1

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.

2

China: 44640 minutes of fame

This is the third episode in a series on freedom and China. Previous posts were about the elegant carelessness I found in Chinese culture and about feeling safe: two causes of the sense of liberty I experienced while visiting the country for a month. I want to discuss a third factor here – one with less positive overtones.

Last time I spoke about anonymity. This time I’ll speak of celebrity.

The more billboards, adverts and shop-windows we saw on our journey, the clearer it became that a European look is a sign of beauty in China. A big proportion of the models promoting the clothes and jewellery, cars and real estate on sale, is of European lineage.

In other cases, I only thought they were European at first sight. On closer inspection, they had been made up to change, for instance, the shape of their eyes. Extra lines and glue create the impression of a ‘double eyelid’. Many East Asians even resort to plastic surgery to achieve this extra wrinkle. The same applies to other eye characteristics and to noses – which are supposedly prettier when they are bigger. Another technique, which we could study in detail in the sleeper trains we took, is to try make the skin whiter as well as ‘younger’ with (toxic) creams, electric devices, and old-fashioned slapping.

To a large extent, these beauty ideals show the influence of North American pop culture, and of the history of European colonialism. Some of it – such as the whiteness ideal – may also be a much older home-grown desire, based in class politics and the division between those who had to work (in the sun) and those with leisure. But a large part of this beauty ideal that we found in Chinese cities is clearly a form of racism that values a European appearance over an East Asian.

To me, these practices and desires were frankly horrid. And yet I cannot deny I benefited from them.

Throughout my stay in China, I was showered with a inordinate amount of attention. And so were my European-looking co-travellers. Some would no doubt give us attention because they were curious or sincerely interested or because they like to mock a foreign tourist. However, much of the attention we got was clearly positive and amounted to admiration. The blonder, the taller, and the bigger the nose, the better.

We posed for literally hundreds of photos; more than I have of ourselves. (I wonder what happened with them?) On one boat trip, an actual queue formed of people wanting to talk to us and take our photo. For our fellow tourists – our Chinese fellow tourists – we had become an attraction in our own right.

CelebrityinChina

We had become ‘iconic’ indeed. On the left: someone from our group. All the others in the photo: unacquainted tourists. Of course, by taking this picture, I placed myself in their company.

Shy boys and giggly girls would come up to me for a chat. At the conference, a boy confessed he was a ‘fan of both your work and you as a person’. One waitress took the trouble of asking her colleagues to write a note in English, with which she approached me after dinner. It said: can I have a photo of us together? And so on. Never in my life have I had so many girls tell me I’m beautiful. (Another thing Northwestern Europeans can learn from people in the rest in the world: how to be less skimpy in their compliments.)

There’s nothing like receiving compliments from strangers at any moment of the day, for boosting your confidence. And there’s nothing like confidence for making you smile and feel at ease. And, as one in our group remarked, the effect spirals upwards because the more you smile and feel at ease, the prettier you will be.

China’s European bias – who knows how long it is to last? – therefore added another layer to my sense of liberty there.

I had not expected to find something which I detest so deeply – privilege rooted in racism – leading me to feel so good.

True, part of the reason that large chunks of my journey made me laugh and smile, were precisely because I was aware of this ridiculous situation; because I had the feeling I had stepped into a period drama, set in the age of empire. Having grown up in the place I did, I had never encountered such ostentatious privileging in real life. The situation was overly familiar, but only from books and films, which made it almost fictional at times.

Have I now also got a taste of the dangerous attractions of real imperialism?