Every summer the debate about axillary hair resurfaces: to shave or not to shave?
Celebrities frequently kick off the conversation: Girls star Jemima Kirke displayed healthy underarm growth at last week’s CFDA Fashion Awards, and Paper magazine’s July issue features a naked Miley Cyrus sprouting sensual wisps of armpit hair.
We may see Kirke’s Girls co-star and creator Lena Dunham follow suit: “grow armpit hair” is at the top of her summer to-do list.
Inevitably, the media has announced a pit hair-growing summer “trend”—a body-conscious political fashion statement.
Because, like it or not, body hair is inextricably linked to feminism. If you shave your pubic hair, you’re a slave to the patriarchy.
Some insist there’s nothing anti-feminist about shaving it off or growing it out.
Vogue columnist Karley Sciortino argues that women’s nether-grooming choices reflect their personal style.
But body hair remains a powerful weapon in the fight against patriarchal standards of female beauty, and removing it is still largely associated with internalizing misogynist ideals of femininity.
Now more than ever, body-positivity is paramount for feminists. We see it all over social media, where women instagram photos of their dyed armpit hair, “free the nipple” selfies and #plussizefashion posts.
Indeed the “personal is political” ideology embraced by feminism in the ‘60s and ‘70s has become considerably more personal.
Back then, the movement was more policy-goal oriented, with trailblazers like Gloria Steinem agitating for the Equal Rights Amendment and Roe v. Wade.
Feminism is still preoccupied with legislative issues—equal pay, abortion rights, and violence against women, to name a few. But the movement today is also more focused on the individual; on body image, statement-making, and hashtag activism.
Young feminists in particular are quite literally inscribing their ideology on their bodies. Take the rise of up-and-coming boutique lingerie brands like Me and You, whose bestselling cotton underwear—the word “feminist” printed alluringly across the bottom in pink—have been consistently out of stock since the line launched in April.
The brand was recently featured in a New York Times trend piece claiming the much-maligned granny panty is making a comeback among millennials.
The Times dug up data to justify the trend: sales of high-waisted, fuller-coverage undergarments have climbed 17 percent in the last year, while sales of thongs have dropped 7 percent.
More traditionally sexy g-strings, associated with chafing and male objectification of women, have apparently fallen out of favor with “a generation that counts both Beyoncé and Lena Dunham as feminist icons,” wrote the Times’ Hayley Phelan. “In the end, it is about options.”
“Most lingerie is designed to appeal to a man,” Julia Baylis, co-founder of Me and You, told the Times. “This is underwear you wear totally for you. Maybe no one will see it, or maybe you’ll put it up on Instagram to share with everyone you know.”
In doing so, you’re not just declaring yourself a feminist, you’re declaring feminism sexy. All the better if your body doesn’t mirror conventional standards of beauty.
Still, the brand’s instagram feed looks like an American Apparel catalogue. The underwear has a vintage, Lolita-esque appeal, and the brand’s publicity images are more titillating than transgressive.
Whether wearing “feminist” underwear or dying your armpit hair, feminism is focused more on me and you than it is on us. The mainstream cares more about pop stars aligning themselves with the movement than restrictive abortion laws in states like Alabama.
Body image is the new, self-involved frontier of feminist expression. But maybe as well looking at ourselves, we can also look out into the world and become activists for others, rather than just fretting over—and exhibiting—our bodies.
Less than a week after the CFDA’s, even Jemima Kirke, an outspoken feminist, had grown tired of the political debate surrounding her underarms. “It’s just my own personal preference,” she tweeted. “That being said please can we stop talking about pits?”