Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact


22.3.08

Of Beards And Pubes

The Angry Black Woman wants to start a conversation about how women deal with "the notion that beautiful = hairless below the eyebrows." My initial reaction is that this notion is a silly one that should be done away with* -- after all, I don't remove the hair from anything below my neck, so why should other people have to? But then I realized that there is hair between the eyebrows and the neck, and I do shave that regularly.

I'm far from having a comprehensive theory of body hair. But introducing beards into the equation does shed some different light on our culture's** views of it. One unfortunate thing it does -- and the reason I came back here to debitage rather than post this at ABW's -- is to tempt us to draw a false equivalence between the expectation of shaven cheeks on men and of shaven everything on women. A more positive thing it does is to prompt me to be a bit more understanding of the outlook of women who do opt to shave more than my (or ABW's) abstract feminist principles say they should have to. Specifically, I'm reminded of how certain aspects of culture, such as preferences about body hair, can become so integrated into us that the simple model of real internal desires thwarted by outside pressures becomes inapplicable -- after all, I don't feel forced against my will to shave, but neither can I easily claim my preference for a smooth chin is obviously naive and extra-cultural.

The most interesting thing that occurred to me is the incongruity encountered when trying to understand male shaving in terms of the most common explanation offered for female shaving -- that women are expected to shave so as to satisfy the patriarchal fetish for youth by appearing pre-pubescent. I've always been skeptical that this is the full explanation (after all, women are also expected to have large, clearly post-pubescent, breasts). And it collapses entirely in the case of male shaving, since I don't think our culture has a desire for men to look more like boys.

The beard case makes me think another important strain is the idea that hair below the eyebrows (hair above the eyebrows is an interesting exception that I'm not sure what to make of) represents dirtiness and unruliness. Think about who stereotypically has a beard -- hippies, homeless men, terrorists. While neatly-groomed beards are not verboten the way hairy armpits on women are (and indeed, may even connote fatherly warmth a la Santa Claus), a smooth chin communicates a sort of cleanliness and efficiency (and so it's perhaps no wonder that the U.S. hasn't had a president with facial hair since Taft***). Stephen R. Donaldson makes good use of this concept in his Thomas Covenant novels, as the titular character's shaving habits parallel his mental health. Facial hair connotes uncleanliness and lack of self-control -- as well as virility (think Ron Jeremy's moustache) which, while desirable, is also dangerous and improper to show off too explicitly. Because of its plasticity, its ability to be styled in many ways, hair also connotes individuality (distinct from individualism), which is another form of unruliness.

This theory may also explain the differing shaving expectations placed on women vs. men, beyond the fact that patriarchy oppresses women more. Men shave their public parts (their face), but can let the private ones (below the neck) go (though note that men who are extremely hairy are often looked down on if the absence or style of their shirt makes it too visible). Women, on the other hand, don't have a private sphere to the same degree -- their whole body is public (read: men's) property, and so the whole thing must be kept clean and hairless.

The root cause, then, is our old friend the mind-body dualism. Hair removal is pushed by our culture as a way of subduing physicality. So if you hate shaving, blame Descartes as much or more than Humbert Humbert.

*I should point out that opposing the idea that people should be expected to do something is not equivalent to thinking poorly of those who do it.

**By "our culture" I mean "the culture I was raised in and continue to operate in," however narrowly that may need to be defined for whatever point I'm making.

***Nor have we had a serious contender in my lifetime aside from Al Sharpton. On the other hand, two candidates -- Al Gore and Bill Richardson -- have grown facial hair after leaving the race and its intense spotlight, and in Gore's case his beard was explicitly treated (along with his weight) as a marker of "letting himself go" in the aftermath of his loss and "getting it together" when he shaved and lost weight to make An Inconvenient Truth. In Richardson's case, I recall a number of people saying the beard made him look more Latino -- which, in combination with the (failed and mustachioed) Sharpton vs. (successful and shaven) Obama contrast, could be a starting point for an interesting discussion of how race intersects with body hair if I knew enough to have anything intelligent to say on the subject.

7 Comments:

Anonymous h sofia said...

Hmm; your last paragraph struck me especially because I just saw a picture of Richardson and vaguely wondered if he was Latino.

I wish my husband could grow a beard. It's ironic. I'm one of the small percentage of women who actually prefer them, and I married one of the small percentage of men who simply cannot grow one (not even a mustache!).

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Meep said...

Sofia > He is Latino and white.

This still doesn't answer the question I posed about the recent trend in male pubic hair. Is it entirely based on sexual appeal or is there something else going on? Maybe it is purely based on sexual preferences but somehow I think there is another kind of motivation going on.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

What's the recent trend - that men should shave their pubic hair?

My guess is that nobody likes having to deal with a partner with pubic hair. Pubic hair is messy and often smelly, and sticks to the tongue or genitals. Hence, people often pressure their partners to shave, or else their partners expect them to want them to shave. I'd chalk the trend to a maturation of feminism, which has led to women demanding more from their partners when it comes to sex.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous h sofia said...

Not to be too personal, but I think altogether removing pubic hair is ridiculous. People who insist on this are just watching too many pornos or something. Removing leg hair is a bitch enough as it is; what is this obsession with hairlessness? We live in a time and place of hot showers on demand, and 8 million varieties of shower gels, soaps, salts, scents, and body sprays. If there is ANY time in the history of humankind that we don't need to remove pubic hair for hygienic reasons, wouldn't that time be now????

*end of rant*

4:53 PM  
Blogger Randal Cooper said...

口ひげ電源

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:23 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home