I Don’t Shave My Legs — The Hairy Topic of Beauty

I try to walk in my mom’s high heels, dressed for the day in pearls and a little blue dress.

I want to be pretty.

I’m three years old.

The never-ending quest for beauty begins young.

Mini Mechanic out on the town.

I’m twelve when a girl at school announces to the lunch table that I still don’t shave my legs, eliciting an “Ewww,” from Blaine, the guy I am totally crushing on. I go home and run the blades over my shin, afraid that I will slice the skin straight off.

I’m fourteen at the water park, overhearing two friends remarking how gross it was that I had hair sneaking out from my bikini line. I feel shame burning through me, a reddening of my cheeks.

I wonder how much shaving is enough. Enough to be accepted, and enough to be beautiful not disgust others.

Every pre-teen has stories like these, humiliation and confusion shaping us into adulthood.

Girls go on to be poked, prodded, waxed, razored, squeezed, tweezed, and teased. They pay for it in their self-esteem just as much as their wallets.

The Pricetag of Beauty

Every year, the beauty industry rakes in billions of dollars. According to one survey of 2,000 participants, American women spend $313 per month on beauty products or $3,756 per year. (Men spend a little less at $244 per month). That adds up to $225,360 in her lifetime ($175,000 in his) or enough money to book a reservation for a sight-seeing trip to space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.

I was willing to spend this money as a teenager. Every morning I applied eyeliner and mascara. I bought the shampoo and conditioner that promised fabulous, shining hair. I shaved my body. I sprayed perfumes in the air, put on necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. I spent extra time in the morning curling or straightening my hair for the day.

I did everything until I didn’t.

Balking at Beauty Standards

One day in middle school, I remember sitting in front of my mirror, looking at myself. Earlier that day, we had all been discussing what type of animal we would be if we were able to change, animagus-style. My ‘friend’ said that I would be a crow because of my beaky nose. (Yikes! Middle schoolers are ruthless.)

I went home and up to my room where my mirror leaned back against the wall. While looking at my face, I tried to block out any negative emotions. No shame, no distaste, no longing to be something else. I decided that I couldn’t change anything about my appearance, so why fret? That was the beginning of an inner acceptance that revolutionized my approach to beauty later on in life.

Throwing Beauty Products Away

The summer of my sophomore year of high school, I decided to stop wearing makeup. It was weird at first. I didn’t recognize myself, even though I was the truest version of myself.

As a teen, all you want is to look older and more responsible, but without makeup, I thought I looked 3 years younger. Eventually, the self-consciousness faded and I came to like the way I looked without makeup.

My first time trying makeup. Later, without it, I thought I looked this young.

Two weeks ago, I was packing up for our cross-country move, which meant culling my beauty products. I realized how much of it I haven’t used in a long time. My face scrubs went in the bin, along with eyeshadow palettes, mascaras, and eyeliners.

I haven’t worn jewelry for years. So I gave away all but 2 necklaces and 1 pair of earrings. I don’t own any rings.

I air dry my hair overnight, so I donated my hairdryer. I let go of every bottle of nail polish. Extra lotions, skincare samples, BB creams, primers– I tossed them all.

The Five Whys

Around the time when I found out about financial independence, I began the practice of asking ‘why.’ The technique of asking 5 Whys was first coined by Toyota management while they tried to diagnose issues. If you keep asking why you go from a technical question to an emotional root cause.

And I started applying this to beauty as well.

Why should I shave? 

Well, because it’s what women do.

But why?

I guess it’s just expected of them?

Why though?

It’s considered more feminine and attractive.

Why?

I’m not really sure, but the alternative is ‘gross’.

Why though? 

Because shame fuels the beauty industry.

We know that during World War II, razors were marketed to women. Ads in the 60s and 70s condemned hair as ‘unfeminine’. Marketers invented a problem where there wasn’t one– just another sales tactic making you question if you are enough.

An ad in Harper’s Bazaar, from 1922.

Some of my friends claim that they shave because they enjoy the feeling.

“I feel like a dolphin when I get into bed with clean sheets,” one said. But I suspect that the shame attached to having hairy legs is a bigger factor. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we see at least some hairy legs in the summer, jumping into swimming pools and strutting on boardwalks? Surely I’m not the only one who is annoyed by the time and effort it takes to maintain smooth legs?

It may seem like a small effort in the grand scheme of things, but on average, a woman spends 10.9 minutes shaving, and she will shave 7,718.4 times in her lifetime.

I’ll spare you the math– that makes 84,000 minutes, 1,400 hours, 58 days spent shaving! That’s a lot of time one could have spent perfecting their bowling game or reading the eye-opening works of Caitlin Moran.

Beauty And Her Beastly Legs

For most of my life, the pursuit of beauty felt like trying to climb a sand dune. Each step dragged me down, and it was a herculean effort to continue climbing under the oppressive heat of society’s sun. Finally, I stopped.

At first, having hairy legs was a bit scary. I wore jeans so no one would know. Dresses looked weird to me in juxtaposition to my hairy legs, so I avoided wearing them. I sometimes wore shorts, but avoided being around other people. I would sometimes cave and shave if we were going to a wedding or if we were going swimming, and let it grow back later.

