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.
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