Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Sophia Loren and the Body Hair Issue

This is supposed to be a post about Sophia Loren, and 1950s style. But I seem to have stopped shaving my armpits, and Sophia Loren often went unshaven too, and, in a world where an unshaven woman is a shocker, I feel I've got to address the body hair issue before I get to the fun part: 1950s fashion!

The fact that I've stopped shaving my body hair shouldn't be interesting. It should be dead dull. It should also be nobody's business. But, for some reason, people seem to think women's personal choices about their body hair is everybody's business. If we don't keep ourselves as hairless as babies, we're subjected to a great deal of derision and judgment. People notice a little fuzz under a woman's arm, and they automatically assume they know all kinds of things about our personalities, our politics, and even our sexual preferences!

It's ridiculous.

In a world like this one, the simple act of putting down our razors becomes A Feminist Statement.

So, when I got this gorgeous dress, and it made me think so much of Sophia Loren, I wanted to write about that little bit of fuzz beneath her arms, how absurd it is that people get their knickers in a twist over it, and how a woman who chooses to keep her body au naturel needn't feel that doing so compromises her choices about how to express herself through style. 

Sophia Loren
Let's take a moment to look at my inspiration for this post, the incomparable Sophia Loren! Talk about stylish! Talk about feminine! Does her little bit of armpit hair in any way diminish or compromise that style and femininity? I sure as hell shouldn't. 

In fact, her armpit hair is just as much as sign that she is a fully, beautifully, grown woman ...

... as her breasts are. They're kind of a package deal, after all. So why is one considered desirable, while the other is considered ugly? Why is one considered wonderfully womanly, while the other is considered disgustingly mannish? 

It is, quite simply, a feminist issue.

Let's clear one thing up before I continue: Yes, I really do have armpit hair. I boldly posed for these photos, arms up, a proud, hairy feminist... and then I saw the pictures and burst out laughing. Evidently, my underarm is not, well, evident! I do think it might have grown a tad more since we took these photos, and I do think that it might show a little more in real life, but, yeah, my body hair seems to be pretty sparse, fine, and fair (strawberry blond, to be precise).

Me at 17, a few months after I left "home," predators all around me, including to my right, which is why he's cropped out of the photo
This was not always the case. When I was younger, my body hair was a darker, thicker, and a bit coarser than it is now. So were my eyebrows, I notice in this photo. In other words, it showed. (I'm assuming perimenopause has caused the change in my 40s.)

I didn't shave in high school, nor through to my mid twenties, which was in the 80s, through the mid 90s. My choice not to shave was a very deliberate, very brave, feminist choice. I was disgusted by patriarchal control over the definition of female beauty. As a sexual abuse victim, I hated that women are expected to make our bodies "baby smooth" and baby hairless (while having impossibly full heads of hair, and thick, long lashes). Keeping my body hair was one of my ways of fighting against the prevailing standards of female beauty.  

Did people stare and judge? Yes they did. Let them. Their judgement simply illustrated the reasons for my choice.

Of course, I was not alone in making this choice. Many, maybe even most of my female friends were making the same choice. The women in the above photo would have been my elders by just a few years.

I came out of the closet in 1989. I was in university, taking Women's Studies classes, marching in Take Back the Night marches, going to lesbian bars... and otherwise associating with very politicized women who were well aware of the reasons a woman might choose to reject patriarchal standards of female beauty.  

It was great!
The incomparable Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and The Bechdel Test
The notion of the hairy lesbian feminist was so common, it was and still is a cliche, and the butt of many jokes. 

It's also a commonly held stereotype of what all feminists look like. Most people think that looking like this is extremely negative. They attribute all sorts of negative personality traits to this look: man-hating, rage, aggression, humorlessness, lesbianism (as if that's a bad thing), bullying, fragile egos, etc, etc, etc. They also think that it goes without saying that this look is ugly.

A lot of feminists set about refuting these stereotypes, trying to prove to others, men in particular, that we are not man-haters, that we can be pretty, that we are feminine, etc. All this may be true, but that's beside the point. Instead, I want to ask what is so damned threatening about a woman with fuzzy armpits? Who cares if we don't wear bras? What's the big deal if we cut our hair short? 

Dress: Lindy Bop; Sweater: Mod Cloth; Coat and capelette: Hell Bunny; Stockings: Sock Dreams; Shoes: Cobb Hill; Jewelry: vintage
Who the hell am I hurting if I put down my razor? What is it about that harmless little choice that suddenly makes me a nasty woman?

