plucked chicken; or, musings on (the absence of) hair

I could call today’s post cheating, because I first wrote it seven years ago. Yes, seven. 7. sieben. zeven. sept..

I, however, see it as inspiration. This post was one of a required series of posts written for a class blog in my Feminist Theory class with  Helen Leung at Simon Fraser University. It was my first introduction to blogging and I was decidedly uncomfortable. It was in this post that I first felt like I could “let my hair down,” the first time that I felt I’d found a voice, my voice, in a blogging space. And rereading it now, seven years later, I’m amazed at how many of my current interests, ideas and musings are encapsulated within it.

Join me in a walk through memory lane, of the hair-y kind. And to Helen – thanks. It was great to find this blogging voice.

There’s a piece by a Dutch composer (Chiel Meijering) called ‘A Lady Shaves Her Legs.’ It’s for harpsichord and guitar. I have no idea what it sounds like, and I have no idea if I’d even like it, but I almost bought the CD just for its title….. There’s something irreverent about it (especially given the fact that this composer has also written works called ‘A Fart in a Blizzard’ and ‘The Nostrils of Sophia Loren’), but at the same time, there’s something that compels further reflection….

A lady shaving her legs…it’s the ubiquitous image of North American femininity, so much so that a recent internet forum poll on shaving didn’t even allow the option of ‘don’t shave,’ [edited to add that by recent I mean 2004…] and while obviously the statistics of an internet forum are questionable, a wander through the personal hygiene aisles at a local pharmacy seemed to bear this out. As a  non-shaver, this fieldtrip was also extremely instructive – I had no idea that there were so many different options when it came to removing ‘unwanted’ and ‘unnatural’ body hair – you can hot wax, cold wax, warm wax…even lavender wax…who knew?)

But while it’s the ubiquitous image of North American femininity, it’s also the completely invisible image of North American femininity, and in this sense, Chiel Meijering’s title takes on a voyeuristic quality…

The act of shaving is an extremely intimate and potentially sensuous one if one imagines the razor gliding soundlessly across the smooth planes of a woman’s flesh. Perhaps that’s why it remains invisible. I mean, when does one ever see a woman shaving her legs? You can pluck eyebrows or put on makeup on public transit; you can touch up your lipstick in a restaurant bathroom; you can hike up your panties almost anywhere and I have even seen women curling their (head) hair in public.

Looking further, you can read about women getting dressed, or having showers, or drying and styling their hair, or putting on makeup or jewellery, but how often do you read about them shaving their legs? Can you imagine the following passage appearing in a novel of your choice: “She gazed lovingly into his eyes, searching for the spark of sensual interest that she knew she would find there. A seductive smile played about her lips. Feigning innocence, she turned away, reached for her disposable razor and slowly began shaving her legs”…sounds ludicrous doesn’t it?

On the one hand, then, we’re ‘supposed’ to remain hairless (except for the glorious cascade of shining locks – nurtured by the shampoo brand of your choice – falling seductively from our heads) and on the other, we’re supposed to keep it a secret that we even had hair to begin with. Shaving, it seems, is not fit for public – or even private – consumption; rather, it must remain shadowed and permanently unknown —

perhaps the lady doesn’t shave her legs at all?

Perhaps the hair was never there to begin with?

Perhaps she’s just a tease?

It’s a mystery that seems impossible to solve….

So I went on a search for body hair.

It’s almost invisible in much canonic visual art. A poster of Matisse’s ‘Nude on a Yellow Couch’ (1926) graces our bedroom wall. See the soft, undulating curves of female flesh, the full globes of breast rising on her chest as she reaches her arms behind her head, the sensuous fleshiness of curvaceous hips melting seamlessly into knees and feet.

She is all curves; she is all woman…luxe, calme et volupté…she is all hairless, a smooth, depilated body exposed for all the world to see…

Scroll back through a few hundred years of art history and the story is the same: the truly feminine woman is a hairless woman. Botticelli’s famous Venus, painted in the late 15th century, has the requisite cascading locks, and may possibly have other hair under her armpits and in the pubic region, but the rest of her body is quite naked indeed, with nothing to disturb the unnaturally glowing whiteness of her mythical body. François Boucher, lasciviously painting odalisques during the decadent middle years of the eighteenth century, retains Botticelli’s supernatural glow in his painting of Mademoiselle O’Murphy (1752), the Irish teenager who,  at fourteen, was one of the king’s favourites. Again, we see an overabundance of sensual curves with buttocks flowing imperceptibly into fleshy legs. And again, we note a complete absence of hair – Boucher almost manages to avoid the issue altogether by painting his model on her stomach…but we can still note clearly that her legs – long expanses of creamy flesh – are gloriously liberated from the confines of excess hair…(or the artistically problematic irritations of ingrown hairs, razor nicks and patches of dry skin).

Biblically speaking, the presence of hair denotes power. The mighty Samson loses his power when Delilah shaves his head in the dark of the night…even in our current culture, the masculine and the virile are represented by thick mops of head hair, forests of chest hair and muscular arms and legs covered in hair. This is the Marlboro man; the strong man; the powerful protector and saviour….

One would think that the feminine imperative for long, shimmering locks of head hair would bear out the ‘hair is power’ theory, but I wonder if our culture’s obsession with female depilation negates the biblically empowering effect of head hair….

On the other hand, perhaps, as women, we’re still paying for the evil Delilah’s transgression: sentenced to an eternal replaying of her disempowering deed, we endlessly subject ourselves to a process of depilatory self-flagellation: clucking, pecking…..and looking for all the world like a new species of plucked chicken.

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