Caught in the Crosshairs
I don’t shave my legs. This is not exactly uncommon knowledge among people who talk to me regularly or who have seen me wearing shorts, which has become increasingly common given the recent nice weather. One might think it wouldn’t be apparent who had or hadn’t noticed my leg hair. However, the number of random comments on the state of my hairy calves that I’ve gotten from almost everyone I know suggests otherwise.
Given the number of nonconforming individuals on this campus and the prevalence of feminism, interesting fashion senses, and a general level of acceptance, the reactions have been vastly more positive than those I got in high school; however, the fact that there always needs to be a reaction isn’t great, either.
Wesleyan is expected to be accepting. The problem is, we have a tendency to be supportive in very externalizing ways: “Oh, it’s so wonderful that you do that. But let me clarify to everyone that I never would.” Maybe people don’t read their own reactions that way, but tacking “I couldn’t do that” or “But I like the way my smooth legs feel against the sheets” onto the end of most “Oh, that’s cool” statements suggests that, despite their “support,” they need to separate themselves from me.
We say that we don’t care how people look, but we obviously care about our own appearances and how society perceives us. Our self policing, such as people’s comments that they forgot to shave their legs to make sure that everyone knows they aren’t usually that hairy, implies a fear of judgment. It tells me that even if they say it’s fine for me, they don’t think it’s a good thing in general. When people say “Sometimes I think Aileen’s got the right idea!” it means that most of the time they think I don’t. Apparently you can support someone who does something nonconforming, but when it comes right down to it, you are still normal.
We often overcompensate for obviously judgmental moments or any discomfort by acting as if we love the things that other people do, bringing them up over and over again to vocalize our position as tolerant, liberal people. We support in theory, but not in action. We claim that shaving is an individual choice, which, despite the various ways gendered expectations affect these decisions, it is in its most simple conception. One does, in the most basic sense, have the option to choose. However, your insistence that you only shave because you like the way it feels masks the social pressures that police all of us and encourage certain gendered performances, oppressive in their expectedness. It obscures the very real negative reactions I receive.
This is not to point out some self-aggrandizing ideal of how I am subverting norms while others are participating in patriarchal structures of oppression and thereby propping up the system. It is definitely not a request for any sort of sympathy: as gender expression goes, this is pretty mild rebellion, and the worst rebuke I’ve ever received is being told that I had to wear tights to certain events. The point is that acceptance on this campus always seems to involve using my choices to publicly demonstrate your acceptance while simultaneously distancing yourself from my obvious nonconformity. It repeatedly calls attention to differences in ways that ensure that abnormality is constantly emphasized, making nonconformance just another way to reproduce normality by defining it through opposition and repositioning those speaking as privileged through their placement in this system.
Maybe we should rethink our model of acceptance, and create one that surpasses tolerance or showiness or hierarchical comparison, one that asks us to say, “You’re different, that’s nice, I like you for you, moving on.”
My leg hair is just hair, and others’ high level of focus on it, even in the context of acceptance, doesn’t feel like acceptance at all.