Why this pathological need to control what women do with our own bodies?

The very hostility of people's reactions to a little, female, armpit hair proves my point: If it matters so much to them, it must be a feminist issue. 

Patti Smith
My generation was not the first to consciously reject patriarchal control over women's bodies. 

A 1968 protest outside a beauty pageant
In the 1960s and 70s, Second Wave feminism put a lens on the ways that women are judged primarily by our appearance, above and even instead of anything else about us, like our character, our accomplishments, our intelligence, or our dreams. Not only that, but the parameters of acceptable female appearance are very narrow indeed!

Hannah Wilke, in her 1979 piece, So Help Me Hannah
This patriarchal control over women's bodies is, they realized, part of a larger pattern of patriarchal control over every aspect of being female. The implicit message is that our bodies do not belong to us. We must look and feel "pretty" for men, or their derision and hostility is immediate. 

Look at the way men online often react to women whose opinions they don't like: They call them ugly, fat, undesirable. So often, they don't attack their opinions. They attack their appearance because, to them, that's all that matters about us. To tell us we're undesirable is to tell us that nothing about us is worth their notice.

We are reduced to our bodies, only our bodies, and if our bodies don't measure up to their standards, the repercussions are harsh, even dangerous. 

Sexual violence is a logical conclusion to this proprietorial attitude toward women. Sexual violence is the ultimate act of control over another person's body.

Women's bodies are a battleground. As stupid as it may seem, letting our body hair remain natural is a way for us to lob a grenade, from our very bodies, to the other side. That little bit of fuzz says, "This is my body! You can't tell me what to do with it."

Angela Davis
Now, I am aware that the choice to grow our body hair is not an easy one. It's impacted by things like ethnicity, race, and class. It's a lot harder to make the feminist choice not to shave when you're looking for work, or trying to keep a job. If you're a white woman, you're automatically judged less harshly, so might feel safer putting down your razor than a woman of colour might. Race and ethnicity may also affect how thick, or dark your body hair is, and therefore how noticeable your feminist choice is. (For example, when I was younger, I think my Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity led to my body hair being darker and coarser than it might have been on, say, an ethnically Nordic woman.) This too will impact your decision. 

Besides, body hair is not the only terrain over which patriarchy exerts control over female bodies. While many white women in the 1970s were proudly letting their leg hair grow, many black women were proudly leaving their (head) hair natural, in a deliberate, conscious choice to let their appearance tell the world that "black is beautiful!" In doing so, their choices about their own bodies were an open challenge to white, patriarchal control over female bodies, and black bodies. Prejudice is multi-pronged.

So patriarchal (and racist, and ableist, etc) control over female bodies is not restricted to our body hair alone. Bras, foundation garments (aka girdles), hair dye, hair straightener, diets, makeup... Women are expected to employ all these things and more, to appear both attractive and nonthreatening to men. 

When I first looked at the above photo, my eyes went immediately to the woman second from the left. I noticed her very styled hair, and heavy, fashionable makeup. And I judged her. I thought all kinds of things that I shouldn't have: "She's only just discovered feminism; She needs to get that makeup off her face; She is not fully liberated."

Me, about 20
Where do we draw the line? In our fervour to reject patriarchal standards of female beauty, are some of us simply capitulating to an almost equally controlling standard of feminist appearance

As a person who has always derived great joy from the fripperies of femininity, this is a question with which I have struggled my entire life. When I was younger, I let the feminist scene dictate my appearance. I believed that, if any aspect of my appearance simply happened to fit the patriarchal standard of beauty, I was somehow at fault. I also believed that I deserved to be criticized if I actually liked some aspects of feminine beauty which the patriarchy would approve of.

I tried to look the way I was "supposed" to look, not in the larger society, but in my smaller subculture. I wasn't very good at it.

I was so in thrall to this feminist notion of how a liberated woman looked that, when Gabriele Susanne Kerner showed up in the video of Nena's 99 Luftballons, with her hairy armpits and her fashionable haircut and impeccable makeup, I just assumed she didn't know what she was doing. I assumed her hairy armpits weren't a feminist choice, but were, rather, merely a European thing.

I'd heard that European women often didn't shave their armpits, so I thought Kerner was just being European. I simply couldn't imagine a feminist woman wearing makeup, or following mainstream fashion. 

My feminist imagination was pretty limited.

Dykes on Bikes, who always begin The Pride Parade
Learning about the history of "femme" women in the lesbian scene helped me a lot. Several of my friends and I started to really grab onto that self-definition - femme - and learn to define femininity in our own way, as part of our queer feminism. I'd found something that helped me see that femininity and feminism need not contradict each other. I felt liberated. 

I began wearing dresses more, doing my hair - being myself. People did give me flak for it, definitely, in all my circles: lesbian, gay, left-wing, academic... But I had my ways of standing up for myself. For one thing, I had my pen. I wrote newspaper articles for the lgbt press about being femme. I don't want to brag or anything - okay, I do - but I'm the one who first coined the expression "fiercely femme." I've got published evidence somewhere in my clippings files.

I also learned a powerful lesson from drag queens: If men could enjoy dressing up in feminine ways, and could be lauded for it, well, maybe femininity wasn't about whether a person was born male or female. Maybe it was just about who each individual person is. I happened to be born female, and I happened to enjoy femininity. The two facts were not linked one to the other in any way. This too was a moment of great liberation for me.

Me, about 27
I started shaving my legs and underarms when I was about 25. I was really tired of people staring at me. I'd been working out at the gym for several years now, and, once I'd shaved the once, I liked the way my muscles looked. I kept shaving.

I'd like to say that this was all about personal choice and nothing else. But it wasn't. I liked not being stared at and ridiculed by strangers anymore. I liked looking the way I was "supposed" to look in short dresses. I liked not worrying about being judged when I raised my arms. I liked the comfort of living in disguise as a "normal girl."

I liked the tacit cultural approval. 

I was not really being true to myself. If the topic of why I shaved ever came up, I'd basically admit this by saying, "I choose my battles, and this was just not a battle I wanted to fight anymore."

Of course I think that all women should choose what's best for their own bodies. If they choose to shave, first of all, it's no big deal either way, and, second of all, it's their choice, and nobody else's. 

But what does concern me is when women alter their appearance not because they choose to, but because it never occurred to them not to. In other words, they never realized it was a choice. By all means, shave your armpits - if you know you don't have to. Slather on the makeup - if you realize that it's perfectly okay not to wear makeup. Keep your hair long - if you know that you would be just as good a person if you went for a buzz cut.

If you think shaved legs simply look better, ask yourself why you think that. Do you think men look better with shaved legs too? If not, why not? If you think you could never leave the house without makeup, why is that? Even if you truly believe you don't look as good without makeup, so what? 

If you realize that you shave your legs (or wear makeup, or whatever) because you think people will judge you if you don't, ask yourself, "Are these people whose judgement should really matter to me?" And it's okay if you feel like you're just not up to dealing with those judgments right now, so you're just not going to put down your razor. That really is okay too. Just be aware of your reasons, that's all.

In other words, whatever choices you make about your body and its appearance, make sure it's because you're being true to yourself, not to somebody else, and not to cultural expectations. 

So let's get back to my own choices about my middle aged, disabled body. I do have muscles still/again: the arm muscles of a women who uses mobility aids. But that's got nothing to do with my choice to stop shaving. The main reason I seem to have stopped shaving is because I'm disabled, and it's really bloody hard to shave! Reaching and twisting like that? It kills my back. The last time I shaved my legs, which I think was last June, Beau did it for me. It's hard enough for me to wash my hair, and if it's a choice between raising my arms for that, or raising my arms to shave under them? I'll choose washing my hair.

But once I'd let my body hair grow back, I thought about the message I might be sending to younger women, and I kind of like it. 

I love to see older, "butch" women boldly being true to themselves and showing younger women that's it's okay to cut your hair short, leave your body hair natural, and never wear dresses. But I think a woman like me sends an important message too: You can be as feminine as you want ...

... while making other choices about your body that don't conform to societal standards of female beauty. It's not an either/or thing. It's a mix and match thing, a being true to yourself thing.

That's something I want young women to know.

Not that all young people need me to give them that message, obviously. Many already get it, loud and clear. Check out Teika here, one of my readers. Check out her bright red lipstick, and Murder She Wrote glasses! What's that I said about mixing and matching? I think she's already got it.

I am inspired by the ways I'm seeing some young women claim their bodies as their own. I'm quite sure they influenced my own courage to again let my body hair be natural, after all these years. 

It's not just about body hair either. As I see some young women, even the large chested ones, go braless, I'm trying to be brave and do that sometimes too. If it's really hot, or if my bra is driving me nuts, I ask myself, "Do I really need this? Why am I wearing it anyway? For myself?" If the answer is no, well, I try to get brave.

