Toad in the Hole

October 15, 2006

Where I Stand on Hairy Legs

In case anyone who reads this doesn't already know: I'm a 5657-year-old woman. I'm a rabid feminist. And I bite. And I have braces on my teeth, so it really hurts when I bite.

The recent brouhaha over make-up/heels/waxing/shaving and other femmy flounces in several feminist blogs has amused me in a grim but sympathetic way. So, now that most of the hollering has died down, here's my story and stance.

First off, I'm more or less in the same position vis-a-vis "beauty" as Twisty is vis-a-vis bras. I'm hors de combat. I'm ugly. I could shave my legs and wax my naughty bits add put on lipgloss (well, I do put on lipgloss, especially with the braces -- they dry out my mouth) and fishnet hose and a teeny leather skirt and three-inch spikes and I'd just plain look ridiculous. No, really. I'm in a position to know.

So. I was a cute little kid, but somewhere around seven or eight things caught up with me and, in my school photos and those awful Easter-outfit shots where we're all lined up and squinting into the sun, I look like a concentration-camp poster child. This is a combination of the related allergies -- bags under the eyes -- and asthma. Asthma kills your appetite and the drugs available in the '50s killed mine more. I was skeeeeeny when I wasn't supposed to be. Gaunt and stressed-looking.

I suspect those drugs (mostly epinephrine, inhaled a lot) might have had something to do with my adolescent case of near-terminal acne. That left me with a face like a bad road. When I hit menopause, things started sagging and all the scar tissue isn't helping; it's inflexible and makes odd lines in odd places. And my lips are disappearing, such as they ever were. My teeth have been weirdly crooked since the permanent ones came in; the braces I finally got last year were out of physiological need, not about looks. And man, they're ugly too, and make me look even stranger in constantly changing ways -- this month, I seem to have a severe overbite.

I was yer basic... well, not outcast exactly, but social nonentity, in highschool. I was also insanely horny. It's possible my looks and, evidently, pious and/or brainy reputation kept me from teenage motherhood; I don't know. But the looks thing got me used to having crushes that I never expected to have returned; it just seemed like the natural order of the universe. That lasted long after highschool, even through some love affairs, weird though that may sound. When I've got the hots for someone, my baseline has always been not to suppose they feel any particular way toward me.

Somewhere halfway through college (all-women Catholic school) I found out there were feminists in the world -- a great relief, as I'd thought I was merely nuts until then -- and somewhere in there I realized I could stop with the putting-on-the-face schtick in the morning and a/ the world wouldn't end and b/ I'd get another half-hour's sleep. It's hard to express how attractive that latter thought was. I got some positive reinforcement; my love life -- coincidentally or no -- immediately took a decided turn for the better.

Dallas, Pennsylvania was culturally isolated enough that I was both the hippies and the politicos on my campus, so the au naturel thing was sorta motivated by both. It was incredibly relaxing.

I spent a couple of years at the family manse in Harrisburg after I graduated, and had a fairly active social/sex life there. (Not at the manse, exactly; I'd learned PDQ not to bring dates hom, as it just led to all sorts of explaining.) I do remember hearing a complaint relayed by a friend that the dykes at my favorite bar "couldn't figure out if you're butch or femme." This boggled me some. I was an enthusiastic dancer, wore um backwater designer-once-removed/hippie clothes -- I remember one favorite outfit: brown suede wafflestomper boots, cream-colored tight bellbottom pants, cream-colored tight lace shirt, brown suede vest with three-foot beaded fringe. My hair was as long then as now, waist-length and beyond; still no make-up. I was in fairly good shape then, anyway. Somewhere in there, I quit shaving my decidedly hairy legs, and my pits. Oh yeah, and I got dates. I told my interlocutor, "Oh, just tell them I'm a hippie."

So I moved to Berkeley, almost accidentally, still un-made-up and unshaven, wearing my hiphugger (yes, the first time around!) bellbottoms and Converse sneakers and Tshirts or that red checkered thing I tied up under my boobs...

Had I quit the bras by then? I think so. Another annoyance gladly lost. Youngsters, heed this: bras in the '60s and '70s were soooo much more annoying then they are today. And don't get me started about girdles. And pantyhose had barely been invented! They were an improvement! No garters!

