A curious freedom

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The Catalan writer Bel Olid was forty when she decided to stop shaving. “The deciding part was important”, she writes. She had long dabbled with grown-out armpits and stubbly legs, ignoring her body hair if it wasn’t going to be on show, but something significant changed for Olid when it became a conscious decision. This short book, an essay translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin, proceeds from that choice to evaluate the personal and political significance of refusing to shave, rallying others to follow in her footsteps.

Concerns over whether women depilate can seem a little entry-level and outdated, for surely obsessing over the aesthetic outcomes of gender inequality perpetuates the policing of women’s bodies and implies that the main harms of patriarchy are cosmetic. Still, Olid’s account is thoughtful and thorough: through the prism of her own experience, she convincingly articulates the stakes of this ordinary predicament and makes a robust case for the centrality of body hair to interlocking forms of oppression, both real and symbolic.

While seemingly aware of its limitations as a site of struggle, Olid links hair removal to a wider set of attitudes and processes that systematically restrict female appearance and behaviour. She refers to the rise in labiaplasty surgery, the intensifying pressure for women to appear like prepubescent girls, the industries that ever more insistently promote female cosmetic modification and, above all, the violence that confronts women, especially trans women, who refuse to conform to commercial stereotypes. Olid’s argument is that depilation is a decisive, not a peripheral, issue. “By making out that it’s a banal decision we are robbing ourselves”, she writes of women’s potential power to affect these standards. Hair removal is made to seem an “unavoidable tax on womanhood” and its perception as ultimately a personal decision attempts to seal off the issue from the political webs into which it is woven. Women owe it to one another, she contends, and especially to those women most likely to be targeted by abuse for their nonconformity, to see what collective disobedience might feel like – and achieve.

Hairless has a refreshing willingness to acknowledge the ways in which women, Olid included, are complicit in enforcing hair removal, internalising what she describes as an “increasingly inflexible norm”. Her response, in turn, is pragmatic: she invites women to experiment with hairiness and see how it pleases them. Through its self-aware narration of how her own perspective changed, Olid’s book makes the case that what women want is not so much the freedom to shave, but freedom from the coercive forms of penance that meet them if they don’t. “A curious freedom”, she writes. Curious indeed.

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