The Radical Notion

Encouraging women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians

The Social Construction of Femininity March 24, 2009

I’ve been super-busy this semester, and so haven’t blogged in a while. I’m going to try to rectify this by writing several posts that have been kind of mulling around in my head for a while. So – onward!

I’ve thought a lot recently about the relative importance placed on the physical appearances of men and women. And this post isn’t about the male gaze, or the fact that women’s physical appearance is deemed much more important and “relevant” in whatever social context they happen to be in – at least, it’s not only about that. I think it’s impossible to fully extricate oneself from these interconnected positive feedback loops of social mores, but I’m going to try and discuss a separate but related issue: the artificiality of a woman’s expected appearance.

Hopefully this isn’t too TMI (it wouldn’t be in a patriarchy-free world, but I digress), but as I go to a women’s college and rarely wear clothes that don’t cover my entire lower half, I sometimes go for a very long time without shaving my legs. This really shouldn’t be a big deal – but it is. It really is. Regardless of the fact that this blog is (somewhat) anonymous, it took me a minute to get up the courage to type that. What if one of my not-very-close friends reads that, and then they know? What if somebody stumbles on this blog from a random Google search, realizes that I’m the author, and then they know? What if I become suddenly inundated with antifeminist trolls, who are already far too eager to accuse one of being a “hairy-legged feminazi”? Or worst of all – what if somebody I’m interested in dating finds or is told about this blog, and reads this post?

I feel, very strongly, that expecting women to shave their legs is idiotic, and will happily tell anyone who asks that very fact. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I live in a world where any woman who doesn’t shave her legs is completely slovenly and disgusting. Why, she probably doesn’t wash either! And she’s probably also fat. Damn dirty hippies. Of course, it goes without saying that any woman who doesn’t shave her legs is also wholly unattractive; it’s not even up for debate. In terms of media coverage, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a TV show, movie, ad, music video, or any other visual representation of a woman other than private photos that showed even the tiniest hint of stubble. Were it not for razor commercials and cheap sitcom jokes, men* could be forgiven for not even realizing that women had the capacity to grow leg hair! (Assuming, of course, that they had never met a woman who didn’t shave in real life – all too possible). Socially speaking, women with leg hair are repulsive – ostensibly, they are nonexistent. It’s not just about being considered physically attractive – it’s about being considered, period.

Now, this isn’t at all surprising or groundbreaking news. It’s ingrained in the cultural consciousness – any women I know who don’t shave their legs regularly are at least aware of the subversiveness of their (in)actions. I personally have had far too many instances of somebody glimpsing my calf with a centimeter or so of dark hair, and them visibly shuddering (seriously, like 50 times). What I hadn’t really pondered until recently, however, was how much this is tied into not only one’s physical attractiveness, but gender conformity. Several members of my family, upon espying my luxurious pelt over winter break, expressed feelings about its “mannishness” in disparaging tones. Of course, I was familiar with this stereotype as well – how could I not be? – but was still taken aback. After all, I am a woman. As a cisgendered, cissexual, heterosexual, curvy woman who also adores babies, baking, and embroidery, I’m not used to having my innate femaleness questioned (which yes, I realize is an indicator of my gender-conforming privilege). Even other ways in which I don’t conform to gender stereotypes – my interest in science, for example – had never been invoked as evidence that I was no longer womanly.

It also just didn’t make sense. I was, pretty unequivocally, a woman. This much had been established. By letting my leg hair grow and refusing to spend time, money, and energy on a task I found boring and arduous at best, was I not embracing my full self even more? Wouldn’t this make me, if anything, more womanly? Because let me tell you, dudes – women grow leg hair (with the exception of some of my Asian friends). It might not be as thick or as dark as many men’s leg hair, but it’s there. And if they let it grow, it would be just as long as yours. We are, after all, mammals. It’s a scientifically accepted fact that almost all adult women grow hair on their legs – so how can the fact that I have hair on my legs make me less of a woman? You might as well say the fact that I have an appendix makes me less of a woman, or the fact that I don’t have my tonsils makes me more of one.