I wore my last pair of heels just before I left Harrisburg, as maid of honor at my little sister's wedding. Blue suede platforms with, I dunno, two-and-a-half-inch? three-inch? heels. Kicked them off in the reception line and never looked back. Though I kept my knee-high purple suede fringed boots, and they had a bit of heel.

So I met Joe the day I got here in '73 and jumped into bed with him two weeks later and it's been 33 years. I suspect that the no-paint thing served me well as a filter, actually. But the times were different then., possibly because we made them different. Also, it's Berkeley. I never quite fit in in Harrisburg; what I like about Berkeley is that I don't have to fit in.

I never did quite manage to wear shorts with these hairy legs -- fortunately, it's a very temperate climate. I went back to wearing bras when we bought a pickup truck. Trucks have stiff suspensions and Berkeley has lots of potholes, and it was actually getting painful to drive around. I also learned not to take that jaunty jump off the fourth rung up on my tree ladder without a bra when I was premenstrual.

A few years ago I started shaving my legs again, when I lost my ladder dents. Ladder dents are something you get when you spend hours every day on a ladder, leaning forward; they're on the fronts of your legs, and they stay there -- the first time my primary care doc saw them he was very puzzled. When I was an arborist, I considered them the honorable stigmata of my profession. I was passionate about that work. When my lungs turned on me and I had to quit, I was devastated. When my ladder dents disappeared, I decided to overcompensate by shaving my legs and wearing shorts and knee-length skirts, get a leg tan for the first time in decades.

That lasted as long as the muscles I'd developed as a gardener and arborist.

Then I wrote a book, and the publisher insisted on having my photo on the back if I published as Ron Sullivan, the name I use most of the time and was known by to such readers as I had. Signings followed. My friend Valerie talked me into trying on a big green skirt to wear to signings -- about three yards of tiered sage-green gauze; it felt great -- and I found myself talking to garden clubs too; I figured I'd fuck with ther heads a bit, and show up with a bit of a femme presentation in the grande dame style. Big hat too. When I realized that I could buy long skirts without trying them on, I started snatching them up. Now I have a closetful.

Mostly, I wear the same Carhartt jeans as Joe -- I started the style in-house in oh '78, '80, when I was a nurse and the white ones had enough pockets for my needs -- and in summer (March-late October) we both wear aloha shirt for religious reasons. Literally the same jeans; we wear the same size and have a joint jeans drawer. I suppose we're turning into something like those couples we used to see in 1980 with the matching leisure suits, or maybe it's that everything that ages must converge. When I dress up it's usually a long skirt from Tienda Ho and scarves and beads and all that. I do like handsome textiles; might as well wear them.

Lately, though, I've been pushed over some threshold -- maybe it's the braces. It could be that they're grotesque beyond my tolerance, or that I'm spending more time in front of mirrors, brushing and picking and flossing and all. Or that I had to consult a dermatologist (speaking of things I ought to have had in adolescence) and get a chip cut off my nose because it was cancerous. So I've been hitting the cosmetics aisles, trying to remember the skills I had when I was 18, getting eyeshadow and blusher and foundation and sometimes wearing them.

Joe says it makes him, oh, not exactly nervous. Just that it's startling, as if I'd suddenly found religion or something. I've reassured him on that score anyway.

It's not that I think I need to Attract A Mate(tm) -- got one, thanks, and he's not the last that offered. It's the more public everyday stuff; I'm tired of paying the Ugly Tax. I'll never be goodlooking, but it helps to be less conspicuously ugly, when dealing with the public.

Posted at October 15, 2006 05:48 AM


Ah yes, the decisions of youth. I gave up shaving my legs when I left for college. That was quickly followed by not shaving under arms. I think I gave up bras when I couldn't find my size: 42AA. I never was one for make-up; most of it made me break out. I keep some hypo-allergenic around for jury duty. Which is why I also kept a knee length PINK silk skirt I got as a present.

I don't think the hairy legs and pits affected my het sex life as much as my feminism. Obviously, the feminism wasn't a problem for my women lovers.

I've sometimes wonder why we're supposed to shave our legs and armpits, but not our arms. Does anyone have a theory?

Posted by: Emma G at October 15, 2006 08:49 AM

the thing that makes me crazy about this is that I think Twisty (and others) are merely (as if Twisty "merely" does anything) pointing out that our aesthetics develop in the context of a patriarchy--and, I would add, a capitalist one at that. Thus, it behooves one who has problems with said system(s) to consider the choices we make, even when we want to say that it's "merely" aesthetic, or personal (remember the personal=political thing?), or whatever--the wanting-to-say seems to me to be part of how we try to not think about why we like what we like. And, hey, I do that, too.

