I thought of my (edited) book The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair very early on in my academic career, now over twenty years ago, both because of my personal experience and through discussing this as an issue with one of the very first students I taught, in my first academic post as a Junior Research Fellow at Oxford University in the UK.
When I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCO), partially on the grounds of the heavy hair growth all over my legs (although I do not have this elsewhere on my body or face, as some women with PCO do). Initially, when I was a young teenager, I shaved my legs, but I have very sensitive skin, and after a while the shaving caused serious rashes all over my legs. I tried waxing once, but the hair on my legs is so heavy and strong, and my skin so sensitive, that I ended up literally with blood on my legs and in considerable pain. All of this prompted me to start thinking about why and how women removed the hair on their bodies and face (in the case of mustaches and beards). I started noticing how much a hair-free body was associated with the achievement of an acceptable femininity and of heterosexual desirability.
Having undergone the waxing experience, I decided to stop doing anything about the hair on my legs at all, but not primarily because of the pain, but because I was shocked to realise that my waxed legs no longer felt to me as if they were my legs. They felt alien, or, as I said at the time, I felt ‘like a plucked chicken’! So I did not stop removing the hair to rebel, or because of the pain of hair removal, or because I thought unshaven legs were prettier, but because my personal strongest drive in life is to be able to be myself, whatever I discover that to be. In my case, my unshaven legs felt like me.
Several years later, I was discussing this decision not to remove my body hair with my student at Oxford, and she told me in turn that she also had very dark and long hair growth, but in her case all over her body and, according to her, because of her Albanian ancestry. This student also told me she was training to be a contemporary ballet dancer (and, in fact, she became a very successful dancer), and that although contemporary ballet prided itself on breaking all kinds of taboos, for instance having dances danced in the nude, she was required to remove all the hair from her body. That was not up for question!
It was during this discussion that I decided to write a book on this whole topic, especially when I then discovered during subsequent research that nobody had done so already. There were a very few articles on the topic, examining constructions of femininity, gender and the body, but I discovered even feminist writers and academics had very little to say about why women remove their body hair: they either did not mention it at all, or, if they did, they only briefly advocated not practicing hair removal in order to return to a ‘natural’ body, or they celebrated hair removal as part of an idea of an enjoyment of beautification. In my book I did not want either to advocate hair-removal or to defend it, but try to understand more why it was done: what it meant. This is also why I ended up not writing the whole book myself, but having different chapters written by different experts, although they were all following the theoretical framework I worked out in my own introductory chapter, which is to see the body (any kind of body, not just ‘female’) as culturally constructed, not as ‘biologically’ determined. Having a range of different expertise allows the book to illuminate the meanings of hair-removal across a range of fields and practices: literature, film, art, psychology, advertising, anthropology, and so on.
It took me twenty years in the end to get the book published! I wrote to over forty publishers, but most of them either said the subject was too trivial to write about at such length and in an academic book, or they said that society was no longer interested in what they called ‘extreme feminism’. My late father, who was a psychiatrist, once importantly pointed out to me when I was somewhat discouraged after a long line of such responses, that in fact they completely proved the argument of my book and were predictable from what my contributors and I examined in the book, which is that body hair is an instance of how issues can be defined socially, culturally or historically as too silly and trivial to be discussed, on the one hand, whilst on the other they are seen as too dangerous, mad and monstrous to be considered, and that this is in fact how social and cultural power acts itself out.
It was remarkable to see the kinds of comments publishers made, even in the case of initially enthusiastic and supportive editors: one editor from a self-defined ‘radical’ academic press told me her sales team would not accept the book as they saw it as ‘too feminist’ for contemporary academia. On the other hand, self-defined feminist presses such as Virago and The Women’s Press had no interest in the book at all. Another publisher who initially wanted to publish the book finally rejected it when a review-reader said they thought it should primarily be about men and body hair, not women. In another case, a publisher wanted me to change the title because they said that The Last Taboo ‘made it sound like it was about sex’; apparently they thought body hair had nothing to do with sex!
I and my contributors were thrilled when the book was finally published in 2007. I worked on this book longer than on any other in my academic career, and doing it not only was part of my own stubborn belief that this issue mattered, whatever many of the publishers thought, but also confirmed to me that academia (and academic publishing), no matter how much it claims to be about original thought, is often just as much in thrall to ideas of the acceptable and the valuing of ‘fashion’. Most of all, though, The Last Taboo, was, and remains, part of the core of my drive in life to live my life as myself, not as defined by others.
Karín Lesnik-Oberstein is Professor of Critical Theory and Director of the Graduate Centre for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media (CIRCL) in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Reading, in Reading, UK. Karín was born of a Dutch mother and Cuban father in Amsterdam, and as a child educated in England, Canada, and Holland, before completing her University studies at the Free University of Amsterdam in Holland and the University of Bristol in the UK. Karín’s research interest is in transdisciplinary critical theory, and she has published monographs on Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child (1994) and On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood (2008), as well as several edited volumes on critical theory and childhood and gender, focussing on gender primarily in The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair (2007, republished in paperback 2011).