Meet the Professor of Hairy Studies
At Arizona State, Professor Breanne Fahs is encouraging—with the prize of bonus credits—female students to grow their body hair, and men to shave theirs. Is it really, as the prof intends, a radical challenge to gender norms?
According to a helpful guide produced by the university, diligent students at Arizona State may earn extra credit “identifying any typos in course materials” or participating in charity work “that may or may not relate to the curriculum.” Or a select few can boost their grades by braiding their armpit hair and fighting the patriarchy.
Breanne Fahs, a professor of gender and women’s studies at ASU, is offering bonus points to female students who grow their leg and armpit hair for 10 weeks during the semester. And male students (would be unfair to leave them out) seeking extra credit are tasked with shaving every inch of body hair from the neck down. Participants are required to keep a diary of hirsute “experiences,” along with others’ reactions to furry thighs and stubbly chests.
It’s all part of a social experiment Fahs has incorporated into her course curriculum since 2010. “There’s no better way to learn about societal norms than to violate them and see how people react,” Fahs told ASU News, a student newspaper. “There’s really no reason why the choice to shave, or not, should be a big deal. But it is, as the students tend to find out quickly.”
Indeed, one female student told ASU News that cultivating a hairy existence was a “life-changing experience.” Friends were repulsed. Her mother was horrified. But she came away from the experience empowered by her newly politicized perception of grooming habits. “It definitely made me realize that if you’re not strictly adhering to socially prescribed gender roles, your body becomes a site for contestation and public opinion.”
Another student confessed that before taking part in Fahs’ “activist project” she was apathetic about “gendered socialization in our culture,” but has since urged other professors to motivate more “armchair activist[s] theorizing in the classroom.”
According to Fahs, the “labor intensive” assignment “gives men some insight into what women who shave go through.” The apparently torturous act of grooming is something women--guided by societal norms and media representations--are powerless to fight. Men must “go through” the same horrors to understand the plight of their female classmates because, Fahs says, “male students tend to adopt the attitude of, ‘I’m a man; I can do what I want.’” (One ape-like man, she told the ASU student newspaper, “did his shaving with a buck knife.”)
Torturous or not, there is plenty of incentive to boost your grade while bonding with classmates over tufts of patriarchy-fighting underarm hair. One student who was initially reluctant to take on the extra credit assignment caved because she feared missing out on the collective experience. “It’s interesting how peer pressure within the class can create a new norm,” Fahs told ASU News. “When practically all of the students are participating, they develop a sense of community and enjoy engaging in an act of rebellion together.” In other words, peer pressure is a terrible thing--unless it serves her agenda.
Fahs has a captive audience: with students essentially bribed into receiving extra credit, how likely will they be to report that they learned nothing from the experiment? And what does her experiment tell us beyond the boring fact that our culture is currently a bit squeamish about body hair, particularly on women? Fahs’ admission that her social experiment is attempting to show how society perceives gender norms suggests that her stunt has a predetermined outcome--as reflected in her students’ uniform takeaways.
According to Fahs, her revolutionary experiment demonstrating that Americans are weird about body hair has caught on, with other universities rushing to adopt her curriculum. And the American Psychological Association presented her with the Mary Roth Walsh Teaching the Psychology of Women Award in 2012.
But Fahs still sees a tough road ahead. “There is a big difference between imagining not shaving and actually trying to not shave.”
For those of us too old to enroll at Arizona State, we can only imagine a world where hair flows freely from every cavity, crease, and calf. And maybe dealing a death blow to the patriarchy in the process.