But then you get a few people who read that injunction and think that means that Everyone Who Does X Isn't Really a Feminist. Which I don't think is the point at all.

As for the other Emma's question about shaving, I can tell you that it started around the 1920s, and i can tell you that Germaine Greer posited, way back in the '70s, that armpit and leg hair (and pubic hair, for that matter) are secondary sex characteristics, and shaving said hair makes women look non-adult and therefore less threatening. I think there's a grain of truth to that.

Posted by: another Emma G at October 15, 2006 04:01 PM

Last year, I decided to upgrade my appearance. For me it had to do with getting older. Miss Patsy threw out all my Mom's Pants, and started bringing home second hand label-type clothes from consignment stores. Luckily, I'd missed the worst of the Mom's Pants phenom just by wearing men's clothing all the time, as I have largely from childhood. Because I'm nine feet tall.

Miss Patsy waxes everything; I've never shaved or waxed, but I don't have much hair. MIss Patsy's Tales of the Wax Salon are some of the best stories I've ever heard, I'd be sorry not to have them.

I grew up in a hippy enclave where all the kids wore jeans and t-shirts, and with a feminist mom, and was gifted not to be worn or torn or damaged by compulsory femininity. Whenever these conversations arise, I'm reminded of that gift and the damage done to other women, but part of me thinks, no, the problem is violence, male violence, and it's them who have to change completely, not us. After they change completely, I'll write a polemic against lipstick, and not a day sooner.

yrs, B.D.L.

Posted by: bdaggerlee at October 15, 2006 07:25 PM

First of all, I really like the title. Hey, as long as you're standing, right?

Second, I seem to have missed whatever latest vortex of snarling hysteria in the blogosphere gave rise to this post. And that's just fine by me.

Third, I doubt very much that you are ugly, though how any woman in America gets through a day without thinking this about herself at least sixteen times before breakfast, I don't know. What I have discovered from both sides of the ugly/beauty fence is that there is no such thing as personal beauty, not the way we mean when we say "beauty industry." There is personal aesthetic, which is purely personal, and there is conformation -- yes, like at a dog show. No poodle would show up at a dog show without the proper haircut or if he'd just rolled in something smelly; everyone would hold the nose, roll the eyes, make snide remarks, or, most cutting of all, pretend said poodle didn't exist.

Thing is, no poodle would probably choose to go to a dog show on his own. Even the ones who supposedly love it have been trained to love it, acculturated to a certain set of rewards.

For us, leaving the house is the dog show, and just like an owned beast whose master determines the boundaries of what s/he will see and experience, much of the time we don't really have the choice not to go, not if we want to have any kind of life at all. So it's as Twisty says, we make certain choices about our appearances in order to survive, in order to have the maximum opportunity to get something we want for ourselves out of our own lives. The range of choices will not change without the creep of awareness of the very dog show we all take for granted as the "real" world. I hope someday the range will explode. Meanwhile, we live now, in this, and this is the range of choices -- and consequences -- we have.

Oh, and about that not wanting to pay the ugly tax and doing whatever we have to do to avoid it, even though it gets higher every year we get older, fatter, saggier, more scarred, and hairier in all the "wrong" places? Yeah, me, too. I have my own style, but I ignore fashion, and I can usually do so without penalty because fashion is really only for city people. But I do go to a certain amount of trouble to conform whenever I leave my home for any reason. It increases my range of options, you see, and gets me the better biscuits.

Posted by: Sara at October 17, 2006 01:29 AM

Oh, and BTW --

You should feel very confident leaving the house, knowing that all across the internet is an entire army of "Ronnabes."

(speaking of Twisty)

Posted by: Sara at October 17, 2006 01:31 AM

(snort) Careful what you wish for, army. Then again, think of the havoc we could bring on.

"as long as you're standing"

Well yeah, there's that. Hey, you've got the problem half-solved, no? (But are they _rubber_ biscuits?)

Posted by: Ron at October 17, 2006 04:29 AM

Count me among the Ronnabees . . .

