Culture, colonisation and the short and curlies of body hair

Society for hundreds of years has told women to be hairless.

Until recently women are rarely ever shown with any hairy bits anywhere in the media. I certainly never braved my pits in public. (Until now).

But slowly people and brands have started to challenge what is seen as ‘normal’ - although we still have a long way to go. 

As a pakeha woman, the westernised ideal of hairlessness has been the standard I’ve tried so hard to meet.

Billions of dollars every year is spent telling me how I should look, behave and dress. 

But the women of New Zealand are all kinds of body shapes, types and have various amounts of hair.

So I got off my hairy butt and went out to find some other women to tell me how – their ethnicities, cultures, upbringings and religions impacted their decisions around body hair. 

Firstly I heard from Ana Mcallister, she’s a artist writer, Instagram influencer and a body positive wahine Māori

There has been a lot of mahi around wahine and the decolonisation of their periods. Ana said there isn’t the same focus on this in terms of body-hair but it’s definitely on the rise around beauty standards as a whole. 

She said there was no shame or whakama around body hair until colonisation came on the scene. 

As part of her decolonisation and acceptance of bodies she chooses to grow it all out and make it sexy.

“Disrupting that by doing things that they would consider gross or unfeminine or not sexually attractive is a way to disrupt that whole system of how we’ve been represented for 251 years...”

Talking to her, about how she embraces her body, made me feel instantly better and more sexy in mine. 

But what we choose to do is not always about beauty, for some people it is religious.

Anjum Rahman is someone we hear from on topics about hate speech, terrorism or the Christchurch Mosque attacks.

But in this instance, I got to hear her most wonderful giggle as we talked about what her body hair means to her and her faith. 

Muslim men and women are both required to remove their armpit and public hair. It’s not gendered, it’s just about keeping clean and following the religion. 

“As long as you can’t wrap it around your finger it’s okay...”

It’s not scientific, but it’s the measurement some people go by to know when they need a trim... 

Others whip it off completely, one is Muslim beautician Regina Bratoeva, a true expert when it comes to removal. 

She said in her community, it’s not taboo, they talk about it and it starts at a very young age. 

“I had my first wax before the age of 12. 

“There is a common understanding that if you wax early then you will destroy the follicle and it will not grow. 

“So mothers are considered to be doing their daughters a favour.”

Mava Enoka as a young girl addresses her mo. Photo: RNZ
Mava Enoka as a young girl addresses her mo. Photo: RNZ
For TVNZ Journalist and Persian beauty Mava Enoka it was also a matter of starting early, but only prompted after a boy bullied her at primary school for her moustache.  

Mava now removes everything she can, and does a lot of it herself – but if anyone ever noticed as she was growing up she always had a plan. 

“My tactic has always been to be like ‘oh I’m Iranian’ I used it, it was novel enough, people didn’t really know what that meant but they accepted it.” 

“I’m at a place now where I don’t want to be super hairy, but I’m not ashamed that I have to maintain a non-hairiness.”

Body hair is something that we know gets a visceral reaction from lots of people. 

It’s polarising, it makes people feel uncomfortable, but it’s not really something we can choose to grow or not – it's just there. We only have the option to remove it. 

My body hair is now 6 weeks long, and for right now, I’m keeping it. It might not stay forever, but today I feel proud of the thick black hairs poking out under my singlet.

There’s been days I’ve felt horrendous when I look in the mirror, and others where I’ve had the best conversations of my life. 

My friends are supportive, and men have still found me attractive -- Only one has been scared off by my armpits... 

Being so vulnerable and honest has given me a power I haven’t felt before. 

I think I’ll call it acceptance. 

And hopefully this will help you find that too.