Flo, photographed by Jess Kohl, for Dazed
One of the things that inspires me most about this new wave of natural body positivity is the way young women feel that unshaven armpits need not dictate the rest of their fashion choices. They can still dress "butch"...

Lola Kirke
... or "high femme" (as we called it in my day), or anything in between.

Helena Bonham Carter
Why the hell not?

Those European women really were on to something, weren't they?

And, on that fashionable note ...

... let's get back to the gloriously European, Sophia Loren ...

... my dress ...

... and a little fashion history.

When I got this dress, I immediately thought ...


And then I thought, "This is perfect. I haven't shaved my armpits in ages." 

I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this post.

But why did this dress that make me think of Sophia Loren?

Sophia's acting flame burned brightest from 1956, when she got a good contract from Hollywood's Paramount, to the early 70s, when she had children and chose to work less. My dress nestles most closely into the earlier part of this period, from about 1956-1962.

One of the best known fashion trends of the 1950s was the very full skirt ... 

... or very full-skirted dress. (They hit the fashion scene a few years after WWII, when cloth restrictions were lifted.)

Such skirts were often enhanced ... 

... with puffy, and, I'm told, itchy slips, generally known as crinolines. (Both Madonna and Cyndi Lauper made a fashion of sporting vintage crinolines as outwear in the 1980s.)

I've seen plenty of modern women wearing crinolines to enhance their outfits, and to great effect, but to avoid looking too much like I'm wearing a costume, I skip the crinoline - for now, at least. With a skirt as full as this, it's kind of a shame though. 

With this new style, women were often expected to wear incredibly, painfully, girdled waists. When the full skirt and pinched waist hit the runways, with Dior's New Look in 1947, those in the know could see what he was doing: bringing back the Victorian silhouette, from a time before women got the vote, before women had rejected corsets for comfort, before women went to work during WWII. It's no coincidence that the New Look (which wasn't new at all) took hold just as working women were all fired to give the jobs "back" to the men returning from war.

This shift in the fashion tides did not go unnoticed or without criticism, and it remains a teaching point in Gender Studies classes, where we learn about how beauty standards reflect patriarchal standards.

So, it was a beautiful look, but a painful, unnatural one. Compare Sophia's waist here ...

... to her natural waist here.

Now, my waist is not exactly slim, but that's another fashion trend I will not follow. I will not wear a girdle with my retro looks. Nor will I wear "foundation garments" like Spanx. 

For me, this isn't just a feminist thing. It's also a disability thing. My back is a complete and aching mess at best. My guts are pretty bad too (IBS and Endometriosis). Any clothing pressure on my lower back or belly causes me a great deal of pain, even more pain than my usual. 

So, nope to foundation garments. But this dress does have a little nod to the pinched waists of 50s fashion: the flat panel at my waist. That, I can and will do. 

Moving on, let's talk about 50s outerwear. Along with those very full skirts came coats full enough to accommodate them. Some draped artfully over the entire outfit, while others maintained the full-skirted, small-waisted silhouette of the outfits under them.

I love this style of coat, because it's really beautiful, it's really opulent, and it keeps my legs warm and dry on my mobility scooter. I now own three coats like this. This one is by the really grand Hell Bunny, which specializes in making retro clothing in a wide range of sizes. I always get compliments when I wear their designs. (I was so excited about this one, I wore it for this photo shoot when it really needed a bit of a steam first.)

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins
Does my coat remind you of anyone? I thought it might ...

... especially with these shoes, which I loveThey have the cutest little heels, and look delightfully old fashioned. They're very (my) disability friendly.

I think it's obvious, but the fur on my coast is faux. Real fur was much more in style in the 1950s than it is today, and coats like mine often had fur trim. 

My coat mimics that trim. It is so soft and warm. And if that's not warm and cozy enough ...

... it comes with a faux fur trimmed capelette too! 

This too was a 1950s style.

And I can wear the capelette on its own.


I did buy my coat a bit on the large side, so I could wear a lot of layers underneath it, but, even so, I think the overall effect ...

... is quite flattering, even without a girdle. Also, with the addition of the capelette ...

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins
... does it remind you of someone? I thought it might. I haven't actually seen the new Mary Poppins movie but I plotz for the costumes by Sandy Powell. 

All that is old new again ... and again ... and again. This coat from the 1860s is like the coat in the first Mary Poppins, which was set in 1910, and that, in turn, is like the coats that were in style in the 1950s. That's how fashion works: It's not linear.

Nor is the progress of women's rights. There are those who can't fathom why a woman would want to bring back fashions from a time when women had fewer rights, or when women were being exhorted to give up some of the rights they had gained. I get all that, totally.