Something Sara said reminded me, though, about the "beauty" thing, and how much of it really is "internal," for lack of a better word. I think there are plenty of men (and women) out there who are more interested in that inner self. Do we still pay attention to the packaging? Of course; how could we not? But that seems less important. Or maybe I've had too much Patriarchy Kool-Ade with breakfast. Or maybe it's too damned early . . .

Posted by: emma goldman at October 17, 2006 11:11 AM

Heh -- yeah, I have the problem "half"-solved. I don't recommend my solution, though; it's a trifle drastic. But you know, if I had everything amputated (god forbid), someone would still have to come in and do something about my facial and body hair. 'Cause, you know, even in care, I wouldn't want to offend anyone's sensibilities with any excess traces of animalia.

(BTW, squeaky rubber biscuits are the very best kind! Ask any poodle.)

I often wonder if I lived in a city whether I would feel pressure to get one of those foot/ankle dealies that allow the user to wear higher heels. I think I would, because I think it would be impossible otherwise to find "nice" enough shoes to go with the kind of clothing a woman must wear to get and keep a well-enough-paying job to support my life there. It's really important in city business culture to wear the right uniform, and with my current set-up, frankly I cannot. I would have to go to tremendous expense of time and money in order to hit a much higher number of conformation points, just to get people to see past my fake leg in the first place -- or I'd have to spend my life in a wheelchair or on crutches just to dress "properly." Or so I'd feel.

In effect, I would pay an exponentially larger ugly-preemption tax, all because I chose to keep my life. It's something I've been meaning to blog about, actually, because I've met a lot of female amputees who really do struggle with this. It's a real problem. The hairy leg issue diminishes when you give up a leg or goes away altogether if you give up two. A whole new set of issues that shouldn't exist in the first place rush in to fill the void.

I like Amanda Marcotte's remark about earlobes on Chris Clarke's blog post about back hair. If it ain't one thing it's another. Really.

Posted by: Sara at October 17, 2006 03:44 PM

"one of those foot/ankle dealies that allow the user to wear higher heels..."

They what.

They WHAT???!

They WTF'inWHAT???

Wait. First "they" make things like Barbie feet to put on the ends of prostheses so the user can wear high heels? And there are people wobbling around on fake legs and HIGH HEELS?? Jeebus crush, what a stunt! How the hell long do you think anyone can keep that going in the average day? How much energy...?


Really, that's a new one for me. Boggling, when you think about it. Does end-runs around the very concept of cultural weirdness. Plus, I'm trying to plug that into your posts about hill-walking -- I mean, I'm assuming this barbiefoot would be removable like the shoes, but. Hm, If you're in a femme-biz suit and hose and spikers and all and suddenly there's a hill... Wait, you're presumably indoors all day, but, say, spontaneous biz-bonding lunch in San Francisco, that's hard enough for anyone in two meatfeet and spike heels.

And it's "her choice" of course. Oh yeah, and "fun."

Cripes, I find it hard enough when I'm working with Chris and we go out for lunch in North Beach (because YBYA if I'm in North Beach I'm going to lunch, for one thing) and we have to go uphill on Broadway to get pretty much anywhere and he walks a lot faster than I do, especially uphill, because, you know, he's in better shape and has two functioning lungs and all. And I'm wearing sneakers or walking sandals. I don't _do_ annoying shoes.

(And I'll be impressed with his back hair when I see it cornrowed, with beads.)

You've succeeded in flabbergasting me and I'm still in my fluffy bathrobe. I guess it's like grad school; in retrospect, income or no, I'm relieved I opted out way back when. Mostly I did because I thought I'd just look silly, pathetic: Nice try, Honey. And I still think I would. But holy shit, what a lot of can't-let-it-show work and straining.

Posted by: Ron at October 17, 2006 05:14 PM

Oh, yes, they are real. Remember this?

Well, the thing is, all Heather sells is the cosmetic cover. You have to actually have a seriously Barbie-ish Barbie foot to go with it, or you won't be sporting the spikey slingbacks like she is anytime soon. Of course, she is a trans-tibial amputee. She doesn't have to work a mechanical knee which will automatically fold up on her if her foot slants too far forward.

The usual prosthetic foot applied to a transfemoral leg can accommodate a heel no higher than 3/4" at the outside, and that's pushing it. 5/8" is the most reliable outside height.

