The night before what was indisputably going to be the biggest day of my professional career, I should have been up late prepping interview questions, packing extra batteries for my recorder, or even catching a few extra hours of sleep. Instead, I was staring at the thick, black hair on my legs in frustration.
As a freelancer who mostly works from home, I don’t often have to worry about the tendrils of hair that grow, visibly, down my legs. But I was going to be reporting from a major league baseball stadium in 95 degree heat, walking onto the field and into the clubhouse. As a woman relatively new to the male-dominated field of baseball writing, my goal was to be as inconspicuous and professional-looking as possible, and I worried that my visible leg hair would have the opposite effect.
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As I looked through my closet at my maxi dresses (too casual), jeans (also too casual), and tights (out of place in the heat), my stress turned to anger. As I crowdsourced ideas and solutions and posted photos of myself in various professional outfits on Facebook, I wondered how many men had lost hours of prep time for their job worrying about their body hair. I wondered how many men had to balance their desire to look professional with the autonomy to allow their body to do what it naturally does — grow hair. I was enraged that, hours before a career-defining interview, I was worried about leg hair.
I was enraged that, hours before a career-defining interview, I was worried about leg hair.
For many women and femmes, figuring out how to navigate body hair in professional settings is something they think about quite a bit. Because despite the fact that the act of having hair on our legs or under our arms is something we might do for a myriad of reasons — personally, shaving is uncomfortable and causes too much irritation — body hair on women is often seen as a radical political statement.
Harnaam Kaur, a body confidence/anti-bullying advocate, explains that her body hair — she has thick facial hair as a result of PCOS — often kept her from getting work. “Because of the image that I had, a lot of employers judged me at face value and didn’t take into account my abilities and experiences that I had to impact their workplace,” she tells ELLE.com. “When I was able to find a job, I was horribly discriminated against and bullied.” As a result, Kaur says she carved out her own career, using her challenges to help her create positive change for others.
Emily Lemiska’s disability makes shaving her legs a painful and difficult task. Lemiska, 30, says that her job in non-profit advocacy means that she’s often speaking at large conferences or meeting with state legislators, and she feels pressure to shave her leg hair before those events. “I hate the idea that my leg hair might distract someone from my message,” she says. “I also spend a lot of time already feeling abnormal and different due to my physical challenges. I don’t want another reason to stand out.”
When the women’s liberation movement took root in the 1970s, underarm hair, in particular, became associated with a certain kind feminism. The body hair often usurped everything else about a person and, even today, sporting body hair is often interpreted as “making a statement,” as demonstrated by the many sensationalist and negative reactions when Julia Roberts appeared with underarm hair on the red carpet in 1999, or Mo’Nique walked the carpet with hair on her legs in 2010.
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These preconceived notions of women with body hair as “unkempt,” “messy,” or “gross” carry over into professional settings. In the job market, where women already face discrimination when it comes to hiring and promotions, and where “attractiveness” can affect a woman’s ability to get hired and earn money, conforming to traditional Western standards of beauty, whether it’s wearing makeup and dresses, or removing body hair, may be a necessary evil. This necessity can feel compounded for women of color, who face even larger barriers when it comes to hiring practices. White, cisgender women like me have more freedom when it comes to eschewing norms around aesthetics and beauty; while I am marginalized as a woman in the male dominated field of sports writing, I still have privilege in relation to Black and brown women and femmes.
“I’m hyperaware of the fat antagonism, ableism, racism (colorism in particular), and sexism (among other things) that permeates [creative] industries, whether indie or Hollywood,” says Denarii Grace, a 30-year-old writer, singer-songwriter, and poet. “Someone with just one of my marginalizations often has a hard go of it, so the prospect of trying to live in my purpose doing this while also having food to eat and being able to afford my own place is, quite frankly, daunting.” Grace, who has visible hair on her chin as a result of PCOS, says she often wonders how much she will be expected to change in order to succeed.