Real Life: Why women still tear their hair out: Hairy shouldn't mean horrible - so Sue Webster has thrown away her razor

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WHEN I was 11 and still too young to read women's magazines or to know that depilatory cream wasn't something you could eat, I woke up one morning with a moustache. It was attached to me and I couldn't think how to get it off. (I considered shaving, but my mother had warned me never to try out my father's razor, or I would grow a beard.) Nor could I hide it, although I did try. I took to walking around shops with my hand over my mouth in what I hoped resembled a pensive mood; a method of concealment rendered wholly useless when I had to ask for something.

Of course, I had always been hairy. As with all perceived physical defects, it altered my personality. Nobody had to tell me to pull my socks up at school, either literally or metaphorically. In the first place my white nylon knee-highs were always stretched as far up under my skirt as they would go, in order to ward off comments from my classmates about the simian properties of my legs. In the second, I determined early to work hard and become what was then quaintly referred to as a 'career girl', because I suspected that, given my freakish ugliness, nobody would ever marry me.

The extent of my hirsutism increased throughout puberty. I consulted my mother, who tutted that other people had far worse problems and that in any case the hair would decrease with (old) age. I consulted the family doctor, who remarked absent-mindedly that he could give me some pills to take, but they would make the hair fall out all over my body, including my scalp. The problem seemed insoluble, but at the same time it gave a neat focus to my teenage angst: I hated myself because I was half man, half woman, and I seriously contemplated suicide in the shallow, muddy water of the canal which ran through our village.

Then I began to fight back. At 13, I began to wax my legs from knicker line to ankle. By the time I was 15 I was secretly saving the wages from my Saturday job to pay for electrolysis on my face and stomach. I invested all my hope in the latter, which is universally described as the only permanent method of hair removal. It is not. The effects last longer than most, but anybody with a propensity towards hirsutism will find that even if hair is eradicated in one area, it will begin to grow in another. Like all forms of depilation, electrolysis is like trying to run up an escalator which is going down.

It is not unusual to be blamed for the inefficacy of the treatment. Just as hairdressers sniff at the outgrown results of any previous style cut by a rival, many electrologists begin by blaming their predecessors for any scarring, as well as for the troublesome notion that the hair of some women cannot be tamed with a needle. I have usually tried to reassure them; they are doing their best and my expectations are low.

After some months, suspicious questions about my hormones began to surface. Had I ever thought about seeing someone in Harley Street? Sad to say, that if electrologists are vague about the current state of medical knowledge on the subject of excess body hair in women, then the general run of medical practitioners themselves are not very much wiser. A paper published in 1991 entitled 'Psychological Morbidity of Hirsute Women (Dixon et al)' drew doctors' attention to the fact that, in scientific surveys, hairy women who present themselves for treatment are five times more likely to be depressed than other women.

This observation is not as facile as it might seem. Hirsutism (a clinical term for 'male pattern hair growth') is difficult to measure objectively, given that nearly all patients in the category will have removed some, if not all, of the symptoms before arriving at the doctor's surgery. Under the circumstances, male GPs in particular are all too apt to recommend shaving as a solution, without considering the cultural implication which that masculine method of hair removal has for women.

We want a magic pill; there is none. Excessive hair growth, when accompanied by irregular periods, can be caused by polycystic ovary syndrome, which may or may not imply low levels of fertility. In women with regular periods and a long history of hirsutism, the condition is described as 'familiar'. In both cases it may result from a 'benign excess' of androgens in the body and the only prescribable treatment thus far is a form of the contraceptive pill containing a high dose of anti-androgens. Unfortunately the effects - which build up over the first nine months - are notoriously modest and disappear as soon as you stop taking the drug. Meanwhile aspirants to the sort of smooth, soft skin displayed by actresses and models have plenty of time to read the long list of contra-indications on the back of the packet.

Most women attempt to address the problem of hirsutism during their child-bearing years, so the potential damage to their fertility and the suppression of their libido is most worrying. The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology notes that, despite improvement in hair growth, 30 to 40 per cent of women fail to complete one year of treatment because of 'mild side-effects' including nausea, vomiting, headache, mood changes, depression, fatigue and sleep difficulties.

In the absence of any real medical solution or satisfactory hair removal method, hairy women the world over need to come to terms with their body image. In the US, the first support group of its kind, The Daughters of Hirsutism Association, was founded by Chicagoan Jennifer Smith in 1988, who despaired of finding any sympathy for her own problem among family and friends and so decided 'to create my own environment of support'. In an article on the association in the Chicago Tribune, members report taunting and teasing by men and women of all ages. Many avoid dating and one woman quit two jobs because she was known as 'the lesbian'. 'I had a short haircut and facial hair, so I was really harassed.'

