by Azeezat Fadekemi Sulaiman
To shave or not to shave?
A body of work on women’s empowerment by US photographer Erica Jones has sparked a debate on whether women shaving or not shaving their armpits is appropriate.
The photos published on black American website Afropunk features beautiful black women, some nude and in their natural state with the aim of empowering black women by projecting positive images of women who look like them.
While most of the reactions to the photos were positive with many women calling it ‘bold’ and ‘beautiful’, one particular photo proved controversial as it showed one of the participants in the project Bri Collier with unshaved pits.
One of the commenters on the magazine’s Facebook page incurred the wrath of other users when he called for Collier to ‘shave those pits’ adding that unshaved women’s armpits were ‘disgusting’. His comment prompted a scathing reply from Collier, who called him out for his ignorance.
“To those who completely missed the message of the photo because they are too pressed about my armpit hair, this is what empowerment looks like. Empowerment for both women and more specifically, black women. We are both defying the societal norms of what is and is not acceptable on the female body – me publicly displaying my armpit hair (*gasp*), while both of us are unapologetically topless. The idea that our body and physical appearance only exist for the attention of men – or the “male gaze” – has been detrimental to the confidence of many women. It strips us of our autonomy and self-worth because when we do not receive said attention, it is implied that there is something wrong with us. Public displays of self-love such as these are needed to remind little girls that you are perfect exactly the way you are. Let’s stop teaching our girls to be ashamed of what naturally happens to their bodies, especially when we do not hold men to the same standards.”
We couldn’t agree with her more. Whose right is it to dictate what a woman does with her body? It’s interesting to note that it wasn’t only men who disagreed with the image of a woman with unshaved armpits, even women criticised the women in the photos for their choice to not shave their armpits.
As Collier pointed out, the message in the pictures is not about individual preferences and perceptions of beauty, but more to do with appreciating natural (black) beauty in its pure unadulterated state and that, whether we like it or not includes body hair.
Society has got us so accustomed to what it dictates as ‘acceptable’ standards of beauty that we are now visibly repulsed by what is a very natural thing; body hair- whether on the pits, arms or groin, it doesn’t matter. The fact that we shave it off as soon as it appears doesn’t make it disappear or change the fact that hair actually grows out of your pits.
The reactions to these photos also shows how much our values have plummeted particularly in relation to how we define our own beauty as women. This is a debate that transcends just what your views are on armpits or the lack thereof, but the lengths we are willing to go to be accepted and considered beautiful to others.
Why do we even need to shave our pits? Does the hair make us uncomfortable? Some say they shave because apparently a full pit stinks, but surely this is a matter of personal hygiene and not necessarily just because you have hair?
If I were to really think about it, I shave my pits because I don’t want people to see hair when I wear sleeveless clothes. On reflection, I realise I’m doing this because I feel my pits is something no one should see. I feel as though it’s not a pretty thing for others to see, not because it necessarily causes me any discomfort.
We’ve become so conditioned to define our beauty by what others; society (especially men) deem to be beautiful, sexy and acceptable and this in itself should be questioned. Everyone should be able to feel beautiful just the way they are. Why should we need to change our appearance, our natural beauty to conform to society’s expectations? Only last week, news broke of the untimely and unfortunate death of a BET employee Kelly Mayhew who died after a botched butt enhancement procedure went wrong. Kelly was a beautiful woman by anyone’s standards, but we will never know why she felt she needed to enhance her derrière. Whatever her reasons were, we can bet the ever-increasing expectations placed on young women to conform to society’s beauty standard had a role to play.
What women like Jones and the women featured in this editorial are doing should be applauded not ridiculed, because they make us question society’s standards on beauty with a view to becoming more self-aware of our choices both conscious and unconscious.
We have a duty to ourselves to be the best possible human we can possibly be, part of that involves a great degree of self-awareness. No one should define your beauty. That power should belong to you and only you.