On Beards and Legs

The great endeavour of writing a thesis is often associated with the equally great endeavour of growing a Thesis Beard. A man in full beard is truly a magnificent sight to behold! I would love to take part in this time-honoured tradition while writing my own thesis. Alas, I am female, and cannot grow a beard to save my life.

“Still,” I thought, “there must be a way.” Like our male counterparts, women shave regularly – legs and armpits and whatnot. And so I contemplated a time-saving no-shaving Thesis Leg endeavour.

Trouble is, leg hair on females is not received in quite the same way as facial hair on males. When a man grows out his beard, many people think he’s awesome, and at worst he receives some good-natured teasing. But if a woman doesn’t shave her legs or her pits, the majority of people think it’s gross. I’ve seen this firsthand when brave young women, friends and peers of mine, have worn shorts or skirts with unshaved legs. People stare, faces curled in disgust, muttering to each other, “Ewww, did you see her legs? I can’t believe she doesn’t shave!”

Sometimes I think “Fuck it, I’m writing a thesis, I don’t have time for this shit!” And I go for my walk to the beach in my short shorts with my hairy legs on display.

But then the hair grows a bit longer, and I think “Fuck it, I’m writing at thesis, I don’t need the extra emotional battle that comes from knowing how I’ll be judged.” And so I shave.

At the end of the day my thesis is nearing completion so it’s too late for me to start a Thesis Leg trend. But I’m left wondering: What gives, society? Why such a stigma around female body hair?

“Genderist”

You either believe women are people or you don’t. It’s that simple.
— Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon — the genius responsible for, amongst other things, Firefly, Much Ado About Nothing, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog — recently spoke about his hate of the word feminist, and proposed that we instead talk about genderism, analogous to racism:

I must admit I was initially concerned when Joss declared that racism is behind us. As intelligent, compassionate individuals we certainly reject racism, and as a society we have laws declaring that all people are to be treated equally. But racism still does occur — consciously, unconsciously, and systemically. [Edit: On listening again I think that Joss wasn’t saying racism no longer exists, but more that we’ve moved beyond the place where we didn’t recognise its existence at all.]

Gender, like race*, is a social construct that has caused great harm, so I was impressed when Joss proposed using the word genderist to frame the discussion around gender discrimination. What’s more, as Joss said of feminist, we are not born racist or genderist, and there is nothing inevitable about the destructive ways of thinking embodied by these two words.

One of the things I love most about using the word genderist is that it implicitly recognises that restrictive gender roles are harmful to everyone, not just to women. This is something that many modern feminists do seem to understand and care about, but the word feminist is nevertheless inherently one-sided. Of course, historically the fight for women’s rights needed to be one-sided — feminists were struggling against the wide-spread belief that “because you were born female, you are less”. But while deeply ingrained and insidious discrimination still occurs against women in our society on a daily basis, many men and women who do support equal rights are turned off by the negative connotations associated with feminist, and are much more likely to embrace the fight against genderism.

I will still proclaim myself a feminist. But more importantly, I will stand beside Joss and all the other heroes in the fight against genderism. Are you with us?

*For a detailed look at how race is a social construct rather than a biological reality, check out Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature by anthropologist Agustín Fuentes