The biological fact of female body hair has been cause for divided opinion since the sixties; so much so you might even call it ‘A Prickly Subject’.
That’s how the poet Amy Anam Cara sees her own abundance of body hair, which she’s chosen to freely allow to grow for the past three years, despite public taunting and abuse.
You can watch her personal revelation manifest in the artwork below:
So, speaking to UNILAD about her poem, Amy Anam Cara explained what it’s really like to be a hairy woman in modern society, and how much ’emotional resilience’ it takes to keep walking on by when people stare at her bare legs.
Amy experiences name-calling almost every time she ventures into town, she said:
I frequently get groups of men and women together who feel it’s ok to shout, ‘Shave your legs, you hairy bitch’ or ‘Oh my god, you are so disgusting’.
The most frequently expressed view is that I would be so much more beautiful if I shaved my legs.
With hairiness in men often associated with virility – and thus attractiveness in evolutionary terms – where do the negative connotations of female pubic hair come from?
Female body hair is understood scientifically by pre-GCSE level kids, but not society-wide by many millennials who grew up beyond the bush-embracing era of the eighties.
But the history of hair removal goes way back before your lifetime, or your parents’ lifetime.
Ancient Egyptians believed hairless skin was cleanlier and most removed religiously, but it was a practice carried out by men and women alike.
It was a belief which was held strong in Ancient Roman beauty ideals, more specifically regarding women, with hairless skin becoming a status symbol. Ever wondered why so many famous statues from the period are shown without hair?
In the Middle Ages, women, inspired by Queen Elizabeth I, removed facial hair – including their eyebrows – to elongate the forehead.
Women were largely left alone as male grooming products washed the market after the invention of the razor.
The early 1900s also saw ads for depilatory cream, like this 1907 X-Bazin Depilatory Powder which promised to remove ‘humiliating growth of hair on the face, neck, and arms’.
Then, in 1915, Gillette created the first razor specifically for women, the ‘Milady Decolletée’, and ever since, beauty conglomerates have been charging women twice as much as men for the pleasure of their very own pink products.
The sixties invention of the high-legged swimsuit was popularised in fashion sectors, and thus, the wax strip was marketed en masse. That brings us about up to date.
The personal waxing and salon industry grew an average of 7.6 per cent annually between 2010 and 2015, according to research firm IBISWorld.
Now, according to Statista sources, the value of the global hair removal market amounted to 880.2 million US dollars in 2017, and is forecasted to rise to about 1.35 billion US dollars by 2022.
But Amy made the choice to shun this multi-billion dollar industry about three years ago, as she says, with the support of ‘an incredible partner’ who empowered her ‘to step out in [her] natural state and feel sexy and strong in that choice’.
Yet, her choice seems to be up for public debate every time she leaves the house, Amy explained:
Sometimes I wish just going out in pair of shorts didn’t cause such a commotion, or have to feel like a massive statement. Just because I have the bravery to go out in my natural state, it doesn’t mean it’s not scary.
It takes a lot of courage and, to be honest, sometimes I choose trousers because I don’t feel emotionally resilient enough that day to deal with nasty name calling.
So how has she managed to face the abuse for all these years?
Amy said she sometimes engages in discussion with people who’ve shouted obscenities. Often, she adds, ‘when those people have seen into the vulnerability and painfulness they are often really apologetic’.
But it left her feeling isolated and wishing for change, she told UNILAD:
I wish so much for a time when it is just a norm and not such a visual challenge for our society.
So, Amy, a writer, poet and artist, wrote down her insecurities, angers and worries. Keeping them to herself for some time, a close friend of Amy’s asked her to read her poetry at a fundraising life drawing class for breast cancer awareness.
Amy said of the task:
I had not yet had the courage to show off my hairy legs and I thought this is the ultimate opportunity to break the fear cycle I was in.
So I wrote the poem, to give a voice to my nervousness and to share my gratefulness to this audience who were the first strangers to witness me in my naked hairy state.
At the class, a chance encounter with Brighton filmmaker, Helen Plumb, would inspire the pair to collaborate on a ‘humbling journey’ culminating in a piece of video art explaining all titled, A Prickly Subject.
