It was casual Friday at the office. While I wore my usual shorts and T-shirt, the very attractive young black woman who works with me wore a sleeveless dress. We work together every day, so she knows some of my quirks and said she hoped I wouldn't be too distracted by her attire.
Sleeveless dresses on women aren't distracting, but when the woman sports a nice bush of hair in her armpits, that gets my attention. Unfortunately, in America it gets most peoples' attention, but not in the admiring way that I see it. There is such great social pressure for women to shave their armpits in this country that seeing a woman as nature intended can get reactions of snickers, whispers or outright derision.
In fact, the young woman who was comfortable enough around me to display her hairy underarms, became quite self-conscious when the boss came into the office, and she was sure not to raise her arms. I understand these tendencies to bend your personal grooming choices and acquiesce to opposing social demands, but I don't like it and I suppose I've been advocating for personal freedom since the '70s when I had shoulder length hair and a beard in a clean shaven and crew-cut world.
That was a time when our subculture of young people threw out a lot of established social concepts and explored things on their own merit. We tried everything that was not mainstream American, and along with casual mixed-gender nudity and sexuality we explored Eastern philosophy, Astrology, yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, herbalism, Wicca, healing crystals, and many other alternative or "New Age" lifestyles. Many of us were also into the natural, as seen by our abundance of hair on both men and women.
Those of us who have an appreciation of natural body hair on women are considered strange in the mainstream American culture. Outside the "mainstream" American culture, there is a subcultural appreciation of the unshaven woman's armpits among black Americans. I don't know the percentage, but by observation among the black women that I know, there is a considerable number who don't shave their underarms.
My wife, who was black, didn't shave and most of her sisters don't. At my workplace in Miami, there are numerous black women besides my immediate coworker, who occasionally wear sleeveless dresses and reveal unshaved pits. My stepdaughter didn't shave her pits when she was in high school until she became a cheerleader and it was required. I offered to fight that rule with her, but teenagers, it seems, would rather give up individuality and go along with the crowd. Come to think of it, that trait doesn't appear to end with the teen years for most people.
Not all black women go unshaven. Both my stepdaughter and one of my sisters-in-law said that they only let their hair grow in the winter when they wear long sleeve shirts. For public appearance in the summer, they bend to the cultural norm and shave. My daughter says that she knows some young black men who prefer their women to shave, but my brother-in-law, as I suspect of many black men, prefers a woman with a bush in her pits.
Likewise, not all white women fall into the American cultural norm of having shaved armpits. There was a surge in the '60s and '70s, when beards and long hair on men challenged the grooming norms and the women that were with us quit shaving their legs and armpits. Today there are a few white women who forego shaving, usually feminists, lesbians or other free spirits who feel that letting their armpit hair grow is an act of female empowerment. On the websites that cater to showing female armpit hair, (There's a website for everything you know!) the white women shown are often European athletes wearing competition tank tops or bathing suits.
Why is it that men can keep the natural hair on their bodies but women must have hairless legs and underarms? No one gives a second glance at men in tank tops showing all manner of hairy pits, yet if a woman shows a shadow in a sleeveless dress as Julia Roberts did in London in May 1999 at her premier of Notting Hill or Gillian Anderson did in April 2001 at a pro-choice rally in Hollywood, it makes the worst dressed pages of People magazine.
The theory is that American women started shaving in the first decades of the 20th century when dress cuts started showing more leg, and sleeveless dresses showing underarms. American women became the target of a new marketing claim that they needed to be "clean" shaven. In May of 1915, Harper's Bazaar magazine featured a dress advertisement photo of a young woman with her arm raised and a perfectly smooth armpit with the caption, "Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair." Shortly thereafter, the shocking term "underarm" was being used and a new market for razor blades was born.
The rest is modern American history where 9 out of 10 women shaved in 1996. This seems to be an Anglo thing, because other European cultures, with the exception of England, do not have that high a percentage of women who shave. There was an Australian study in 1998, primarily on Caucasian women with the same ratio of 9 out of 10 who shaved their legs and underarms. In 1991, even among strong feminists, 72% shaved their legs and/or underarms. Among lesbians it was 55%.
Still, men can wear tank tops and shorts without being expected to shave their legs or underarms, so the question still lingers, why women?
One theory gets into weird psychosexual areas such as the desire to infantilize women. This is probably why liberated women dare to let their natural hair grow as it should, and show that they are women, not girls. As the theory goes, men feel less threatened and more in control with girls, so the majority of men desire to have clean-shaved women, and the majority of women, seeking to lure a man, remove their mark of maturity. This practice has become so common in American culture that it is taken for granted that ALL women must shave their pits at puberty, unless they belong to one of the minorities previously mentioned.
Even the term "clean-shaven" gives a connotation that unshaven must be dirty. Granted, hair does harbor bacteria, especially in the armpits and groin area, but it was designed to do that and not all bacteria are harmful. The bacteria in the armpits that causes the distinctive odor of our species does work better with hair, which is one of the reasons given for shaving. However, this is another area of American acculturation; the designation of our natural scent as foul smelling, while many European cultures regard it as a sensual fragrance that is actually sexually exciting.
In studies of women who shave their pits, the main reason they gave for starting was to avoid social disapproval. After bending to the social pressure to start shaving their pits and legs (a rite of passage for girls in our culture) the reasons given for continuing was to be more feminine and attractive.
I am of the minority of American men and women who like seeing a woman's natural hair in her armpit. Maybe, if more of us Americans who appreciate a natural woman would let our views be known, more women would opt to show their mark of sexual maturity and confidence to defy the dictates of the razor industry.