The first time I ever saw armpit hair on a woman was, perhaps unsurprisingly, at a place called “nature camp.” The summer before fifth grade, my dad bought me a big-girl pocket knife and some zip-off cargos, and ushered me onto a pistachio-green bus bound for rural Maryland. There, under the shade of my home state’s mighty white oaks, I spent the next four weeks carving infinity symbols out of balsa wood and building tiny creekside huts out of mud—offerings to the nocturnal leprechauns my 18-year-old counselors swore existed. I sipped lemonade from cardboard cartons. I acquired a farmer’s tan. An eighth-grader with a belly button ring cornrowed my hair. The place was bliss.
Outside of nature camp, I wasn’t much of a tomboy. I liked Beanie Babies and the color periwinkle. My favorite movie was Legally Blonde. But nature camp appealed to every kind of kid. Because at nature camp, we were free.
We rugrats weren’t the only ones who felt a unique sense of liberation amid the rope courses and kumbayas, though. The grown-ups felt it too. I witnessed proof of that right under the arms of Mel, a counselor in charge of arts and crafts. My second week, I signed up for Mel’s crash course in friendship bracelet–making. She was leaning across our picnic table to help a fellow camper with her box stitch, when I first spotted it: a shock of orange hair sprouting from under the straps of her overalls. The hair was long and fuzzy, like the tuft at the end of a stuffed animal’s tail.
At the age of 10, you’re more accustomed to seeing things you’ve never seen before. After all, the world is still so new to you. But in turn, your reactions are less filtered. Seeing this totally unfamiliar part of a woman’s body almost made me feel dirty, like walking in on a stranger in the bathroom and not immediately looking away. I gaped shamelessly at Mel’s pits. But with her mile-wide smile and laid-back stance, she didn’t even seem to notice. Mel was utterly un-self-conscious. And I’ve never forgotten that. As crazy as this sounds, it would be over 10 years before I saw another woman with armpit hair.
Of course, my relationship with my own body hair evolved in the interim. It ebbed and flowed with all the melodrama that comes with female youth. Today, at 24, I find myself coming full circle, gravitating toward Mel’s natural approach. But somehow, I can’t quite commit. I want to. But every day, something keeps me reaching for that razor, the freedom of nature camp and prepubescence eclipsed by a decade’s worth of voices telling me that armpit hair isn’t for girls. At least not the pretty ones.
Sound familiar? To follow me down the windy road toward accepting my own body hair, keep reading.
Less than two years after my jubilant summer at nature camp, I started middle school. Without so much as a swimming test, I was hurled into the deep end of adolescent insecurity, where I quickly learned that soft, hairless skin; lacy bras; and layers of black eyeliner were synonymous with womanhood.
At 12, I made a best friend named Piper, who wore lip gloss and thong underwear and taught me how to shave in the sink. “I shave everywhere,” she told me. “Boys like it that way. Here, feel my leg.” I blushed as I swiped an index finger down her tibia. It was impossibly smooth, like glass.
That night, I stole a disposable razor from my parents’ shower and shaved off every millimeter of hair on my body. Razor burn set my legs aflame, and microcuts under my arms stung like wasps, but at least the hair was gone. If this is what it took to be a beautiful grown-up, it was a small price to pay.
Your middle school years so profoundly inform your ideas of beauty and femininity. Piper couldn’t have been more different from Mel or any of my fancy-free elementary school friends. But she was pretty and fun, and she quickly made a strong impression on my pliable brain. After all, this was 2004. We didn’t have YouTube beauty tutorials yet; it wasn’t customary to turn to the Internet for inspiration or community, like most tweens do now. All we had were the people in our immediate circle. And I had Piper.
Piper put a lot of effort into seeking approval from boys—she’d dress with them in mind, diet with them in mind, schedule our weekend hangouts at the mall according to when her flavor of the week might be there. She looked down on the girls at school who didn’t shave; she poked fun at their hairiness, a sign that they weren’t yet clued into this thing called femininity, this thing she already embodied.
But for Piper, shaving wasn’t just a grooming necessity; it was a ceremony. We’d file into the bathroom, shut the door, and tell each other secrets as we coated our bodies in Skintimate. Side by side, we’d carefully run pink razors up our thighs and down our underarms, hoping our glistening skin would beckon a boy to cop a feel.
Of course, it’d be years before I got any action. But for me, it wasn’t even about that. Even after Piper and I went to different high schools and grew apart, shaving remained something that all girls just did, like brushing your teeth or shampooing your hair. It was a given. Sure, my friends and I would giggle as we confessed to letting our legs go a scandalous week or two without shaving in the winter. But letting your armpits grow out was simply unheard of. It never even occurred to me that shaving them was a choice.
The summer after I graduated high school, I fell in love with the person I’ve been dating ever since. Now another human being would actually know the intimate details of my body hair. So I did what I thought all adult women with boyfriends did: I got a Brazilian wax. I also invested in a collection of pricey razors and shaving creams, items that promised soft, touchable skin, even for those prone to unladylike razor burn, like me.