I think a lot of (heterosexual) standards of attractiveness are based on sexual dimorphism. I myself am physically attracted to men with pretty “masculine” characteristics – tall, broad shoulders, moderate amounts of body and facial hair, and a relatively deep voice. I’m much less likely to be (physically) attracted to a man who’s short, hairless, high-voiced, or otherwise more stereotypically “feminine”. Of course, nobody exists in a vacuum, so it’s obvious that my personal standards of attractiveness have been socially influenced – however, they do make sense. There are, of course, plenty of women who adore men who are short, or waxed, or countertenors. Nonetheless, to whatever extent sexual orientation is biologically determined or influenced, it makes sense that heterosexuality is based on attraction to sexually dimorphic characteristics. It’s completely impractical to check someone’s genitals – their chromosomal makeup doubly so – to determine their sex, so how can you tell if someone falls into the category of people you’re sexually attracted to? Look at their secondary sex characteristics.

What are the secondary sex characteristics for humans? Wikipedia has a list of the most common:

  • Men are taller than women
  • Men have more muscle mass than women
  • Women have less upper body strength (both absolutely and proportionally) than men
  • Men have a more prominent “Adam’s apple”, resulting in a deeper voice
  • Women have much larger breasts than men, regardless of their reproductive status (unlike other primates)
  • Women have broader hips and a thinner waist than men, resulting in a more “sashaying” gait than men
  • Men have more sebaceous and sweat gland activity, giving them more acne and body odor than women
  • Need I really mention the naughty bits?
  • Both men and women have body hair on most of their bodies, but the ratio of vellus hair (“peach fuzz”) to terminal or androgenic hair differs by sex.
I do like how men apparently have pubes on their face.

I do like how men apparently have pubes on their face.

Of course, secondary sex characteristics are really more tendencies than absolutes – I know plenty of full-grown men shorter than me, and I grow hair on my feet (like the man on the diagram above), just as two examples. So we’re expected to either emphasize tendencies, such as drawing attention (but not too much!) to our breasts, or – more cogently – invent ones that don’t actually exist.

Look at that hair diagram. There’s nothing very surprising about the male figure – no hair growing where it wouldn’t normally grow, and no shocking bald patches (with the caveat, of course, that this is a stylized diagram, and Caucasian-based; men of other ethnicities have different amounts and distribution of hair). The male figure is, more or less, what we would expect to see if raised solely on a diet of mainstream media (though of course male depilation of the chest, pubic area etc. is becoming more mainstream and “attractive”). But look at the female one! Why, she has hair on the lower half of her legs! And her pubes spread onto her thighs! And is that – horror of horrors – a happy trail? If she raised her arms, I wouldn’t be surprised if she even grew armpit hair!

Say it ain't so!

Say it ain't so!

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, two fully-grown adults, with average habits and daily activities. Now imagine that, through whatever means necessary, their ability to carry out any personal hygiene or grooming activities is removed. What would happen to them? Pretty much the same thing – they’d both get hairier, sweatier, smellier, (possibly) more pimply, greasier, and decidedly funkier. Neither would be very enjoyable to be around, neither would be appreciated in polite company, and before the germ theory of disease, both would have been suspected of transmitting the Black Death.

But what about their gender? A man that is stinky and dirty might be considered attractive in some quarters (“ooh, a wild, untameable mountain man!”) and unattractive in others (“ew, a smelly, gross dude!”). However, whether he’s viewed positively or negatively, he’s always viewed to be a man, and this slovenliness is viewed as an extension of his manliness – nobody’s ever called a dude girly for forgetting to shower or letting his beard grow in. Women, on the other hand, that get smellier/dirtier/hairier, become much like the unkempt men – and thus, manly.

I wish we could all just cut the crap and be frank about the fact that “womanliness”, as a social construct (insofar as it relates to beauty standards) has nothing to do with what women “naturally” are – it basically means that women spend more time, effort, and money on their physical appearance than men do, even to the point of maintaining artificial and mythical bodily characteristics (of course, this also means that some other physical characteristics that are largely or solely the province of women, such as cold hands or cellulite, are not considered attractive and markers of a woman’s inherent “womanliness”).

Why else would any [straight] man who spends more than a requisite amount of energy on his hair, face, clothing, etc. be labeled “metrosexual”? Because we, as a society, can’t deal with the fact that a man might want to look good or primp without being a member of the populations subject to the male gaze – women and gay men. So we create an adjective describing his behavior, because it’s weird, but said adjective has to reference his sexuality – because there would be no other reason to care about one’s personal appearance if one’s straight male sexuality were completely intact and “normal”. Because trying to look good is something girls do.

