiences this summer in Europe with full-on hair taught me that 2015 hasn’t been either (hey, 2016… you out there?).

Needless to say, the opinions on the topic are many and varied. Geographic concerns no longer (if they ever did?) determine hair or no hair growth. In my experience, if you talk to anyone over 50 years-old (who hasn’t been to Europe), he/she will most likely believe that European women are ravenous, unkempt animals (as demonstrated by a facial gesture the speaker makes) who “just let it all go.”

rocio salazar
“How do make putting up a ponytail becomes an act of activism in one single step?” 1. Put up a ponytail.” Illustration by Rocio Salazar.

While people in the U.S. tend to view Europeans as hairy, turns out things stateside aren’t as clean shaven as assumed. According IU sex researcher Debbie Herbenick’s 2010 study on pubic hair removal patterns in the United States, only 12% of women aged 25-29-years-olds were hair free.

In a different hair removal study, researchers found that:

Europe-wide, 10% of women completely removed their pubic hair, 15% trimmed, and 75% left it completely natural. Women in Eastern Europe, France, and Spain are notorious for leaving their armpits and legs unshaved, and one can assume this also extends to the pubic region.

I’d like to know where those women are. Because I certainly didn’t see them.

Why would some women shave and some not? There are any number of reasons, some of them personal and others political (Hard to tell which is which. The personal IS political!).

Lizzie Crocker reports that:

But body hair remains a powerful weapon in the fight against patriarchal standards of female beauty, and removing it is still largely associated with internalizing misogynist ideals of femininity.

Hair removal thus becomes the visible and external demonstration of women deciding that they decide for themselves, not mainstream hetereonormative patriarchal society.

Illustrator Rocio Salazar’s collection ¿Y si no me depilo más?  (And if I don’t remove my hair anymore?) the artist challenges ideas of taking care of oneself, beauty, and cleanliness.

rocio salazar 2
“La mujer como la osa/Cuanto mas pelo, mas hermosa” (Like woman like Bear, More hair, more beautiful) Illustration by Rocio Salazar.

Her illustrations show a general support for not shaving, claiming its woman’s personal choice, and does not imply that she is ugly, dirty, or unwanted (Interestingly, Argentine researcher Karina Felitti makes the argument that to remove hair or not remove hair should be a personal choice. However, she notes that in some feminist circles, if you decide to remove hair, you become a slave to patriarchy and judged by other feminists. Felitti argues that this type of conflict creates a rift among woman and takes attention away from the real issues, such as equal pay, the right to decide, and violence).

What Does This Mean For the Woman Who Travels?

People who travel outside of the U.S. tend to remark how progressive Europe is, and how ignorant Americans are. But progressive in terms of what? Social policy (and a number of other topics), I would argue yes. But socially? Body acceptance? Our hegemonic standards of beauty cut across national borders. I can’t make any assumptions about the U.S. or Europe as a whole, but it seemed that no matter where Kimberly and I went, people weren’t entirely comfortable with our choice to not shave.

My reasons for or for not shaving/removing hair are more out of convenience than protest. That being said, the reason I am still okay with not shaving comes from my feminist education and understanding of why women are expected to shave. Therefore, when I don’t, I don’t find myself “unkempt” or undesirable. I am not afraid to go to the beach with a bush.

Removing hair hurts (although I am partial to waxing) and is time consuming. Generally, I would rather spend my time elsewhere than slaving away over my unruly hair and sensitive skin.

For a backpacker, this outlook makes things very convenient. Without stressing over hair removal, the female backpacker saves money, time, and is removed from shame and embarrassment of body hair.

Maybe the shower is too small or you don’t feel like shaving in cold water. Perhaps you’d rather eat a sandwich than buy a razor. Maybe, you are just tired and don’t feel like showering, period. No problem. Just don’t shave.

The trade-off?  One must be prepared for the stares and disgust that not removing hair might produce.

For me, it’s worth it.

What about you? What have your experiences shaving/not shaving while traveling been? How have people reacted?


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