And I really love my coat. Real life's like that.

Now let's get back to the dress. What else about it is classic 1950s? The halter neck, of course.

Halter necks could be quite modest, like mine ...

... or they could be quite sexy ...

... especially on Sophia, who has famously said that, of her figure, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”

Everything you see of my figure I owe to age, genetics, and disability. I'm okay with the first two. I work on being okay with the third.

Anyway, the halter neck is a good look with a full skirt, perhaps especially without a crinoline.

If you want to keep this look going, pair it with a short cardigan, tailored jacket, or even a little bolero. 

This too was a common fashion trend in the 1950s. 

The fabric on the dress on the left brings me to the next, 1950s element of my dress.

The floral stripe! This fabric floored me. It's absolutely gorgeous, and I might have bought the dress no matter what the cut. But the 1950s styling was ideal. I never order clothing that I can't return, but I bought this one. (It was on sale.) Thank God it fit. 

Do you doubt that the print is quintessential 1950s? 

Jean Stapleton as Sister Miller, in Damn Yankees
Let me prove it with this still from the 1958 movie, Damn Yankees. How fun is that?

And, yes, that is Edith Bunker from All in the Family.

Anyway, this glorious mixing of the symmetrical with the floral ...

... was a staple of the 1950s ... 

... and I love it. 

If you want to see another example of florals and geometry mixed, check out the gingham floral on my vintage dress in my post, The Lost City, the Found Dress, and My Beautiful Revenge

So far, I've told you what makes my dress very reminiscent of the 1950s. But why did it make me think of specifically of Sophia Loren?

Sophia Loren with Dolce and Gabbana
The colours, of course! The Italian designers, Dolce and Gabbana have sent Sophia down the runway more than once, most recently in 2018, when she was 83. 

It's quite possible that I think of this colour combo as being particularly Italian simply because they so often show up in Dolce and Gabbana's designs. 

Whatever the reason, when I got this dress, the lovely, and very Italian, Sophia Loren was my immediate role model.

Speaking of colour seems like a good time to talk about my makeup and accessories. Yet again, I'm wearing my favourite lipstick: Maybelline's, Copper Rose, metallic lipstick. 

I'm also wearing what is, for me, a lot of eye makeup. Nowadays, we're told that strong eyes must go with neutral lips, and vice versa. Not so in the 50s! They were all for strong eyes with strong lips. Why not?!

My colouring, eye shape, and face shape are very different from Sophia's, so my model here was more Kathryn Grayson than Sophia Loren. Look at the dramatic, eyeliner on her upper lid. Look at that bold lipstick.

I would love to have lips like Kathryn Grayson's! 

Personally, I think she had the prettiest lips in all of Hollywood. Check her out at Loretta's Beauty Parlor in Murder She Wrote. See? Pretty lips!

And here's a beautiful, male hummingbird at my window, because he matches my lips. (For the record, hummingbirds are very messy eaters; thus the messy window.)

Moving on, there was nothing subtle about 1950s fashion, and that includes the jewelry. Big, chunky bangles were just fine ...

... so I wore one of mine. This is one of the few pieces of costume jewelry that I bought new. I just thought it was so pretty.

You could also never be too matchy matchy with your outfits and jewelry in the 1950s. In fact, as much as my accessories match here, they wouldn't have been seen as matching enough, because they're not actually a set. They're really more complimentary than matching. 

The theme is obvious: pink florals, especially roses.

The only exception is this amazing, Sherman brooch, which I got for the outrageously good price of $16 at a thrift store.

It was a no-brainer to wear this brooch with this dress. Same goes for my ruby ring ... 

... and these wonderfully over the top earrings. 

The purse was a cinch. How could you not pair this purse with this dress? 

And that's it. That's the story of feminism ...

... me, my dress ...

... Sophia Loren ...

... and our unshaven armpits.

(I'm sharing this with Not Dressed as Lamb, Not Dead YetGranola and Grace, and Elegantly Dressed and Stylish.)


  1. WOW! such a pity I don't like spaghetti an have virtually no body hair whatsoever, love this post and your writing <3

  2. I second that! WOW! Excellent article and the images are just stunning - so are your outfits! I love your shoes!

  3. absolutely loved it, and shared it on f*cebook too! You are so thought-provoking. You clearly put a lot of time and research into this, and I appreciate that a lot. Please never stop sharing your ideas and opinions with the world, you are such a shining light !!!