A woman walks onto a red carpet… You know what follows. Every element of her physical appearance is analysed, from her shoes to her eyelashes. And in the case of this year’s Golden Globes, we had something more interesting than usual to observe. Lola Kirke, actor and younger sister of the Girls star Jemima Kirke, had decided to not remove the hair from her underarms for the event.
Now, the most sinister reaction to this decision was illuminated in Kirke’s subsequent Instagram post, thanking those people who didn’t send her death threats on account of her body hair. This is a reminder of sexism in its most clearly abhorrent, thuggish and direct form. It shows the prevalence of abusive behaviour, designed to aggressively remind all women of their “place”. But the reaction to her appearance also showed us a more passive version of sexism, wherein Kirke’s body hair was only acceptable in the context of her good looks.
“She still looks beautiful!” was the defence that seemed in the eyes of many to justify Kirke’s choice. And that is completely missing the point. Kirke’s underarms were discussed in the tabloids like an accessory, with commenters patting themselves on the back for their liberal attitudes, praising Kirke’s body hair within the context of her general attractiveness.
But this response will not liberate women, for we will always have inequality so long as women are compelled to, at all costs, look pretty. My underarm hair, when I had enough courage to stop shaving it, did not look like Kirke’s. And I did not look like Kirke when sporting it.
As can often be the case with women of colour, particularly those of south Asian heritage, my hair is very long, very dark, very thick and stretches across a large section of my underarm. I was embarrassed about it, because I thought people wouldn’t like how it looked.
During the couple of months when I had the strength to resist shaving, I would wear long-sleeved tops as much as possible. While my boyfriend would constantly assure me that he actively preferred my looking as though I’d gone through puberty, I would still often keep my top on during sex, or my arms clamped to my side.
But that insecurity is not created by people like Lola Kirke. Yes, as a relatively un-hairy, stereotypically beautiful white woman, her embracing her body hair was less challenging than it might have been.
But ultimately, in bravely defying the social norm, Kirke was questioning the ideal of hairlessness. By essentially saying, “Hey, hairiness is our basic human right”, Kirke was kicking against the expectations that oppress all women, but most particularly women of colour. She did something brave, that will hopefully make it easier for women in the future to do the same thing.
But we must be very careful when we talk about Kirke’s body hair in the context of how beautiful she is. While it is progressive to say that underarm hair is beautiful, it is damaging to imply that it is only because she is beautiful, and can continue to look conventionally pretty with body hair, that her decision not to shave becomes permissible.
Such an understanding will only create a further problem for women. Girls will ask themselves: Am I pretty enough to have body hair? Am I too naturally hairy to let my body hair grow? Is my outfit nice enough for me to not shave my underarms?
Kirke’s move was totally body-positive, but the reception of it was problematic. If we reserve liberation for women who can make it look pretty and unchallenging, female oppression will continue to rage.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies