Why is body positivity met with so much negativity?

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A hair-raising decision: Jemima Kurke on the CFDA red carpet . (Photo credit: stuff.co.nz)

Last week, Girls star Jemima Kirke stepped out on the CFDA Fashion Awards red carpet and sent everyone in a frenzy by wearing a dress that revealed her armpit hair. What happened next was inevitable and somewhat predictable: a lot of publications talked about it, with some left completely shocked by this horrendous ‘fashion faux pas’.

E! Online was particularly disapproving and drew comparisons to Miley Cyrus’s similar decision, commenting that “while she’s [Kurke] yet to dye her underarm hair pink a la the “Wrecking Ball” singer, our immediate reaction was still the same: cringe!”. And that’s exactly the message that so many of us received, that ‘cringing’ is the right way to feel about the completely natural process of hair growth. The negativity surrounding Kurke’s decision to grow and then display her armpit hair suggests to female readers that the millions of hairs that cover our bodies are unnatural and undesirable, and that whenever you see even the faintest sprout of hair you must get out the wax strips and razors and remove the monstrosity you’ve been plagued with.

While on one side we have body positivity on the rise, seen very recently in the banning of a Yves Saint Laurent campaign depicting an ‘unhealthily underweight’ model, on the other remains the burden placed on women to conform to often unattainable standards of (hairless) perfection. And as summer approaches, the first thought on the minds of so many women is of course, to remove their hair.  In our personal spaces at home we’ll take care of these very hairs, moisturize and give them nutrients to thrive and grow, in the public space this aspect of our body is detested and made unacceptable. We look in the mirror and accept ourselves, accept our body, but we stare into a mirror framed by the intrusive eyes of society and allow this to shape how we feel about ourselves. The necessity of hair removal is so deeply engrained in our lives that we never  question who told us that we need to get rid of it in the first place.

Photo credit: The Tribune
Yves Saint Laurent ad banned earlier this week. (Photo credit: The Tribune).

And it’s that need I don’t understand. Women are constantly placed under pressure to be immaculate, to leave their house with perfectly groomed eyebrows, with no hair lingering on their upper lip, with legs waxed to Venus-style perfection, and with arms silky smooth and visually appetising. The TV adverts begin rolling in during the summer as the images of fresh, ‘feminine’, hairless bodies swallow us up and make us feel inadequate if we don’t ‘scrub up’ well. A few days ago I found myself very angrily expressing that I did indeed need to begin thinking about a grooming regime for the summer – and the priority was that the hair on my legs, arms and under my armpits needed to be removed before I made my debut in public; as if I, blessed with no hair follicles, otherwise roamed the earth like a divine, hair-free, sensual goddess.

So when I saw what Kurke had done, it reiterated my questioning of the relationship between hair and women – it will never be accepted. If I walked into work tomorrow with legs full of hair, it would raise eyebrows (which also require hair to be raised, but hey, eyebrows are acceptable) and I’d be office gossip. If a man walked in with exceptionally hairy legs, it would be ignored. When men have beards, it’s cool and trendy. But if women might want a beard, or suffer from health issues (like polycystic ovaries) which mean they end up with hair in more unconventional places, it’s something to stare or laugh at. Hair just seems to upset people a lot.

Kurke’s move to display her hair is inspiring. It’s a rejection of everything women are taught to do from a very young age, and it signals a new wave of infectious feminism that is very slowly spreading its body positive message.  I’m all for the display of male and female body hair, and I hope you are too.  It’s time to stop expecting and start accepting.

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