Can the Feminist Body Hair Movement be Intersectional?

For the longest time, I believed that white women had no body hair. How lucky! No waxing, no shaving = no worries.

I was proven wrong when I was 12 years old and shopping for jeans with my father. I went off to the changing room, only to find Sienna Miller plastered on the door. There they were. Thin strands of hair. Visible only because of the lighting in the photograph and the close-up shot. What a revelation!

I had never seen women in the media with body hair.

It is no wonder that South Asia is obsessed with women’s body hair. A colonial hangover and the hairless ideal promoted by the media don’t make for a good combination. This is evident when tracing and reflecting on the history of body hair removal and hearing experiences of Indian women.

In India, waxing is a sacred ritual that starts as young as 12. It is common to hear your neighbourhood aunty snicker that you are due a parlour visit to ‘clean up’. 

Living in the Netherlands has changed my relationship with my body hair.

Long winter months are greeted with tights. Waxing prices are restrictive. The Dutch dress practically thanks to the wind and rain they cycle through daily. When summer comes around, many women shave their legs. Most tend to be more relaxed about their arms, as arm hair is generally lighter and less visible, and hence, not such an ‘issue’.

However, this is not necessarily the case for Dutch minority women. And this is the exact reason why the feminist body hair movement spearheaded by celebrities like Miley Cyrus have come under fire for lack of representation.

Although I still occasionally remove my hair, the pragmatic culture I’ve found myself living in has rubbed off on me for the better.

I suppose getting older (and wiser) also has something to do with it. I don’t remove hair as often, nor do I let my hair removal calendar dictate when I can or can’t wear a skirt.

Of course, I am not advocating that we must all stop removing body hair. We navigate and negotiate our ‘choice’ in the issue. When I return to India, I slip back into old patterns – albeit consciously. To avoid uncomfortable stares, I choose to wax. This is the reality for many with poly-cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and for minorities with coarser hair, for whom the costs of rebelling against societal norms are too high.

How do we move away from the idea that hair is ‘dirty’ and create an intersectional feminist body hair movement that all South Asians can own?

Reframe and contextualise body hair in sex education.

Sex education should go beyond mentioning pubic and armpit hair. Discuss the options of body hair removal so that young women can be informed, without encouraging it as an inevitability. Talk about why it has become common, and place it in your country’s context. Frame body hair within changing fashion trends. And parents, support your kids to develop self-confidence.

Get the boys on board.

If you are lucky enough to have received sex education, you will know that there is often very little dialogue between girls and boys during puberty. As a result, many boys and men in India have disappointing attitudes to hair on women. Boys must not only learn about their own body hair, but also that of women, so that they understand what is natural and normal.

Let hair be seen.

Even adverts for razors in India are afraid to show actual body hair! Deepika Padukone, a famous Bollywood actress, shaves an already hairless leg in this one to show the wonders of her Gilette razor. I think a serious makeover of Indian school uniforms is needed, too. Mandatory skirts don’t allow girls to show their hair on their own terms.

Let us change the way women are represented. Have images in school textbooks that depict women with body hair. Check out illustrator Aqya Khan for inspiring examples.

Let’s take control of the narrative of body hair and allow it to be seen – for all those 12 year-old girls across South Asia.

State of the World's Mothers Report: Synopsis

“The first hours and days of a baby’s life are especially critical. About three-quarters of all newborn deaths (over 2 million) take place within one week of birth. 36 percent of newborn deaths (over 1 million) occur on the day a child is born.”

~ State of the World’s Mothers Report, Save the Children

In 1990, global leaders, institutions and national governments agreed upon concrete goals to reduce poverty by 2015. Now known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), MDG 4 aims to reduce the under-5 mortality rate by two-thirds and MDG 5 strives to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by 75 percent. Since implementing the MDGs in 1990, maternal deaths from pregnancy and/or childbirth have decreased nearly 50 percent worldwide (543,000 to 287,000). Unfortunately, the global newborn mortality rate has only declined by 32 percent. With 3 million babies still dying within the first year of life (43 percent of the global under-5 mortality rate), clearly much progress can still be made.

Image Courtesy of Save the Children

Yesterday, Save the Children published its State of the World’s Mothers Report, a report that analyzed and summarized the successes, failures, and lessons learned regarding global progress with MDG 4 and MDG 5. Here are the report’s major findings:

  • Helping babies survive the first few days of life poses the greatest challenge to reducing child mortality;
  • Three major causes of death include complications during birth, prematurity, and perinatal infections; and
  • By using proven interventions, creating stronger health systems, and training more skilled health care workers, there is the potential to reduce newborn deaths by up to 75 percent.

Image Courtesy of Save the Children

Globally, there are over 1 million estimated child deaths on the first day of life – equating to 15 percent of all under-5 deaths. Of those first day deaths, 80 percent occur in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), a region accountable for 12 percent of the global population, suffers from 38 percent of the world’s first day deaths (397,000 per year; 34 deaths per 1000 live births). Unfortunately, pregnancy and childbirth also pose incredible risks to mothers. For example, mothers in Somalia face a 1 in 16 risk of dying during pregnancy and/or childbirth (18 maternal deaths per 1000 births). Across the entire region, ten SSA countries ranked as the worst for mothers to give birth and seven countries scored the highest number of first day child deaths.

Image Courtesy of Save the Children

South Asia

In South Asia, approximately 83,000 women die each year during pregnancy and/or childbirth and 423,000 babies die each year on their first day of life (more than any other region in the world). With 24 percent of the global population, the region experiences 41 percent of the world’s first day deaths (420,000 per year; 11 deaths per 1000 live births).

Although most of South Asia has become synonymous with a growing economy, great disparities and inequalities still exist, particularly in India. Enduring the most maternal deaths in the world (56,000 per year) and 29 percent of the world’s first day deaths (309,000 per year), it is safe to say that India’s economic growth benefits are not shared equally.

Although 98 percent of newborn deaths occur in the developing world, 1 percent of first day deaths take place in industrialized nations. Ranked as the developed country with the highest amount of first day deaths, the United States sustains 50 percent more first day deaths than all other industrialized countries combined (11,300 deaths per year).

Highlighting the three most effective proven interventions, the Report advocates for further investments in female education, nutrition, and family planning in order to curb maternal and newborn deaths.

Image Courtesy of Save the Children

Although newborn death is most commonly caused by complications from preterm births, other prenatal and postnatal dangers exist. Therefore, investing in prenatal and postnatal care has also proven incredibly valuable.

For HIV-infected women, mother-to-child transmission rates can be reduced to less than 5 percent with the proper antiretroviral regimen. Similarly, by treating malaria in pregnant women, incidence of newborn low birthweight can decline by 40 percent.

Tetanus, a disease that kills 58,000 mothers and newborns every year, is entirely preventable with a $0.40 vaccination. Often caused by mothers cutting the umbilical cord with unsanitary tools, tetanus also can be avoided by applying chlorhexidine, a $0.25 antiseptic, to the newborn’s umbilical cord.

Other forms of important postnatal care include educating mothers on the importance of breastfeeding, a practice that provides the newborn with essential nutrients, warmth and a strong immunity; “kangaroo mother care,” a simple and effective approach that increases child survival rate in preterm and low birthweight babies by warming newborns through continuous skin-to-skin contact on the mother’s chest; and access to low-cost antibiotics to treat sepsis.

Does your country rank in the top or bottom 10 for maternal health?

Image Courtesy of Save the ChildrenAlthough much progress has been made since 1990, we must continue to push for improved maternal and child health care around the world – particularly in the Post 2015 Agenda.


All images courtesy of Save the Children.