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.