Not a subject for mixed company

A recent post (and my subsequent comment) on Balaam’s Ass prompted me to finally blog about this. I don’t know that Balaam’s Ass would appreciate this tip of the hat, but for what it’s worth…

A few years ago, I had my thinking challenged. I was at a modern dance performance in a park full of hippies, tourists and locals when in the last pose of the dance, the women who were wearing sleeveless leotards raised their arms up high. I, along with the rest of the crowd, save the hippies, drew back in shock, horror and disgust as we faced unexpected armpit hair full on. That was a revealing moment for me. I sat for awhile trying to sort this all out. Everyone has armpit hair, why was I disgusted by it? It really hit me when I realized that I wasn’t just disgusted by someone’s choice of grooming, but I was disgusted with God’s design. The compromise was obvious: A Christian disgusted with God’s design at the request of a world who hates Him. Ouch.

Ever since that day, I’ve been questioning the socialization I’ve received by a world that hates God. I believe all Christians ought to do that in general.

In this post I’m not going to advocate that women not shave/pluck/whatever or that men let facial hair grow so we can all look like hippies, so it’s safe to keep reading. Choice in personal grooming preferences is clearly a Christian freedom we may enjoy. What I will advocate is questioning and countering the disgust we feel when we see the female (or male) body as God actually designed it.

I’ve bounced my thoughts on this issue off friends and one of them suggested in jest that female body hair is a result of the curse. We have no reason (except the disgust socialized into us) to believe that body hair is a result of the curse. Things like wrinkles, sagging, hair falling out and possibly grey hair are effects of sin and death on the body, but growth of body hair at puberty doesn’t fit into that category very easily.

It’s clear that God designed women to have body hair. This body hair, as just about anyone reading this knows, arrives at the beginning of the process wherein females mature sexually. It is a signal that females are reaching the point where they can reproduce.

We have wrongfully been conditioned to see body hair as a masculine feature. This is just plain wrong. Body hair is not a sign of masculinity, but a signal of sexual maturity.

Considering that, how odd is it that this society socializes women to maintain and men to sexually desire an image that, in many ways, falsely represents a pre-pubescent girl? How creepy is that? I’m pretty uncomfortable with the sexualizing of pre-pubescent images for obvious reasons. I don’t want to be misundertood here - just because men respond to this socialization does not make them creepy. The creepiness lies in the conditioning, not the ones conditioned.

Ideals of beauty change with time. In artwork throught history we see women that the U.S. government would label as obese being held up as the ideal beauty. In the latter half of the 1900’s the thin, waifish body was celebrated as an ideal. A few years ago it was flat, straight hair, now the new thing is wavy hair with more body. These things change. Tastes change.

According to Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope, the disgust we know today was socialized into us by beauty magazines of the early (armpit hair) and mid (leg hair) 1900’s. In his closing, Cecil wonders if the disgust with women appearing sexually mature has to do with leftover Victorian prudishness. While I am not a big fan of the sexual revolution, it does make one wonder.

Since that dance performance in the park, I think I’ve (God has) changed my thinking when it comes to this issue. It’s a relief to no longer be disgusted with my body the way God designed it, yet I don’t think anyone will ever see me running around with hairy legs. I have to admire the dancers in the park for their courage to be so bold. But I have to wonder, as a Christian, about the wisdom of making this kind of point with something that would place a huge barrier between the unwittingly disgusted people I want to share the gospel with and me.

How does the intensity of the disgust we feel about female body hair compare to the disgust we feel or don’t feel toward things that should disgust us? Do we react with disgust when someone uses God’s name as a swear or curse word? Do we react with disgust when we see fornication and adultry celebrated on our favorite sitcoms and dramas? Do we find delightful, humorous and entertaining that which grieves God? How about responding with delight when faced with His design and horror when His name is used as a curse word or the sins for which Christ died are celebrated as enterainment?

11 Responses to “Not a subject for mixed company”

  1. Gao Aisa Says:

    I feel like I might be infringing if I make two comments in one day. I’ll keep it short.

    The Social Conditioning of Hair. To me, the scary part is being so completely unaware of our conditioning to clean-shaven armpits. I wonder what ELSE we accept without a question. The people in many foreign countries, even “modern” European nations, don’t seem to mind the hairy woman. Nor the smelly one. I would be interested to hear their opinion. Would they say the same as those hippies?

    I’ve wondered if somehow the armpit thing was a creation of God to emmit fragrance, and maybe with the fall, that fragrance turned to BO. Or, maybe the odor is the same, but our perception of what is a good smell has changed.