Speaking to UNILAD, Helen said:
I met the unshaven Amy Anam Cara who was performing the poetry piece and modelling at a life drawing event. I was intrigued by how uncommon it was to see women with leg hair.
It made me think about my own body hair and why leg hair on women presented uncomfortable feelings. I wanted people talk about it.
Female body hair removal is such an inherent part of our lives, I thought that it was worth exploring why that is, given that it’s a completely cultural phenomenon.
Mixing abstract imagery with the human intimacy of Amy reading her poem aloud, the film aims to highlight the everyday choice of removing or not removing body hair.
It examines, as Helen puts it, ‘how this seemingly small act exposes a much broader issue around what is socially acceptable as a woman’.
After all, since the dawn of time, hairlessness often equates to beauty and femininity in our society, and as a result, having a hairy body is often seen as the opposite, and can alienate some women who might consequentially feel unattractive in their own natural states.
Helen believes A Prickly Subject challenges the notion that beauty and hairiness are not mutually exclusive.
She adds choice is pivotal to the film’s narrative:
The message in A Prickly Subject is to question why many people feel like they have to maintain a hair free body.
There is nothing wrong with shaving your legs either, but the focus here is to challenge the expectation that you have to.
When you put it like that, it seems the film states the obvious about female body autonomy.
Actually, Helen thinks the subject hasn’t been addressed much in this way ‘because most people accept shaving as a normal part of life’.
For both artists, instead, it was time to normalise body hair and show women in their natural state.
Helen tackled why she thinks the ‘taboo’ subject is so ‘prickly’:
It’s challenging to put a subject like this in front of audiences because it makes them confront their own insecurities.
The fact you don’t see much female body hair makes us question why it’s such a taboo, whether its rooted in inequality or consumerism.
Removing body hair is expected for many women and it can be painful, time-consuming and expensive to do so in many cases. It’s hidden from society, quite literally removed.
You only need to watch hair removal adverts to see that none of the adverts actually show any female leg hair, just the sanitised ‘after’.
The collaborative piece was commissioned as part of The Art of Change short film series at the Barbican Centre, and available to watch on their YouTube channel, which uses Amy’s personal account of grappling with a common issue to talk about the larger topic of feminism.
Beyond all expectations, A Prickly Subject went viral after it was shared online.
It was – as ever in the online sphere – a mixed bag of positive and negative responses, many of which questioned the importance of the topic, with the obligatory trolling sprinkled into the comments section.
Reading the comments, Amy said:
It is always hard to read people being so carelessly cruel about someone’s body, whether in person or online and some of the comments have been incredibly sad, both from men and women.
As the poet, I often engage with the most hateful writers, to try and gain a deeper insight into what it is that makes them feel that way, and often, when they see the human being behind the piece, there is a beautiful softness to the discussion, which opens up new realms of connection and curiosity for us both.
But both women say they’ve been ‘overwhelmed’ by the outpouring of support and solidarity in the sentiment of the largely positive reactions.
Helen said she knows of women who’ve been showing their daughters, hoping to inspire them and instil a positive attitude towards their bodies, adding, lots of men have also been supportive of A Prickly Subject.
She added this was the aim:
I wanted the film to feel current and accessible, not just for stereotypically liberal groups but for everyone, particularly younger female generations who will lead the way in tomorrow’s cultural norms.
Amy dubbed it ‘so utterly wonderful’ and really heart-warming to receive letters of thanks from her supporters, saying she hopes the work is ‘important for the future of body autonomy for women’.
Helen has high hopes, she concluded:
I think we are seeing more advocates for body positivity speak out.
But body hair on women still remains a taboo in our culture and normalising this, like many other physical attributes across all genders, presents a complex weave of stigmatism and suppression that has to be unravelled and understood.
Meanwhile, Amy says the whole experience has been ‘liberating’, and welcomes the open debate against body shaming women for their choice to shave or not to shave.
However, she says, the ‘true freedom’ will come when all appearances are seen as inconsequential to the human value of all people and female body hair is no longer A Prickly Subject.
If you have a story to tell, contact UNILAD via [email protected]