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Oh, pluck it

The hairy issues of being a groomed feminist

By Leigh E. Rich

A friend once called me and, before I had a chance to say hello, asked rapidly, “What one thing would you want if stranded on a desert island?”

My reply was as automatic as it was predictable.

“Duh. Tweezers.”

As if she had to ask.

It’s not likely I could ever be stranded, well, anywhere, without a pair or two nearby. There’s the expensive pair in my bathroom, the clone in my makeup bag and the cheap knockoffs in my purse, at my parents’ house, even in the coffee-cup pen holder in my office. If they were bottles of rum, someone might have to call for an intervention.

But, unlike the alcoholic, my tweezers problem is anything but that—a problem. As a woman, you see, I am supposed to be concerned with stray hair. Around my eyebrows, under my arms, all up and down my legs and, yes, even down there. If I weren’t, well, now, that would be a problem.

And I’ve bought into this, lock, stock and b-hair-rel. So much so, in fact, that I had to pause a DVD on the life of poet Charles Bukowski to confirm that, yes, one of his former girlfriends, the mother of his child, had something akin to a beard growing under her chin. Forget the fact that Bukowski was a brilliant and beautiful writer. Ignore his misogyny, likely fertilized (if not planted) by the violence and anomie he suffered as a child. Think not about what this woman, Frances Smith, herself offered the world. What was more important, I had to think—and much more mysterious—was why no one, not even any empathetic woman on the documentary production crew (were there any, I wondered?), pulled this woman aside for an on-the-spot waxing. Surely, I know, there was at least one woman packing a pair of tweezers.

I, of course, travel with no less than three.

Yes, yes, I realize how foolish this is even as I write it. Or is it? Many have often half-joked that, if it weren’t for our time-consuming and never-ending hair removal regimens, women would be running the world. Take out shaving my legs every other day, epilating the armpits, Nairing the arms and tweezing the brows, I’d probably recoup enough time to establish peace in the Middle East.

Instead, I absentmindedly obsess over chin hairs and other facial fuzz, whether while reading Das Kapital or watching television. How could I not? Hardly an hour goes by without some critical voice goading me to buy an Epilady or Vaniqa or Nad’s and buy into follicle-free femininity. It makes one want to throw Marx at the now-all-digital airwaves and ask just what commodity our society is selling: depilatory products or distracted women?

Don’t get me wrong, guys don’t have it much better. Even that other influential Marx (i.e., Groucho) wouldn’t dare be caught in a club with Sy Sperling or Bosley, and more and more men these days wax eyebrows and chests and backs than philosophical. But unless a man is Lance Armstrong or Michael Phelps, he has less surface area to constantly control than his counterpart of the opposite sex.

I used to think women had an advantage in one area—the thinning of the upper atmosphere—but we, too, must worry about holes in the ozone.

For hair, in the appropriate place, proffers power. Samson knew as much, so do Native Americans. And what would Hippies be without their tousled tresses shaking a symbolic fist to the Man? Springbreakers, not revolution makers. Imagine John Lennon or Elaine Brown challenging the status quo without long locks or a ’fro. We certainly would be politically poorer today (and have fewer productions on Broadway).

Groomed people have less time for rebellion. And parties in power “Rogaine” even more power when the surveyed are surveying themselves. True, French philosopher Michel Foucault doesn’t talk of tweezers in his Discipline and Punish, but plucking and the Panopticon (designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham) go hand in hand.

Critics of feminism, even to this day, suggest—actually, baldly state—that the Women’s Movement lost clout because of the hairy legs. If we bra-burning and ballpoint-brandishing feminists just pulled a razor across the acreage once and again, they claim, society might not plug its ears and avert its gaze when feminists take the stage.

I’m certainly not claiming that feminists must forgo personal grooming. Our bodies are, after all, ourselves, and this must be a woman’s choice. I only suggest we cease the surveillance—of ourselves and other women—to which we’ve been enculturated. If we’re in continuous competition with each other, we can’t be critical of inequities in society and press for institutional change.

As Susan J. Douglas has suggested in Where the Girls Are (1995), society wants us in a constant catfight. Self-surveillance guarantees it.

Next time you stroll the beach or any city street, stop staring at all the women—we have plenty of men for that, anyway—and comparing yourself thigh for thigh. Women ought to stand together, not wobbly arms-length apart.

I’m tired of tweezing. And being told I can have it all, as long as I’m plucked, proper and pretty. 

Rich, L. E. (2010, May 5). Oh, pluck it: The hairy issues of being a groomed feminist. Leigh Rich Freelance: five2seven.


Douglas, S. J. (1995). Where the girls are: Growing up female with the mass media. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Dullaghan, J. [Director] (2006). Bukowski: Born into this. New York: Magnolia Pictures.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books. Originally published Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Marx, K. (2000). Das kapital: A critique of political economy. Eds. Friedrich Engels and condensed by Serge L. Levitsky. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing. Originally published Das kapital: Kritik der politischen Oekonomie (Hamburg: Otto Meissner, 1867).

Rich, L. E., & Simmons, J. (2008). Feminism ain’t funny: Gender role construction in the era of television. Paper presented at the annual conference for the Southeast Women’s Studies Association, April 3–8, in Charlotte, N.C.

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