  2. Elle Says:

    Interesting, Gao. Bacteria is the source of what we think of as stinky BO, but maybe this bacteria is the kind that has been badly affected by the fall?

    I also wonder what else we accept without question. It is a little frightening.

    Comment as often as you like!

  3. Karen Richmond Says:

    Pondering this question with my husband, we came up with a counter-example: What about all those chest-hairless body-builders one sees nowadays? Surely the attempt is not to make them look prepubescent!

    I think the cultural reason has more to do with simply what looks pretty for a picture–body hair is sort of innately unkempt, and as we accept in public display and photography of increasingly private parts, we have to make them look more groomed.

    BTW, I believe I’ve read that BO does stimulate sexual hormones; it’s just that in context we’re conditioned to perceive it otherwise.

  4. Elle Says:

    I agree, I think. I don’t think the intent now is to make women or body builders look prepubescent, but one would have to recognize that can be the effect. If this whole aversion to body hair is a result of the Victorian fear of sexuality, then it makes a little more sense.

    Imagine a time when body hair was recognized as the sign that someone is sexually mature…then to remove that body hair would, in that culture, keep someone appearing prepubescent.

    Glad it spurred some conversation!

  5. CowPi Says:

    Christian Carnival XLV
    Welcome to this week’s Christian Carnival (#45), an eclectic collection of submitted writings from Christian weblogs. The following 37 articles are loosely organized around the idea that there are three dimensions to spirituality: vertical, horizontal…

  6. Diane Roberts Says:

    Actually this is only a small part of the larger issue: the disrespect for the elders of our society. And the church is following the Pied Piper right into the dirty river. Youth is worshipped in the church. The Youth will lead the next revival. Uh..I don’t think so. Many pastors try to look like overgrown teens. The wisdom of the elderly in the church is disregarded because they are disregarded….unless of course like me they happen to be fortunate enough to look 15 years younger than they actually are…..:)

  7. Jeremy Pierce Says:

    Diane, I’d be careful in not despising youthful pastors. That came up in one of Paul’s letters to Timothy. I agree that seeing the old as irrelevant is bad, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, no pun intended.

  8. Jeremy Pierce Says:

    There was a Star Trek episode in the original series in which Kirk had to do a bare-chested scene. Roddenberry insisted that they not show Shatner’s chest hair, which apparently is quite substantial. I don’t remember if they shaved him or used some other effect, but Roddenberry’s grounds for this were entirely based on thinking it was too sexual. Kirk had to be kept youthful. He wasn’t sexualizing youth. He was using youth to avoid sexualizing. I don’t know how that affects your argument, if it does at all, but it’s evidence that sometimes (or at least sometimes in the 60s) the effect has been the other way.

  9. Elle Says:

    Interesting observation, Jeremy. I think that sort of desexualization would fit in with the leftover Victorian fear of sexuality. Or maybe it’s not fear of sexuality so much as it is trying to push the moral envelope while somehow remaining acceptable?

    When applied to women, would the case remain the same? Would people look at a woman who sports leg and pit hair and find her too sexual or would they find her disgusting? My view on this may be narrow and limited, but my money would be on disgusting.

  10. Parableman Says:

    Christian Carnival XLV
    The 45th Christian Carnival is at CowPi Journal. My Universal Salvation and Universal Damnation is the best I could come up with this week. I don’t want to limit the importance of the point I was making, but it isn’t…

    …IntolerantElle makes an insightful but unpopular observation that our society’s attitude toward women’s armpit hair is opposed to the way God created us (and by ‘us’ I mean not just how God created women’s armpit hair but how he designed men to respond to it). She concludes with some suggestions about other ways we concede to the culture around us that has rejected God’s creation in various ways, all the while wondering how many other ways we may do this. I’m impressed by her care in showing what exactly she is saying and what she’s not saying, wisely anticipating how some will unreflectively read her.

  11. Denise Says:

    Just read an article that said that while 80 percent of white American women shave only 50 percent of black women do. I remember the first time a white co-worker looked at black woman on the PATH with us who was not shaven and asked if it was a political statement. I laughed. I said no. She just feels no need to shave. Why do you? You do it because society dictates that you do it. You mother did it, probably her mother did it. It’s just something that you do. My mother had a shaver. I assume someone gave it to her. But I never saw her shave. I don’t shave most of my body (other than under arm hair which is a hygiene issue). And my sisters don’t shave. On the other hand, I have to little body hair that few people notice.

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