Female students at a university in the United States who have decided to let their body hair grow have been surprised by the strength of the reaction to the fluff in their armpits and on their legs.
Taking part in the hair-growth exercise earns students in the women and gender studies course at Arizona State University extra credits.
Female students participate by leaving their legs and underarms unshaved for the 10 weeks of the semester, while male students shave all body hair from the neck down.
"Many of my friends didn't want to work out next to me or hear about the assignment, and my mother was distraught at the idea that I would be getting married in a white dress with armpit hair," student Stephanie Robinson said.
"I also noticed the looks on faces of strangers and people around campus who seemed utterly disgusted by my body hair. It definitely made me realise that if you're not strictly adhering to socially prescribed gender roles, your body becomes a site for contestation and public opinion."
Student Grace Scale said she was surprised by the strong reactions some of her male friends showed during the 10 weeks. "One of my dearest friends - at the time - compared my underarm hair to 'the sludge in the bottom of the garbage can,' and continued on a rant about how growing body hair had a direct correlation to challenging men's authority and position in society."
Scale once dated a man who decided one evening to tell her about all the things he "hated" about her body, including the hair on various parts of it. "This was the first time that anyone had critiqued my body in such a way, and I didn't even have to think twice about the following breakup," she said.
Course teacher, associate professor Breanne Fahs, said there was no better way to learn about societal norms than to violate them and see how people reacted. The act of rebellion was not quite the same for male students as for the females.
Getting men to remove all hair below the neck for 10 weeks was labour-intensive and gave them some insight into what women went through, she said. But in any case it was not uncommon for men to engage in "manscaping", the removal of hair from some parts of their bodies.
Some male students came up with strategies to add a macho element to the project. "One guy did his shaving with a buck knife," Fahs said. "Male students tend to adopt the attitude of, 'I'm a man; I can do what I want'."
There was more of a tendency on the part of women who stopped shaving to be concerned about the reaction of their romantic partner. Men who shaved tended to focus more on what other men thought.
Male participant Kurt Keller said shaving was an expectation partners could place on each other because of personal taste.
"However, just because a boyfriend or girlfriend pressures you to shave, it must be your own decision. I really hope that people, including myself, can treat our bodies with respect, regardless of relationship expectations. If your partner expects you to do something that feels unnatural, at that point there needs to be a separation, or at least a discussion."
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