Words by Shania Ford
ART BY Ellie Butcher
“Nine days – no shaving”. Julie’s crinkly almond eyes met mine, somewhere between amusement and bemusement.
At the turning of the seasons, twice yearly Hindus and yogis worldwide celebrate Navratri festival. Translating from sanskrit into “Nine nights”, Navratri honours the divine feminine energy in the form of three Hindu deities. Julie and I laugh together as she tells me how hairy her legs are going to be. We laugh even harder when I show her the centimetre of down already covering my shins. As two uncultured Europeans who serendipitously stumbled into Navratri festival, we feel like strange spectators in the magical world of Hinduism. As we meditate over the next nine days, the wheatgrass seedlings arranged in soil around the altar germinate and push skywards, growing into the pattern of a mandala – Julie’s follicles blossom too. It feels as if we concentrated the shoots into fruition. I discover that this is, actually, somewhat the idea. As we meditate and focus on the divinity of the goddesses, Her energies come into manifestation all around us. The wheatgrass is Her body, and our stubbly armpits likewise. At the close of Navratri, the men wash our feet and scatter them with marigold petals, humbly devoting themselves to the female in all its incarnations.
I decide to keep my goddess grown pits and, a year later, I’ve actually become rather fond of them. The hair is dark and soft, and I like to idly twist it into a swirl between my fingertips. It doesn’t feel like an oddity or a bold statement. It feels like a normal, even an attractive, part of my body. When I’m asked “why?”, I reply “because I wanted to.”
And yet, I still experience the phenomena described by Emer O’Toole in ‘Girls will be Girls’ – her semi autobiographical exploration of the performance of gender. Emer describes being totally content with herself and her armpit hair. That is, until she steps onto the London underground in tank top and is forced to reach up for the railing. Then ensues the inevitable prickle of shame. For such a benign thing, female armpit hair elicits a surprisingly strong response in some people. As social animals, the risk of such harsh rejection triggers fear, anxiety, and the putting on of cardigans.
The Navratri festival was only the beginning of my experimentation with Hinduism, yoga and the hair on my body. When I picked up the clippers to buzz off my pixie cut, I was ticking off my subversive bucket list. The vibration of the clippers made my hand tingle as dark chunks of hair floated down and settled around me. I immediately regretted it. Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I faced a feeling counterintuitive to everything I have chosen to believe as a feminist. Without my cultural signifier of femininity and almost synonymously, beauty, I felt devalued.
This was a feeling I’d face many times as I impatiently grew out my shave. No longer receiving approval and attraction from the eyes of men on the street, my boyfriend telling me he had looked forward to taking ‘nice pictures of me with longer hair’, people staring at me in cafes wondering if I was deviant or cancerous. As a woman, it is of the utmost importance that I please the people around me; particularly visually. This is an identity role that I have long since observed and assimilated as my own, despite all recent attempts to liberate myself from ‘The Fucking Patriarchy’.
The tagline for The Guilty Feminist podcast goes as follows: “We are here to discuss our noble goals as feminists, and the hypocrisies and insecurities that undermine them.” The premise of the show is as pertinent as it is comedic. We may consciously reprogramme ourselves against the harmful messages we have received, but lurking beneath remains a substratum of unconscious ideas about what it means to us to be female. I don’t have to like the way I look with a shaved head to be a good feminist. This isn’t the problem. The problem is that when I sensed that the world around me didn’t like my appearance so much, I didn’t like myself quite so much. Whilst uncomfortable to face, it’s a valuable discovery. For a move towards self awareness is a move towards dissolving the monoliths of judgments, prejudices and biases – both within us and around us.
The first three nights of Navratri are devoted to the Goddess Ma-Durga. Durga is the ferocious mother of the universe; legend has it that with her some 10 weapon wielding arms she rode into battle upon a lion and slaughtered the evil male demons that presided over the world. Now, as frustrating as men can be, I’m not suggesting that we chop off their heads. Nor am I suggesting that they’re the root of all evil. The intended sentiment is as follows – some of the hardest and most significant battles that privileged first world feminists like myself will wage will be against the conditioning we harbour within our own minds. And so, in our devotion to all incarnations of the divine feminine – let us fight.