Over time, I gained a little more confidence, a surety in myself. I stopped shaving altogether. I bare my hairy legs at the pool and at outdoor receptions. Nobody has talked to me about it, although people have asked my partner if he is okay with it. Blech. I wish they would ask me instead– maybe I could lead them down the path of whys. 

Why is it gross for women to have body hair?

Why don’t those rules apply to men?

Why do more people ask about my partner’s preference than mine?

Every time we reconsider what we take for granted, we learn.

Less Fear, More Joy

Now that I don’t shave, I gain back time, brain-space, and no longer have to deal with prickly new growth. I don’t have to worry about rubbing my eyes and smearing mascara or what color foundation matches my skin tone.

I feel self-conscious sometimes when I notice people’s eyes flit down, doing a double take. However, if the why boils down to funding an industry built on shame and the lasting policing of misguided middle school boys, I don’t want to support it.

I am not going to spend $313 a month out of fear. I used to spend the money hoping it would fix me, thinking that people might be disgusted by me otherwise. However, the question ultimately became:

Why am I spending money on something rooted in shame, and not joy?

I realized there isn’t anything to fix, and people like me fine hairy legs and all. More importantly, like me fine. I am enough.

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31 Comments

  1. I love this post! Everything about it! I kind of had a similar journey, though less intentional. I just found all the tasks of “beauty” dull and not worth the effort.

    I have moved into a different phase of life in my late 30s where the basic respect of others in my office affects how I do my job, so I shave if I’m wearing a skirt/dress without hose, and put on light makeup for presentations. But I know what it is. I’m wearing a costume to help me perform better in my work. And I will keep working to dismantle the patriarchy and the need for this aspect of commanding respect for women.

    1. Yes definitely workplace attire complicates this a bit. I work in a male-dominated office of jeans and t-shirts, so I don’t feel much pressure to dress up or wear makeup. That isn’t as possible for others in their job. Y,es, keep dismantling that patriarchy!

    2. Thank you for writing this! I also had plenty of middle school experiences getting picked on for not shaving (or wearing bras) “early” enough for everyone’s liking.
      I still shave my legs for shorts/dresses/etc but if I’m not going to be out in public I basically don’t bother.
      Makeup is funny for me, because I actually like how I look when I’m wearing it but I feel like I don’t actually know how to put it on correctly (and it doesn’t last very long, either smudging or just disappearing). I rarely wear it, partially for that reason, partially because I don’t want to put in the time or effort. I wear it for special occasions and work conferences.

      1. For a long time I would just do simple mascara and eyeliner, but it would still smudge a lot! It took until I got an eye infection and completely stopped for a few months to REALLY stop wearing makeup. But once I stopped, it was easy to stop completely.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this – I think it’s so important to analyze and challenge standards (beauty or otherwise) that affect the way we see ourselves and others. I related to some of the raw emotions and experiences you wrote about in this piece – it’s very powerful.

    To paraphrase Chimamanda Adichie, I’m still trying to relearn some of the lessons of gender. I teach about gender roles and expectations in my sociology class and a constant theme is questioning why behaviors (pretty much always for women) are “gross” or “unacceptable” or unladylike” in some way. We had some awesome, insightful conversations this year, but there’s still a long way to go for people to feel freer to be themselves. As you say at the end, decisions should be made out of joy, not shame.

    1. I love that part of your classes is to question conventional norms! There definitely is a long way to go, but questioning is the first step.

  3. Hey! I love this! While I do shave my legs (I’m not sure I’m as willing to go outside of the social norm as you are), I honestly do not know how to apply make-up. I have 1 tube of lipstick that I wear to weddings or other formal occasions. And 1 color of nail polish for the same reason. I get my hair cut once every 18 months or so. I just don’t feel the need to spend money on beauty products.

    Jess

    1. It took almost a year or two of adjusting before I felt willing to go without shaving for big events, and I still don’t feel fully comfortable at times (although that is changing). It’s nice when the need to spend on that stuff isn’t very strong 🙂

  4. You killed it in this article! (As always!) I’m so sorry that everyone’s first concern is your partner and not you (although I can’t say I’m surprised).

    Thanks for sharing your article. You know I’m all about “you do you”. I think it’s awesome that you had the courage to do so even though it’s a very visible way to not conform. I would love to see a future where everybody stopped shaving!

    1. Thank you! I would love that future too! I think the ‘you do you’ attitude is a nice one to get. If anyone ever sees and gives me a high-five or some type of encouragement I think it would be a lot less scary. So thanks for your encouragement!

  5. Woohoo! I stopped shaving my legs a couple of years ago. Sometimes the double take people do fill me with pride and I am proud of being of confident enough to show them off, while othertimes I still feel embarressed.

    One thing I have been actively avoided doing is telling someone that ‘you look good today’ when it’s a day they’re obviously wearing makeup when on the average day they don’t. It’s funny how many people comment on your appearance when you wear makeup for the first time in a while (or more than usual).

    1. It’s so true that it really depends on who is doing the double take and how confident I feel that day.

      I completely agree with trying to be aware of not just complimenting someone when they are wearing makeup. It’s funny how ingrained that urge can be, because you want to acknowledge if they put a little extra effort in but you don’t want it to be that they only get compliments when they wear makeup!

  6. I’m following a similar path, but well later than my sophomore year in high school – I’m seriously impressed that you ditched the make up that early on. For me, it coincided with my clothing ban, so about two years ago, at twenty nine. I’ve not fully given up the leg shaving, but I certainly allow the times in between to last a while and still wear dresses when I’m quite prickly. It’s HARD though, after a lifetime of expectations there.

    1. I didn’t mention but I didn’t COMPLETELY ditch makeup my sophomore year. It was mostly an experiment for the summer, and then from then on my makeup wearing was rather sporadic. It wasn’t until recently that I completely stopped.

      It’s SO HARD. The lifetime of expectations don’t get pushed aside very easily.

  7. Really powerful post… especially opening with yourself as a little girl innocently being swept into it all. The money statistics you shared are absolutely mind-boggling to me (concerning I barely spend anything on my appearance at this point). I actually might spend more here and there (my first massage ever coming up!) but I am a minimalist at heart. To each their own, but I definitely want to stick it to the man and ditch all the shame. You are a beautiful person and beautiful writer. Thanks for introducing me to the Five Whys.

    1. There are still some self-care items I invest in, and I think a massage would fall in that category. I still use moisturizer and sunscreen as the basics. I love the five whys! Thank you very much, you are also a beautiful person and beautiful writer <3

  8. I’m thoroughly indoctrinated, I’m afraid, so I do enjoy makeup and clean-shaven legs/underarms (my own, I don’t care about anyone else’s). It may help that I work from home, so the only time I have to fuss with makeup is if I’m going out with friends. It keeps it more of a treat than a chore. Or maybe it’s just additional vanity as I age. Who knows? Either way, kudos to you for bucking the trend and finding happiness in your natural appearance. Much healthier, I think.

    1. I think it’s totally valid to prefer it for oneself. I just wonder if I would have ever learned that I prefer unshaved legs without trying it first, because from the age of 12 on I was shaving twice every week! It’s nice that makeup can be more of a treat than a chore, that’s also an element to all of this. When it felt like a chore, I got more and more angry about it!

  9. I love everything about this, you really hit home with this one! It’s really powerful to look at yourself in the mirror and acknowledge that you look that way, it’s the first step to fully accepting you as you. Generally I shave my legs twice in summer and that’s it, I feel like it should be okay to be out and about with the legs. My mom also never shaves, so that’s a very good example for me! I am more conscious about how white my legs are, but I’ve learned to accept that as well. I will never tan and that’s okay!

    I can’t imagine anyone spending that money or their appearance – I’ve only purged things over the last 5 years and I’m still having enough. It’s crazy the things I bought as a insecure 15 year old! I’d say I wear makeup once a month now and that’s about it. I find it takes up way too much space, especially for your cross-country move I’d say it’s not worth the space it’s taking up!

    1. Oh yeah, never tanning was something I had to accept as well. Once I was on vacation after deciding using sunscreen was more important than being tan, and everyone was comparing their burns at the end of the week. I didn’t have any because I had kept in the shade/under a light sarong all week! An ode to paleness 🙂

      It really is amazing what I had kept from my teen years. The jewelry was easy to buy but much harder to get rid of. Thank you for the validation in getting rid of it!

  10. Bravo on being true to yourself!
    Your workplace expectations (or rather, non-expectations) of appearance are awesome. I recall a friend saying that her boss commented that she really should wear lipstick to match the red dress she was wearing. In a similar example I overhead the CEO of my company complain that the women of Colorado don’t make enough effort on their appearance compared to where he was from (California).

    Your post put me in mind of a quote from the popular book “Educated” by Tara Westover.

    “There was a single line written by John Stuart Mill that, when I read it, moved the world: “It is a subject on which nothing final can be known.” The subject Mill had in mind was the nature of women. Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.”
    ― Tara Westover, Educated

    1. A powerful quote indeed! It certainly resonates with me. I definitely feel glad that the same expectations aren’t on me at work.

  11. I love, love, love this post. Mainly as I am 100% on-board with saying no to these stupid patriarchal capitalist oppressions – yet still shave and wax my legs occasionally.

    1. From the responses, a lot of people are in the same boat! Onboard with saying no, but still shaving/waxing/lasering because we all still feel that pressure.

    1. I resonate with what you wrote as well! It takes some getting used to at first, but eventually you get to: “This is me. And I’m ok with that.”

  12. Amen to this! I haven’t shaved my legs or pits in years now and the only makeup I usually wear is mascara. I still shave my bikini area because I prefer it like that but it feels so freely mentally to just not worry about leg and armpit hair. I love having ONE less thing to give mental energy and time to!

    1. I completely agree, it’s actually amazing how much mental energy went into that sort of thing, but I only realized it once I stopped carrying the load.

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