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A bushy tail to a hairy story

Last week’s story about the hairy-women scale was triggered by something a friend said.

We were watching Life of Brian. Enter a naked Brian and Judith. At seeing Judith my friend commented: ‘I feel like we’re watching a 70ies porn movie’.

It was disturbing enough to find out that my friend, in his thirties, categorises women primarily according to the kind of porn they might feature in.

But the point here is of course that he was referring to Judith’s bushy triangle. In his voice: a mixture of ridicule and anger. Apparently, a woman’s body is impossible on a woman these days; a prepubescent girl’s body is what’s needed. Now I know that body aesthetics in the media have been shifting since Life of Brian was made, in 1979. But I was still surprised to see a university-educated, grown-up man uncritically repeating what he sees on the telly.

The scene shows well what it's all about: something with fear and shame and being brave.

The scene itself shows just what it’s all about: fear and shame and being brave.

This is exactly what I argued last week: outside of science, too, most people chime in with old-fashioned doctors and ethnographers in shaming ‘women’ (as identified by them) for not being ‘women’. As nice a bit of circular reasoning as ever you saw.

Many people contend that what you do with your body hair is your own business. But this is not true. Unsolicited criticism like my friend’s turns it into a social business. A recent article on the experiences of women in the south-west of the US convincingly shows this.

The UK, 2016. Photo by 9×6. Clearly, the beauty industry has a stake in this debate.

 

When asking women why they remove hair – mostly that hair associated with ‘hirsutism’ of the previous post – the response by and large was: ‘because I choose to’. When asking them to respond to other women who did not engage in conventional shaving or waxing practices, however, they expressed a strong disgust: these women were ‘dirty’, ‘gross’. A quote from one of the interviewees that shows this contradiction:

I think it’s a personal preference. [When they] don’t shave their armpits […] it grosses people out. Typically, if you’ve got a lot of hair, it looks like a man and it’s not very attractive on women, but I don’t think I make total judgments on it. I might just stand ten feet away from them! (Fahs, 171)
That already sums up nicely that some women exert strong pressures on other women. In other words, shaving is not a free choice at all.
In the same study, women who let their hair be, reported similarly contradicting reactions by others. From boyfriends for example:

First I got, ‘‘Ew, no. I won’t let you do that.’’ Then I got a joking but upsetting ‘‘I will not engage in any sexual acts with you until you shave.’’  […] he went on to say how ‘‘it was pointless’’ and ‘‘women can do whatever they want now because it is 2011.’’ (Fahs, 174)

Women also invent excuses to justify their hair removal. One woman in the study argued that pubic hair would be dangerous for her partner: ‘You can actually hurt the other person’. That’s quite a different story from the warnings by one GP that shaving in fact introduces health hazards.

Luckily, counter-activity is in the air. With the Free Your Pits movement, for example, with hair dyed in outrageous colours.

Perhaps I should take my friend to the hairdresser’s.

 

The article quoted is Breanne Fahs’s ‘Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women’s Body Hair Growth’, published in 2014.

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The hairy-women scale

Do you have hair on your face? Of course you do. All over your face. All over your body in fact. Hair is everywhere. In some places it is darker (terminal hair), and in others lighter (vellus), but there are few places on your body where it doesn’t grow, except if your skin or follicles are damaged.

And except in places where you have shaven, plucked, threaded, or burnt it off. After all, we do things to make ourselves look nice. But what’s nice? Part of the answer lies in what scientists have been telling us is nice, which is what this post is about.

The seemingly innocent activity of grooming gets less innocent when we expect everyone to do the same; when we start judging people because of their hair. It may sound silly to take such an insignificant part of a person and make it the basis of our judgment of them. But it happens all the time.

It all begins with making categories. Categories based on hair.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European ethnographers went into the bush (!) looking for primitive people. They stripped these people naked, measured their every limb, and eventually their methods resulted in the following: the Ferriman-Gallwey score.

Ferriman and Gallwey scoring help (unknown clinical source, published on

A Ferriman-Gallwey scoring diagram (unknown clinical source, published on what-when-how.com/acp-medicine/hirsutism-part-1/)

The idea is that women’s body parts (not men’s) should be scored for terminal hair on a scale of 1 to 4. Adding up these scores tells a doctor whether a woman deviates from the standard. This is another representation:

Ferriman-Gallwey scale, modified by Hatch (1981). Published on medical-learning site http://www.e-sanitas.edu.co/Diplomados/endocrino/modulo_9/causas_hiperandrogenismo.html.

Ferriman-Gallwey scale, modified by Hatch (1981). Published on medical-learning site http://www.e-sanitas.edu.co/Diplomados/endocrino/modulo_9/causas_hiperandrogenismo.html

Black fur has crept over this ‘healthy female’ like an extraterrestrial species over Sigourney Weaver. Is it comical or disturbing?

The woman on the left, numbered ‘1’, displays only slight signs of being ‘too’ hairy.

The woman on the right is fully ‘abnormal’. She is a hirsute! (Not all parts of the body need to grade ‘4’ for this diagnosis.)

Scientists devising scales like this start out with the whole breadth of human variation (they have rightly seen that we are not all the same), but then they do two things:

  1. They put everyone in line so they seem to fit a single ‘scale’.
  2. They attach a judgment to this scale.

For the early ethnographers, people on the left end of this scale were civilised. People on the right-hand side: primitive. It was one of the many instruments Europeans had in assigning ‘races’ to people. (How about the 1922 article entitled ‘A Study of Facial Hair in the White and Negro Race’?)