Some psychologists identify the hairless ideal for women in this century as a trend which emanated from America. According to Dr Susan Basow, writing in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, it began in 1915 with 'The Great Underarm Campaign', an advertising drive which coincided with new and more revealing clothing styles. Along with such products as mouthwash, deodorant, tooth products and sanitary towels, The Gillette Company's safety razor for women - applied to ever increasing areas of the body - was part of 'a WASP vision of a tasteless, colourless, odourless, sweatless world' thrust upon the waves of newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy and Ireland via persuasive advertising.

Depilation was not new, however. As a fashion, it has waxed and waned, and the wealthy, urban classes have been its most assiduous practitioners. In Rome, women used hot tar and razor-sharp shells; in Egypt sugaring (a procedure similar to waxing, in which the hairs are ripped out by applying a sticky sugar solution) was the rage. Sophistication has always consisted in distancing ourselves from the animal world, and in the primitive mind, hairiness is akin to bestiality.

Even more potent, symbolically, is its association with sexuality. An early Christian writer, Galla, tells of the daughter of Symmachus, who was warned that if she did not marry, the resultant 'excess of heat' would cause her to grow a beard. Similarly, a law in ancient Argos dictated that women with beards must sleep in the same beds as their husbands. In our own times the main drug prescribed to hirsute patients, cyproterone), is also issued to sex offenders in prison to curb their sex drive. Is it possible that the modern disgust for body hair could be motivated by the same unconscious fears and prejudices about aggressive sexuality in women? Why are otherwise caring family members so markedly unsympathetic to the concerns of young women suffering from hirsutism? Why is peer group pressure so intense that 89 per cent of all 16 to 24-year-olds in the 1990s remove their body hair?

Partly in a spirit of research, partly out of sheer bloody-mindedness, I decided to stop waxing my legs this winter. I have come a long way since the days when the mere mention of the word 'hairy' in casual conversation would cause me to blush. Periods spent working in France and Germany first alerted me to the fact that some men find women's body hair attractive - a little fuzz on the edges of eroticism. And age has helped in the dating game, after all. Not because the hair has decreased (it hasn't), but because my partners are no longer such perfect specimens of youth and beauty themselves.

Even minor embarrassments have their philosophical reward. The male friend who rudely enquired whether I couldn't do something about the hair on my arms later tried to seduce me, so I had to conclude that normalcy isn't the great aphrodisiac that cosmetic manufacturers would have us believe.

My current boyfriend has thus far supported my decision to go cheerfully to seed, proving himself an unlikely model of political correctness. (Except for one tiny lapse - since bitterly regretted - when he referred to me as Tarantula Legs.) My only serious hurdle, then, has been my thrice weekly visits to the local swimming pool, when the said arachnoid features are inevitably on public display. At first secretly mortified to find myself the recipient of the sort of pitying looks usually reserved for wheelchair users, I am now so far inured to the covert attention that I close my eyes in the communal shower room so that interested parties can stare without seeming rude. Occasionally I surprise someone in a look of absolute horror, which makes me want to giggle. I wonder if they think I'm a lesbian? A radical feminist? A circus act?

Catherine Thornton, founder of Face, Britain's first support group for hirsute women, which will be launched officially in October, confirms my suspicion that, in the post-feminist Nineties, I am conducting a one-woman campaign of semiotic guerrilla warfare. 'It's impossible for women in this country to let their body hair grow without making a political statement,' she says. 'A woman who doesn't depilate is immediately identified as left-wing - it never occurs to people that she may just be an ordinary woman who has better things to do than shave her legs. And most women have neither the energy nor the inclination to fight a political battle, so they carry on shaving.'

On a brighter note, Face - which offers advice on an individual basis to hirsute women, including information on hair removal products - has received an interesting selection of letters from men who are tired of the fairer sex waxing, tweezing, shaving and sugaring themselves into a state resembling 'badly plucked chickens'.

While such views remain a minority, 66 per cent of British women (Immac Usage and Attitude Survey) will continue to spend pounds 20m each year on hair removal products in an effort to pretend, inter alia, that their calves are as bald as eggs and their pubic hair grows in a tiny triangle neater than a suburban lawn. Worst of all, as Thornton points out, is the isolation in which modern hair removal takes place. 'In ancient Egypt, sugaring was a communal activity when women could compare notes on body hair with their peers; nowadays women sneak along to beauty salons or hide behind a locked bathroom door in order to keep their depilating chores secret.

'Being hairy is thought of as much worse than being overweight. You see heavy women on television, but you never see hairy ones. It's no wonder we get so many letters from young women who think they are the only ones in the whole world with this problem.'

Three cheers for Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, then, who is the only woman of any prominence to have admitted to her moustache in self-

portraits. Given the lack of role models for hairy women, I prefer not to attribute her motive, as one art critic has suggested, to self-hatred. Maybe, like me, she just couldn't be bothered to lie about it any more.

(Photograph omitted)

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