We recognized each other by the hair on our legs. Noticeable stubble was just hygiene laziness. Fully grown out leg hair that lay in waves and maybe curls, that extended down the leg to an abrubt line at the ankle like a pair of footless tights, that was a political statement. We were feminists. We were sisters in the struggle.
Today is the 40th anniversary of Ms. Magazine and it brought to mind this precious memory. It’s 1977. A new graduate student, I am sitting in a professor’s office, pleading for a job as a research assistant so I could support myself and my four-year old daughter, looking down at my nervously swinging leg and seeing the blond fur visible through my pantyhose. And wondering, no, knowing, that the distinguished professor looking at the same thing had pegged me for one of those hairy, bra-less feminists.
Would it work for me, I wondered, or would he just be disgusted? I was so torn about it myself. Always on the ok-looking side of pretty, I shaved my legs practically every day until the movement convinced me that shaving was buying into the male paradigm of what women should look like. In this thinking, it was not possible to be a feminist and shorn simultaneously.
So I didn’t shave for months on end. Then driven to complete revulsion by the temptation to pet my own leg, I’d grab the razor, soap up, and shave a path. The razor’s edge would be thick with hair so I’d have to wipe it off with a washcloth before aiming for row #2. Don’t get me started on the underarms.
Then shorn, I’d hide my legs from my feminist colleagues. Jeans and boots, no skirts. I had to find other ways to represent besides not shaving my legs. And I did, of course.
It was so important to the movement. I see that now. We had to throw off men’s determination of what made us beautiful and refigure ourselves. So the bras came off and the girdles got tossed and we spent a long time eschewing anything that was overtly feminine or frilly or shaved or plucked. We were a hairy, rough looking bunch for a while. And we looked down on women who stuck with the old paradigm of physical beauty.
It was a transition to a place where we could have other symbols of freedom — like equal opportunity and pay, respect and power. We’re not there yet but we’re a lot closer than we were 40 years ago. Thank you Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Smeal, Betty Friedan, and all the myriad women, hairy or not, who got us here. Much done, more to be done.