For the next year or so, I maintained my persona as the effortlessly hairless girlfriend. I continued dropping hundreds of dollars on shaving paraphernalia and visits to my darling waxer (hi, Miriam!). Being freshly hairless made me feel clean and desirable, like the women on Sex and the City or, to name a more accurate inspiration, the girls on The Hills.
But then, I entered my 20s. I dyed my hair red and moved to Brooklyn. There, I was introduced to a slightly worldlier, more free-thinking crew of women who cared more about things like feminist literature and cultural rebellion than traditional femininity. Sure, everyone was still young and self-conscious (i.e., everyone still had a texting relationship with her waxer). But we were all a little more mindful about it. It was now the early 2010s, and we wanted to be more like the characters on HBO’s Girls than the blondes on MTV. We saw celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Charlotte Free proudly growing out their body hair and flaunting it online. All this had an impact.
Of course, we 20-somethings still wanted to be sexy. We wanted to be sexier than ever, but our definition of what that meant was changing.
This renaissance happened to coincide with my second and third anniversaries with my boyfriend. The combination of these events led to what I think was a pretty natural next phase in my body hair narrative: My shaving slowed way down.
Any insecurities I still had about my body at 21 didn’t feel as urgent and intrusive as they had during the Piper era. Plus, I simply had better things to do than spend my time and money on hair removal. So I cut my leg-shaving down to once a month, or on special occasions. I bid a sad farewell to Miriam, and for the most part, I let my bikini area do its thing.
Still, every morning in the shower, I ran a razor over my armpits. It was just so easy. Unlike the rest of my body, ignoring my underarms almost felt harder than spending the 20 seconds it took to shave them. I knew plenty of girls like me, who’d lightened up on shaving their legs and nether regions. But letting my armpit hair grow out felt like a statement I didn’t know if I was ready to make.
I never considered a reality where regular women didn’t shave their armpits until after I graduated college.
My closest friend from high school, a girl named Hallie, had stopped shaving her body hair completely after we'd moved to different cities four years prior. We met up a few months after graduation—her armpit hair was the first I’d seen since nature camp. But this time it didn’t stun me. Instead, I wanted to know more.
Hallie said that like me, she had a sort of awakening after high school. “That’s when I was beginning to feel a little more in charge of my own body,” she told me. “I didn't feel comfortable altering my natural self in order to contribute to a culture that [expects] young girls to do so.” Hallie said that by the time she got to college, she felt more confident physically embodying those beliefs, so she stopped shaving altogether.
All this definitely resonated with me. But still, I couldn’t quite shake the idea that people might gawk at my armpit hair if I let it grow out, like I did at Mel’s. I certainly didn’t want to be society’s robot, but I didn’t want to be a spectacle, either. Especially not to my boyfriend.
Hallie assured me that most reactions to her armpit hair were surprisingly pleasant. “Positive, if not glowing” were her exact words. She said that in her life, what shaving had done was create this “illusion” for men. “Obviously men know women have [armpit] hair,” she explained, “but [by shaving it], the everyday woman becomes a fantasy, and I shaved to become that fantasy.” As it turned out, though, Hallie found that men didn’t need that illusion to find her beautiful and feminine. At least not the ones worth knowing.
At this point, I had all the reasoning I needed to quit shaving my underarms, just as I’d abandoned my monthly Brazilians. I loved the idea of being both sexy and authentic, of challenging onlookers’ expectations of women’s bodies. It suddenly occurred to me how freaky it was that I didn’t even know what my own armpit hair looked like, after over 10 years of obsessively eliminating it. I felt like I owed it to myself to stop shaving, even just as an experiment. So I decided to give it a try.
That was almost a year ago. And I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I still haven’t let my armpit hair grow for more than a week without shaving it off.
I understand how silly it seems that I’d let some parts of my body hair go au naturel while compulsively shaving others. But the thing is, it’s easy to stand by my leg stubble and ’70s-esque bikini line. It’s a pain to shave those areas, and a lot of people can relate to that.
But shaving your pits is just so painless—and thus so widespread, so expected—that I feel like giving it up sends a strong message I just don’t feel ready to defend. At least not all the time. If only I could stick on my pit hair and take it off whenever I wanted, like a pair of false eyelashes. But it doesn’t work that way.
I’ve talked about this with a lot of other women who shave. Some of them say they do it because their significant others prefer it; some explain that shaving makes them feel “cleaner” (which I think is psychological in a whole other way). Don’t get me wrong, though—I totally understand these arguments.
But ultimately, when I think about the kind of person I want to be, I envision someone self-possessed enough to make fiercely independent choices about her own body. I picture someone as confident and effortless as Mel was, weaving friendship bracelets at nature camp in all her unshaved, overall-clad glory.
But do I picture armpit hair? I’m not sure. Because I’m not Mel. I’m also not Piper or Hallie. I need to make my own decisions. Is it possible that my best, most genuine self flaunts a shock of brunette under her arms? It’s certainly possible. But I’ve yet to figure that out for sure.
I’m confident that I will, though. After all, learning who you are is a lifelong process. Let’s just say I’m still giving myself room to grow.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so... welcome to The Flipside (as in the flipside of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society's definition of "beauty." Here, you'll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we'd love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation, too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here, on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
What are your thoughts on female body hair? Do you prefer shaving or letting it grow? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!