But you have even more reasons to be nervous if your own hair patterns resemble a score ‘4’.

Ferriman and Gallwey were two medical doctors who took up these ethnographers’ ideas, and applied them to medicine. The Ferriman-Gallwey score is now the measure commonly used by doctors who want to assess whether a woman is not ‘too hairy’. (Other scales also exist.)

So: women with a low score: healthy, feminine women.

Women with a high score: sick, masculine women.

(It is true that certain hair-growth patterns can also be a side-effect of a health problem, but this does not need to be the case – and a lack of hair can as well. My point is that we are not dealing with a neutral diagnostic tool named ‘patterns of hair-growth’, but a morally charged classification of ‘hirsutism’ as a ‘disorder’. Ferriman and Gallwey themselves tended to the former, by the way, but they are commonly used in the latter, pathologising sense.)

Many women do in fact count as ‘hirsute’ according to these medical standards: 10, 30, even 50 % of participants in various studies, depending on how they were scored and what part of the world they were from.

I have already mentioned the racist implications of this scale. Yet it does not only simplify and moralise the differences that exist between people in different parts of the world. It also simplifies and moralises the differences between women and men. Women with hair-growth that in the European world is considered feminine, are ‘civilised’ but also ‘healthy’. Masculine women are ill. And if they don’t fix this ‘illness’, by shaving, or taking hormones, then they are inconsiderate, selfish, dirty – is the wider social opinion.

Take a look at the exaggeratedly feminine body in the second picture: no nose, broad hips, narrow waist, and a tiny mouth. (Is this perhaps how the doctors who write this medical textbook prefer to see women?) The use of such a feminine model makes her moustache and hairy legs extra freakish. She is like the bearded woman. These pictures have a rhetorical knack of juxtaposing two ‘opposites’, in order that the reader will instinctively feel this is ‘just wrong’. The first image does a more neutral job in this regard.

Calling hair on women masculine – and masculinity in women a problem – also happens in descriptions of the scoring system. The same educative website instructs the learner to compare a female patient’s hair-growth with that of the men they know (hardly an objective measure), and see whether it is ‘equivalent to an adult man’ (scoring 3 points) or even to ‘virile healthy adult men’ (4 points). What happened to sticking to commonly observable facts and identifying actual hair? Instead, writers jump to the conclusion that patients’ very identity, their femaleness, is at stake.

A moral judgment is also implicit in the many medical descriptions of hirsutism calling these women’s hair ‘excessive’.

A somewhat older study that went through the trouble of examining two thousand patients, is particularly naive about it own assumptions. It writes:

a disperse upper border of the pubic hair is only found in men and never in normal women.

In a sublime example of circular reasoning, healthy women are defined by being… ‘normal women’!

Later researchers sometimes acknowledge this problem – a little:

Determining what is an abnormal amount of terminal hair growth, and thus what is hirsutism, is difficult.

Ok: so because there is simply an enormous amount of human variation, we cannot tell what should count as abnormal. Still, these writers did not wonder whether the endeavour itself of ‘determining what is abnormal’ may therefore be flawed.

Again, there is this huge urge to put people into categories: either you are (self-contradictively) masculine and therefore primitive or ill; or you are feminine and therefore civilised and healthy.

Interviews with women show that they are up against a lot of hatred and disgust if they show to be ‘hairy’. This freakification of hair also gets formalised, for instance in the world of sports. The International Association of Athletics Federations has even used the Ferriman-Gallwey index to see if they might disqualify sportswomen from competing because of an assumed unfair advantage. Apparently, women with uncivilised amounts of hair are really men in disguise. (If they really try to fool us, why don’t they shave? For this example from sports: see the book cited below).

As medical doctors and their lay disciples continue to use grading systems such as Ferriman-Gallwey on their patients and subjects, and to diagnose them with the serious-sounding ‘disorder’ of ‘hirsutism’, they only perpetuate the idea that the hair scare is justified. They make life harder for the hairier woman, creating unnecessary anxieties and feelings of guilt. May I then be excused in deeming the following reassurance to patients a little hypocritical?

Usually, excess body hair is only a […] psychologic concern.

Thanks to Ellen Samuels for showing how hairy sexism is tied up with hairy racism, and both with ableism, in her book Fantasies of Identification (New York, 2014), chapter 9.

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A bit gay

A small cactus has been taped to a lamp-post in our working-class town. A live cactus, pot and all. Next to it is a note, running something like this:

Jamie, you bastard.

Why did you have to go off and fucking die on me like that.

I was going to buy flowers but that would have been a bit gay for you. So I bought this one instead.

Miss you mate,

Steve.

The cactus and note are surrounded by flowers from other people. A small memorial.

It usually makes me angry when people leave off doing something because it is ‘gay’. But not this time. And not just because you don’t get angry with people who mourn.

It’s because underneath the thin layer of butchness, it is the most open expression of affection between men that I have seen in some time.

And it does not matter whether we call that gay, or homosocial, or whatever.

From an Hungarian stamp, photographed by Darjac.

From an Hungarian stamp, photographed by Darjac.