I’m not going to say that this idea of “feminine beauty = inordinate maintenance” is the only paradigm, either on a historical or global level. But there are parallels with the current, largely Western phenomenon of leg depilation. Two historical instances that readily come to mind are Chinese foot-binding, and corsetry – the former more so than the latter, as the latter emphasized pre-existing tendencies rather than completely fabricating them, and was usually not as physically damaging as was the pursuit of the “lotus foot”.  But both are good examples of women being forced to modify their bodies in the pursuit of some artificially created “feminine ideal”, in order to be considered physically attractive.

Obviously, the physical risks and consequences of leg depilation do not, as a rule, approach the magnitude of those frequently seen in the aforementioned customs. Nonetheless, my point is that women being forced to bear the burden of maintaining the ridiculous and contrived paragon of The Perfect Woman (the exact appearance of which may vary in time or location, but which almost always requires more work than the Perfect Man) is not a new trend.

On a very good post about the male gaze, Marla Singer at We Are The Wave says: “Women, in their most natural state, would not look far different from men. If women didn’t shave their legs, armpits, bikini lines, or other areas of their body, how would they compare then? If women didn’t pluck their eyebrows, maintain their hair or make-up, get braces to fix up their teeth, diet, exercise, or partake in “feminine” activities, how different would women really be?“. I agree, and think she makes an excellent point regarding the level of upkeep the platonic ideal of “woman” requires – fodder for another post, I think.

In the end, this is about the male gaze, but it’s mainly about the difference between “sex” and “gender”. Women as a sex grow hair on their legs and armpits and eyebrows and sometimes their upper lip or lower abdomen; this is a scientifically-accepted fact. But women as a gender Do Not – or at the very least, spend a great deal of time and energy pretending that they Do Not. So next time you sneer at a woman’s visible underarm hair, ask yourself – if the female sex is allowed to grow hair, why is it so important to me that members of the  female gender remove it?

Other posts on the matter:

Sociological Images, on men’s versus women’s razor ads

Feministing: Because you’re never too old to start adhering to patriarchal norms

Hell On Hairy Legs: A Hairy History: the Removal of Body Hair

The Pursuit of Harpyness: Razors and Lasers: A Rant

Shakesville: The “Impossibly Beautiful” series, which deals with how even conventionally beautiful people’s images are altered in pursuit of an ever-changing and unattainable degree of “perfection”

* In this and every other instance speaking about the physical differences between men and women, please note that “men” and “women” should be understood to mean “cis men” or “cis women”, etc., as I realize that not everyone who is a man or woman possesses all the typical or expected physical characteristics of one. For the sake of brevity and clarity (two things sorely needed in this convoluted behemoth of a post), I neglected to mention this every time I actually wrote those words. In addition, gender, while a social construct, does exist and sometimes conflicts with a person’s expected physical appearance much more than the standard “women actually DO grow leg hair” level of non-conformity, and though I do realize that I as a cis* person am quite far from the authority on such matters, I am sympathetic to the difficulties experienced therein and am open to suggestions on how I could make this post/blog more inclusive (though of course anyone who detects ignorance is under no obligation to point it out, as the onus is not on the oppressed group to educate the privileged).


5 Responses to “The Social Construction of Femininity”

  1. J Says:

    I really enjoyed your post–It was a subject matter that I hadn’t really considered before. But, I learned a lot–about the “male gaze”…and I agree with you. I had always felt a bit guilty about not shaving all the time. Oh, and I especially liked your personal examples about your family noticing your “pelt”. :>) Gave me a laugh. Anyways, also, thought you should know that for some reason, all the tv shows I’ve been watching have Apollo–I’ve been watching Horatio Hornblower, Daniel Deronda, and a couple of other British shows and Apollo is in all of them.

    Glad that you’re posting again!

  2. lauren Says:

    I just saw an ad ( that made me think of this post…

    Come on, Jessica. Think of ALL THE INNOCENT PEOPLE you’re hurting by not shaving your legs! Gosh, how selfish.

  3. […] And now – for my favorite of all the crappy body hair ads (of course by favorite, I mean “gives me the most material to blog about because it makes me want to stab a pillow”); via and Lauren in comments. […]

  4. […] ways that an author can make me acutely aware of my own lack of male privilege is by invoking our old friend, the male gaze. This excludes female readers in two possible […]

  5. […] modesty, but because  it reminds her that most women are expected to drastically alter and “maintain” their bodies just to meet a minimum standard of […]

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