Let’s make this clear: I’m not a fetishist. Yet there I was, minding my own business around the house, when my other half said, “Take a look at this,” and showed me her armpit. Or rather, the dense growth inside of it, which — to use a Star Wars analogy — was like seeing the forest moon of Endor where Tattooine used to be.
Like I said, I’m not a fetishist — and my girlfriend was most certainly showing it to me out of brazen disregard for grooming and our shared ongoing pursuit of domestic drudgery and personal sloth, rather than trying to titillate me. And yet, I found myself saying, “I like it.” Then I gave it a stroke and found it to be silky smooth, only to be pushed away and called “a filthy pervert.”
Why share this odd scene?
Well, if you’d have asked me before this if I liked hairy armpits on women, I’d have said no. Like many men, I may have made some sort of face. But this incident told me that my preconceptions were ignorant at best, and the reality was actually pretty cool. Not just the hairy armpits in and of themselves, but that my girlfriend didn’t care about sharing them, and wanted to literally rub it in the face of the representative of the patriarchy in front of her.
Because female body hair is still a taboo. Last month, Swedish model Arvida Bystrom displayed her hairy legs in an Adidas advertisement and was trolled so viciously that she went public with the abuse, which included rape threats. Why such an extreme and despicable reaction for letting something natural grow? It’s not like she’d sprouted an alien tentacle on her face. Is the controversy due to cultural mores, or does it go deeper?
“Nature creates the ‘themes,’ and culture writes the story,” says University of Kent psychologist Arnaud Wisman. “There are stable common elements of attraction that have evolved [the themes]: For instance, no cultures I’m aware of see old age as extremely sexy. This makes sense, because if our ancestors had preferred old people, they wouldn’t have been very successful in procreation. So there are a lot of stable and communal factors — symmetry, certain body shapes that signal fertility — in what people find attractive. Nevertheless, cultures have a huge influence how on these ‘themes’ are expressed and what we find attractive.”
These cultural changes are easy to spot: You only have to look at recent history to find how tastes can shift from generation to generation. In the 1970s, pubic hair was seen as natural and attractive, but by the 1990s, people started to see body hair as unacceptable. In the 2000s, the influence of porn razed it to the ground.
Much of the “blame” for female armpit hair hatred has been put at the door of advertising. In 1915, Gillette created the Milady Decollete, launching a notorious yet highly successful anti-underarm hair campaign in Harper’s Bazaar, which stated, “The fastidious woman to-day must have immaculate underarms if she is to be unembarrassed.”
As influential as that was, it hardly invented body hair removal: As differing fellows as Muslims and Victorian Brits have considered body hair best removed. Famously, the ancient Egyptians — men and women — removed all their body hair as a signifier of social class and cleanliness. Of course, in those days, there may have been genuine concerns over the spread of ticks and lice. Along those same lines, the disgust for armpit hair may have evolutionary depths — like, say, the smell of excrement or a corpse — that make us feel the need to stay away in case of a communicable disease.
Such primitive defense mechanisms don’t apply anymore, though. In that regard, Wisman claims that our modern responses to female armpit hair are quite complex. “On the one hand, body hair is a reminder of our animalistic side. This is threatening for many reasons: Humans don’t like to be similar to animals — it reminds us of a lack of control over our instincts,” he explains. “On the other hand, being ‘wild’ and less controlled is attractive. For instance, one of the things we like about sex is that we can lose ourselves and lose control — losing ‘ourselves’ helps us get rid of our inner chatter. People talk about ‘wild passionate sex,’ but you rarely hear people rave about clinical, controlled intercourse where they were fully self-aware all the time. In a similar vein, body hair may evoke thoughts of our natural, less controlled side, as with beards being en vogue.”
This may well explain why the hairy men who have sprouted up everywhere are being matched by women. In our sanitized, comfortable, air-conditioned world, it’s understandable that we may be drawn to reminders of our animal sides.
And in this regard, there’s another factor: Smell. “Body hair is better at ‘expressing’ so-called chemosignals,” says Wisman. “These signals subconsciously provide us with vital information about the health of potential partners and if we’re a good genetic fit. Without body hair, and veiled by perfume, we may miss out on vital information about our partner.” This is one of the reasons why body hair hasn’t completely disappeared with evolution.
None of this is to say that the decision to grow armpit hair should be reduced to an evolutionary study of sex and attractiveness: It can also be about defying conventions, or women simply doing what the hell they want — their bodies, their choice. Along those lines, the likes of Miley Cyrus, Lourdes Leon and Lena Dunham have all displayed — and then inevitably had to defend — their armpit hair over the last few years.
Ultimately, like anything else to do with a woman’s body, what they choose to do with their armpit hair — shave it bald, grow an afro in there, dye it pink — is absolutely none of your business. Accept it. Support it. Encourage a world where women can be happier and more confident in themselves.
Who knows, in the process, you may discover — as I did — that the hottest thing in the world is a nice hairy armpit.