Go to Select every pair of "flats" you can envision Gloria Allred wearing to court with a suit. Take away every pair with a heel higher than 3/4". Now take away every pair with slick soles. How many shoes do you have left?

And that's exactly the range of choices open to a transfemoral amputee who wears a prosthetic and wants to practice corporate law or investment banking, sell stocks and bonds or real estate, and live in NYC or Chicago -- unless she gets a special foot/ankle dealie which will let her wear "better" shoes.

And that's why they make special feet that can accommodate shoes all the way up to 3" high. Of course, prosthetic legs are not modular for their owners; only licensed prosthetists can properly pop off one part and put on another, and not every brand makes every option, and most brands do not work together. So a woman who wants a foot like this has to also get a separate leg to attach to it. Same with a jogging foot. My completely analog leg with its 3/4"-heel-limited foot cost $18K after all the fittings, and that was after price reductions made because of a contract between my crappy insurance company and my prosthetist's company. I think the foot alone was a few grand, too, but I'd have to look it up to be sure.

Damn, I have to blog about this before I completely take over this comment thread, but right after I finish the downhill/stair supplemental I'm currently constructing. There is much, much more to be said about this.

Look for "On Feet and Feminism," coming soon to a blog near you. (Don't be surprised if some of it looks awfully familiar.)

Posted by: Sara at October 17, 2006 09:43 PM

Because I'm nine feet tall.


And Ron, I was gonna apologize (again) for outrunning you until I saw you're playing that old "who's got the real back hair" card at me. Why must we always compare oppressions?????

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 18, 2006 12:57 AM

i was still mulling over the "ugly tax," an excellent concept, and here things have moved in a direction i didn't expect. probably a good thing -- hairy legs hold my attention for only so long. i can pass as an outdated, uncool professional if i have to, but fortunately don't have to very often. yawn.

sara -- joyce kennard, the senior associate justice of the california supreme court, is also an amputee.

the black robe surely makes things easier, but [a] she wears flats; [b] with the robe, she wears interesting jewelry, no frou-frou lacy stuff a la sandra day, and colors like deep purple; [c] although she leaves her cane in the hall when she goes to the bench, my passing gander a couple weeks back revealed it to be a cool cane -- a practical metal model, but in a dark purple or blue, with some kind of design all over that i couldn't check out further on accounta major security at the courthouse. i make it a point to not mess with deputies unless it is something important.

(this was a day i was trying to pass as professional. i am 49 years old, have been a lawyer for 24 years, wore the super-dweebish necklace pass to be at this special session as a lawyer, was wearing a dress and tailored black jacket, no visible leg hair, even had a little makeup on -- and a court official's first guess was that i was a law student who had lost her visiting class group. whatever.)

and chris gets all worked up about back hair. sheesh. some people are so sensitive.

Posted by: kathy a at October 18, 2006 04:54 AM

The court official probably thought he or she was flattering you by implying you look young, too. But see, if I were a Supreme Court judge, I'd carry a sword cane.

Chris is just afraid that if he wears that backless gown to work on Casual Day again, I'll squirt hair dye designs on him if he gives me the chance. Then he'll have to explain it at home.

Posted by: Ron at October 18, 2006 06:42 AM

"Why must we always compare oppressions?????"

'Cause I just love to see you whip yours out.

Posted by: Ron at October 18, 2006 06:44 AM

"...not every brand makes every option, and most brands do not work together"

Cripes, it's like computers.

"cost $18K"

At that price it should at least have an internal combustion engine.

"On Feet and Feminism,"

Like the cat that ate the cheese, I'm waiting with baited breath.

Posted by: Ron at October 18, 2006 06:51 AM

sadly, supreme court justices can lop off one's head even without a sword cane. just saying.

in the early years, i looked like a high school student who decided to play dress-up. but that's all different now, because i have wrinkles and a substantial presence of hard-earned silver atop my short, unfashionable head.

anyway, i've decided that the court staff was worked up that day about all the visiting students, and they knew all the local lawyers, so my colleague and i fell into the student category by default. and oh, yeah, we are girl lawyers. 16 lawyers [including my friend] argued cases during the 2-day court session; only two of the 16 were women.

Posted by: kathy a at October 18, 2006 09:12 PM

Kathy, you're giving me a wonderful Red-Queen picture of the courts. Just sayin'.

Do you know Candace Goldman, by any chance?

Posted by: Ron at October 20, 2006 06:03 PM