miley cyrus puts her hands in the air for armpit hair
Is #freeyourpits the next #freethenipple?
Newsflash! Miley Cyrus hasn't shaved her armpits in a few days. Here's what we know: She has shaved (or waxed, unclear!) her underarms in the past. But she did not shave them on Saturday, before she inducted Joan Jett into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame at around 8PM, and she had not since at least April 7. Reactions to this revelation were divided. Commenters on Miley's Instagram offered handy tips for personal grooming ("get a weedwacker"), but there has also been a strong wave of joyful troll-shaming: "Newsflash! Women grow hair on their bodies just like men!" threw down Instagram user @gerardweyy.
It's tempting to ask, "Who cares?" But the reality is that people do care. As the reactions on social media and in the press makes clear, people have feelings, and strong ones, about what women do with their body hair. (See also: the entire subreddit devoted to Taylor Swift's armpits). And, partly in response to this circle-of-shame culture, there is a growing movement for natural underarm hair which, like #freethenipple, is gaining traction with the help of social media. So maybe we should care that someone as visible as Miley Cyrus, with her 18 million Smilers, has chosen to champion the cause.
And Miley isn't the only celebrity on #teamhair. In March last year, Madonna posted a picture of herself, furry armpit to camera, with the caption "Long hair...... Don't Care!!!!!!" Scout Willis, who has been outspoken about the effort to #freethenipple, also owns her decision not to shave. At the opening of her photography exhibition in London in February, her underarm hair was out in full force, and earlier that day she posted a photo of a befuzzed Sophia Loren on her Instagram captioned "My Girl." She later seemed bemused by the attention her look attracted, tweeting, "Love that I make art and all people seem to care about is the state of my underarms....#smdh."
This recent wave of celebrity pit hair advocates reflects the increasing number of civilian women who are choosing to let their hair grow freely.
A quick search through Instagram and you can find pictures of downtown New Yorker, actress and artist India Menuez with a full crop of underarm hair. The Los-Angeles based photographer and Tumblr queen Arvida Bystrom has published images of herself with hers dyed blue. And there is a #dyedpits movement on social media, started by the Seattle-based stylist Roxie Hart, that encourages not only the growing but also the coloring of axillary hair as a form of "direct-action feminism."
While Miley didn't accompany her five fuzzy Instagrams with captions detailing her political intentions, her act puts her in line with public figures from Frida Kahlo to Kathleen Hanna who have chosen to go razor-free and proud. And the act does have decidedly feminist overtones. From first wave feminists through to today (in the third and a half/fourth wave?), the question of whether to leave or remove body hair has been part of the broader discussion about society's beauty standards and the threat they pose to women's relationship with their bodies.
Recently, a group of women in the UK began a campaign called Armpits 4 August (something like the women's version of Movember). Its goal, by encouraging women to go natural, was to raise money for polycystic ovary syndrome charity Verity. But it was also about reclaiming underarm hair as a natural part of women's bodies. The campaign's website stated the group's belief that "we should be deeply concerned that we live in a society where hair on adult women is seen as shocking and disgusting, to say nothing of the pressure this places on women to uphold this idealized image of beauty, and the time and money it takes to maintain this illusion."
In another reflection of the state of female underarm hair today, The Guardian reported last August that Breanne Fahs, a professor of womens and gender studies at Arizona State University, "has been offering her female students extra credit if they stop shaving under their arms for 10 weeks and write a journal about the experience."
And while unexpected earth mother Gwyneth Paltrow divulged a couple of years back that she channels "a 70s vibe" with her body hair, this new wave of acceptance isn't just about crunchy commune feels. Untamed armpit hair has been making intermittent appearances in fashion editorials for years. Terry Richardson's iconic late-90s image of Mila Jovovich as a bikini-clad bride made a powerful statement about the zeitgeist with its inclusion of her unshaved underarms. And today, increasingly, fashion and portrait photography presents underarm hair as a symbol for a kind of appealing rawness or realness.
The world may not have been ready for Julia Roberts and her underarms at the Notting Hill premiere in 1999, but it looks as though we're making progress. The virality of the #freethenipple movement, and its bid for the liberation of women's bodies, has paved the way for Miley and Madonna's effort to present female bodies in a real and unconstrained way — hair or no hair.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson