To Shave or Not to Shave? Why Not Both?!

06 Apr

Two years ago, Leaf decided to stop shaving her legs.

I thought about it, and I realized that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with having hair on my legs. ‘Isn’t hair natural?’ I thought, ‘Why should I change my body just to fit a certain ideal of what women should look like?’ I stopped shaving in the fall, about when I put away my short pants and skirts, and I loved it! I hadn’t had ‘natural’ legs since I was about twelve, and it was kind of exciting to discover what my leg hair looked like. The first time I wore shorts, I was thrilled to realize that my hair helped me feel the wind on my legs. The razor stayed stowed away for about six months. Then one day in May, I called it quits– I decided to return to nude legs. The reason? I got a job offer for the summer, and I didn’t want the kids I would be working with to judge me as some sort of radical hippie before they got to know me.

Leaf’s story illustrates how women and girls make decisions about their appearance that both conform to and challenge society’s beauty norms. Can both approaches be empowering in their own way? By not shaving her legs, Leaf was pushing back against society’s notion of what a young, well-groomed woman should look like. When it came time to enter a workplace environment, however, she decided to take control of how others would perceive her by reverting back to the mainstream image of women. Even though she was conforming to arbitrary standards of beauty by deciding to shave, she was also using her self-presentation to shape her professional success.


Susan Bordo talks about this dilemma as a decision between “blooming” and “transcending” mainstream beauty norms. “Deciding how much one may ‘bloom’ and how much one has to ‘transcend’ in any given context is a tricky, subtle business,” she writes. Should we choose to assimilate to the pressures society places on us and shave our legs, gaining power within the mainstream? Or should we choose to not shave, and thus challenge those norms while subjecting ourselves to potential criticism or scrutiny?

Both of these strategies, as it were, hold the potential for empowerment and marginalization in some ways. Virtually every woman has encountered the problem of choosing between the two strategies many times, whether with regards to hair, fashion, makeup, and much more. And, as Minh-Ha Pham points out, women of color must navigate this “razor’s edge” (pun intended) along yet another axis – race – in addition to gender. Lauren recalls a time in high school when she wore her hair in a bun and a friend commented to her that it made her look “too Asian.” To assimilate to white beauty standards or to challenge them? Gender and race combine to create more aesthetic decisions we must make.

The ways we deal with this dilemma of assimilating versus challenging varies largely based on the environment we find ourselves in. The five members of our group discussed many of our personal experiences with this – and one common theme that emerged was the differences in which ‘strategy’ we tend to choose when at Carleton versus the ‘outside world’, or other contexts.


Beyonce rocks the workplace


Beyonce rocks (runs?) the world!











The Carleton population is only a mere sampling of the nation’s and even the world’s population and thus we are confined to a world of comfort. For the most part, we experience a level of comfort because here we all live similar experiences as students. Also, with the variety of expression when it comes to clothes on campus and the liberal atmosphere, one can chose to openly express themselves through their appearance without being judged. This allows us, like Leaf, to challenge or ‘transcend’ some widespread beauty practices. For example, it is not uncommon to see women go without makeup, prepared outfits, or wear something deemed unfashionable.

Outside Carleton, we give different weights to both strategies to empower ourselves in different environments. One common experience for many of us might be how we choose to assimilate or “bloom” in order to empower ourselves. Yawen worked in an investment group in Shanghai during her gap year. She recalls how her boss’s wife took her to shopping malls to choose appropriate clothes that looked powerful while still appearing ‘appropriately feminine’ (Pham). By assimilating or “blooming,” she empowered herself by presenting herself as more professional, skillful and trustworthy. This draws contrast to her experience in Carleton, where she challenges her friends’ assumption that women should wear skirts or dresses to make themselves prettier.

– Hannah, Lasondra, Leaf, Yawen, Lauren


Posted by on April 6, 2013 in Uncategorized


12 responses to “To Shave or Not to Shave? Why Not Both?!

  1. kelseyjk

    April 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    My relationship with makeup is that same struggle between blooming by making use of standard beauty practices and transcending them. I have very pale eyebrows and eyelashes that are basically invisible without makeup, but I don’t wear makeup on most days anyway, especially here at Carleton. That decision is a combination of lack of time and the feeling, like Leaf’s feeling about her leg hair, that my face is natural as is. However, on special occasions, for interviews, when giving presentations, etc., I will add a little bit of makeup, though still never a lot. It’s not that I am particularly opposed to the clearly defined eyes and brows that are typical, but that I am so used to myself without makeup that I feel very self-conscious and conspicuous when wearing any. That’s another aspect of beauty work: the need to become comfortable with, or at least accepting of, your new outer self. Often, for me, that discomfort will outweigh the benefits I might gain through conforming to standards, but over time, perhaps I’ll become more comfortable with it, or find that I have too much to lose through non-conformity, prompting me to take up that aspect of body work more regularly.

  2. fantinio

    April 7, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    I appreciate the arguments made above, however I feel as though this post leaves something out. By beginning with the question “to shave or not to shave” we are implying that there is a choice that can be made, but to so many people this choice is not evident, or necessarily accessible. For so many people adhering to beauty standards is not a choice, it is a social necessity and right of passage. While the choice of shaving makes beauty standards seem harmless, what happens when we apply the same critique to weight, acne, or tanning practices, which are not band wagons which one can easily jump on or off of. While Leaf had an empowering experience picking and choosing when to groom her body in different ways, other forms of beauty work can have very dangerous side effects (like the poorly publicized biologically addictive side of eating disorders, acne medications such as Accutane which have very dangerous side effects, and fake tanning which is very bad for your skin). While some forms of beauty work can be described as daily opt-in or opt-out tasks, I think it is important to remember that not all beauty work is undertaken so lightly, and many beauty rituals have more than trivial side effects which often go unregistered by women who have an ingrained sense of self-sacrifice in the name of beauty.

  3. xiaodiw

    April 7, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    I really like how this article approaches the dilemma faced by women using shaving as an example. When I was a child, shaving was not very well-known concept among Chinese. However, nowadays, shaving is a very basic expectation for a Chinese girl. I guess, the change in expectation was brought by globalization when the social norm for beauty homogenize between the Eastern culture and Western culture.

    This brings me to think about the change of standards for beauty. These standards can vary from culture to culture, they can also change over time. Women need to adjust when the expectation they have to meet changes. I was really dark and most of my classmates made fun of me in elementary school back in China because whiteness was strongly favored. That really lowered my self-esteem until I went to Singapore. A lot of Singaporeans think that tanned skin color makes the person appear healthy. My skin color did not change but the ways I was perceived were totally in two cultures; one was really not something that I would want to hear while the other was a real compliment. Maybe, that’s the power of norms of beauty.

  4. victoriadan

    April 7, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    I have definitely experienced a dichotomy between home and college with respect to beauty and makeup. When I am at home during break, I enjoy spending that extra hour getting up early to plan out my outfit, groom myself, and put on makeup. Virtually the only time I use foundation, lipstick, or hair product is when I am away from school. But I feel equally comfortable being bare and even grody on those lazy days when I couldn’t care less. On the other hand, on campus I choose a middle course: I never leave the dorm in pajamas, but I also rarely apply more than the occasional eyeliner and clear mascara.

    In our small, insulated community at Carleton, there is variety in how people present themselves, but I get the feeling that it would be easy to look too invested in beauty or be “trying too hard” if I wore more makeup and spent more time on my hair. I can’t say that Carleton is necessarily more liberal with its general view on beauty practices, because the beauty norm definitely exists, just in a different form under the guise of “not caring as much.”

    I am definitely an advocate of being proactive about one’s appearance, whether it be clothes, hair, or makeup. Why shouldn’t we be proactive? After all, the braces you get as a kid are often there for cosmetic reasons, not because your teeth are causing dietary or health problems. And we slather acne treatments and moisturizers on our bodies because we don’t like having “bad” skin (Oh, no! I have a blemish!). I am of the opinion that exercising beauty is in constant negotiation with the environment, and that the most important part of discussing power and beauty is context, context, context.

  5. emilysteidel

    April 7, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    I had a very different reaction to the culture of dress at Carleton which I found, in many ways, to be neither “liberal” nor containing much “variety” (as mentioned in the post).

    At home, especially while with my closest friend (who now studies costume design and continues to be, to me, an often shockingly original dresser), I felt comfortable and often empowered to dress pretty wildly relative to Carleton standards. Coming to Carleton, I found myself feeling self-conscious about wearing anything that might stand out too much from what other people seemed to be wearing. My overalls (a staple of my wardrobe) often receive strange comments, and have inspired peers to compare me to a toddler, a farmer, a fat man and assume that I identified as a lesbian. Because I rely on my clothes now to provide safety and comfort (as mentioned in my group’s post), I find myself unwilling to give up overalls which provide both for me so well (even if it means my “costume” being misread from time to time).

    I have found that Halloween is the time when I feel most liberated to get as creative as I want with what I choose to wear. However, the Halloween of my freshman year I went to the costume contest where one student had a costume entitled (something along the lines of) “kid who needs attention.” His costume was meant to imitate the wardrobe of one particular freshman boy who dressed and styled himself after a 1950s/60s greaser (but who soon after gave up his style for something more Carleton-friendly). To this day that memory leaves me sad and bitter. While there are particular communities on campus that might be known for accepting of particular beyond-the-“norm” appearances, those communities have their own norms of self-presentation.

  6. Nikki

    April 7, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    The issue of leg shaving is a really interesting one when we think about body work. I don’t shave my legs, but that isn’t from any serious commitment; my hair is thin, and no one seems to notice unless I bring it up. I have had people express disgust when I say I haven’t shaved my legs in several years, only to see my legs later and say, “Oh, but you don’t have to shave.” Women frequently express envy that I “don’t have to” shave my legs (that is, to have them look bare enough), and I think this brings up an interesting point that we touched on in class and in my group. In our culture, we generally want our daily body work to be invisible, while achieving a “superior” look to our actual natural appearance. The dream body is not one that is meticulously maintained, but one that does not require maintenance. That may be why the American women were so unimpressed by the Afghan women wearing brightly colored or sparkly makeup in Nguyen’s article: one American standard of beauty is for the appearance to require no obvious effort or change.

    I think that what I am trying to say here also dovetails with what Olivia is saying above. In the case of shaving, it is a choice that can be made as needed, for most people, and the stakes are probably relatively low (after all, many women choose only to shave in the spring and summer when they expect their legs to be seen). But the assumption that “perfect” bodies just come perfect – think of how much people love when celebrity women talk about eating junk food – erases a lot of agency around beauty and dooms virtually every female body to be the wrong one.

  7. bluesharpie92

    April 7, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    When I read the title “To Shave or Not to Shave?” I immediately thought about my hair. Should I continue to put a relaxer in my hair or should I go natural? I’ve been pondering this question more and more as I grow older. My hair has always been time-consuming and frustrating. I have never known what products to use or what beauty salons are good. As a child I remember my long thick natural hair that I wore in braids. Hair that I didn’t appreciate at the time because it was so much work, and it was incredibly annoying during hot summers. I remember saying to myself as a child “I want straight hair like white people.” I then started to perm my hair, and I was happy with my results. My hair was much easier to manage, and it was flatter. I thought it was everything I had ever wanted. I was wrong. Over the years the chemicals began to damage my hair, and my lack of knowledge in hair care put me at a disadvantage. My hair length went from half-way down my back to my shoulders. Now as an adult in college, I still use a light relaxer, but I have started to learn the proper ways to care for my hair. However, I miss the length of my old hair, and I am not sure if it will ever grow back. I also still worry about what damage the chemicals may have on my hair. I continuously struggle with which path to take: natural or perm. I have friends who believe I should go natural and not conform to societal norms. However, as I grow older I believe my motivations for having relaxed hair have changed. It is no longer about fitting in with the majority. My relaxed hair is easier to manage. Also, I relax my hair because I enjoy the versatility. I can wear it straight down, up in a pony-tail, up in a bun, and in curls. However, regardless of how I wear my hair now, I am proud of my natural hair.

  8. harveymr

    April 8, 2013 at 12:06 am

    The way that I dress and present myself at home and at Carleton are very different. I was brought up in the South and my mother always had high standards when it came to manners and dress for my three siblings and I. Ever since I can remember, I was never allowed to leave the house dressed in sweatpants or athletic wear unless I was headed to play in a volleyball or lacrosse game. I was taught around 8th grade to make sure to at least put on mascara before heading out. Very few people in my neighborhood leave the house without makeup and looking put together. Even the moms that play tennis or golf at the country club still look like they spent hours perfecting their look. Here at Carleton, I have found myself able to take a step back. I feel less like I need to follow these “rules” I have grown up with. I still put on some kind of makeup before heading to class because otherwise I feel bare without it but I don’t feel the need to wear my nicest clothes. I dress more for myself. At home I dress much nicer than I do at school and often feel uncomfortable if I don’t.

  9. skytsutsui

    April 8, 2013 at 1:17 am

    What bothers me about society’s fixed beauty norms is that deciding to go along with mainstream ideas does not automatically mean that a woman is “assimilating” just because she decides to, for instance, shave her legs. I can’t help but notice a condescending tone that comes along with “assimilating.” For one to say that I am “assimilating” implies that I don’t accept who I am and that I am just like some of the women who decide to shave as a means to attract men. To me there’s a fine line between: wanting to shave one’s legs because it will, for instance, attract more men and wanting to shave one’s legs because she enjoys the feeling of soft legs. From personal experience, at a young age (maybe 12) I remember experimenting with razors and shaving my legs for the first time just to see what it would be like. After shaving my legs, I found that I simply enjoyed the feeling of my legs being soft and hair-free. I could care less of what boys thought about me at that age and from that day on I just continued to shave due to the fact that I simply liked soft legs. But this also raises several issues of beauty concepts that are ingrained in us from ads, magazines, movies, etc. Perhaps at a young age I unconsciously learned that women who shave are accepted more than women with hairy legs. Perhaps this unconscious learning subtly affected what I thought about soft legs and hairy legs and ultimately influenced my continuation of shaving.

  10. varanass

    April 8, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Like Lauren’s experience of feeling “too Asian”, growing up in a predominantly sheltered Caucasian community, I too have experienced situations in which I felt “too Indian”. Since before I can remember my hair was down to my hips, so my Mom used put my hair in two pigtails everyday for school. Due to my peers’ lack of knowledge of Indian customs and traditions, they asked me questions like, “Do all Indian girls have long hair braided in two pigtails?”, which made me wonder about what my hair said about my identity, or if that my hair was accepted as ‘beautiful’ according to white beauty standards. As a young non-white woman, does that mean I must assimilate to these standards and cut my hair and style like it like my peers? After a few years of many questions, one could say I ‘assimilated’ by cutting my hair and convincing my Mom to let me style my hair as I please. I, however, would say that years later, I do not regret my decision, and do not necessarily think my decision to cut my hair was me really ‘assimilating’ because I was, and still am, on a journey of realizing what it means to challenge the white beauty standards and what it means to be comfortable with what I was biologically given.

  11. pencee

    April 8, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    I think that using women’s decision of whether or not to undergo the body work of removing leg hair is an excellent example. It highlights a choice appearance that women must make that has direct social consequences.

    I also find myself doing much more body work, in regards to hair removal, applying make up and fixing my hair when I am at home rather than when I am at Carleton. Before reading this post I had never conscientiously thought about it. I am not sure if Carleton is a more liberal and accepting environment when it comes to “beauty” and fashion, but I do know that women here undergo, or at least APPEAR to undergo significantly less body work than women my age at home and extremely less than my female peer did in high school. This creates a different “normal” of beauty in the Carleton community than the “normal” I experienced in my high school. At Carleton I feel strange if I spend an hour blow drying and straightening my hair, putting on a full face of make up and carefully deciding my outfit. I almost feel as if I look like I am “trying too hard”. In high school, I did this every morning and felt extremely uncomfortable all day if I for some reason did not have time.

    I do find the beauty culture to be more liberating, and perhaps more mature. Although I often wear make-up and enjoy it, I can choose not to take the time to apply it some mornings and not be bothered by that fact that everyone knows I am not wearing make-up throughout the day.

  12. mvue12

    April 8, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    I definitely resonate a lot with many of the issues presented here, especially when it comes to dressing and clothing. I think that as a Hmong refugee woman in America, it is especially difficult to dress in Hmong clothes because my “ethnic” fashion can activate many of the ethnic and racial stereotypes about my ethnicity. The Hmong culture has been so much exoticized in the dominant ideologies that it’s almost impossible to dress in a Hmong shirt or skirt without being gazed at and asked if my clothes are “traditional” (coded: not modern enough). Often times, my Hmong clothes are mistaken for Halloween costumes which points to the ignorance of people. I think that this alone makes it really difficult to be considered beautiful in America; especially America is so much influenced by western standards of fashion and beauty. I think that the exoticism of my Hmong clothes emerge from the normalization of western fashion and beauty. I am visible because whiteness is invisible. Many times as a Hmong refugee woman I feel like I am a walking stereotype because I just never know when dressing differently than the “norm” will trigger stereotypes about my ethnic clothing.


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