Passing as cis: why I’d love to stop shaving my legs, but don’t

Several months ago, a friend of mine sent out message inviting participation in a new feminist video-blogging project. This seed of an idea grew into Those Pesky Dames, in which five women say awesome things about body autonomy, self-care, inspirations, intersectionality and pop culture. And then this week, the Dames stepped beyond the realm of YouTube (and Facebook, and Twitter and Tumblr…) to appear on the good ol’ fashioned television.

You can watch them talk about body hair on Cherry Healey: How to Get a Life for the next couple of weeks (it’s available on BBC iPlayer until Wednesday 18th July).

The Dames’ contribution to the programme is fantastic: they talk about how body hair is entirely natural, and shouldn’t be regarded as unfeminine. Why should women have to spend hours shaving in order to conform to the beauty myth? Why should we feel bad about baring our natural fluff in public? And why regard hairy women as unhygienic, but not hairy men?

I was so happy not only to see my friends on TV, but to see them discussing a vital feminist issue. Michel Foucault came up with this idea known as “governmentality” to describe the relationship between individual people and social rules. We enforce social norms through self-governance, tailoring our actions and behaviour to uphold the status quo. We police our own conformity through the application of self-esteem (when we conform) and shame (when we fail to conform). I felt that the programme beautifully highlighted the governmentality at play in the maintenance of female body hair: our self-esteem depends greatly upon our lack of hair, and when our legs or armpits are hairy in public we feel shame. In this way, women come to enforce sexist ideals of appropriate female behaviour. We can escape by embracing an alternative, feminist ethic of selfhood whereby shaving is not required. I went to bed reflecting happily upon this liberatory potential.

The next day was warm and sunny, and I planned to see my friends in town. I pulled on my shorts…and then took them off again and wore jeans instead, because I didn’t want the world to see my hairy legs. My boyfriend insisted that my short, very thin crop of leg hair wasn’t even visible and that it really didn’t matter. The rational part of my brain agreed wholeheartedly. I still couldn’t do it.

A great part of this response was no doubt down to your bog-standard governmentality at work. I was ashamed at the thought of being an Inappropriate Woman, and tailored my behaviour accordingly. Knowing that you’re a sucker in this way only gives you so much power! But there was an additional element at play: my fear of not passing.

I feel that being trans greatly complicates body hair issues. I don’t really fear being read as different or somewhat deviant, and happily flaunt my subcultural identity as a rocker on an everyday basis. I don’t worry too much about looking feminine or conforming to female stereotypes. But at the same time, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m not a woman, and I certainly don’t want anyone thinking I’m a man. I spent 18 years of my life being read as male, and those 18 years were quite enough.

My fear is not that people will look at my hairy legs and think “urgh, a hairy woman”. My fear is that people will look at my hairy legs and thinking “urgh, she’s actually a man!” This is somewhat irrational given how well I pass as cis, but the fear is real, and powerful.

The problem is that passing as a cs woman is important to me. Not because I think it’s better to look cis than trans (I most certainly don’t!) Not because I aspire to some outdated, patriarchal ideal of womanhood. It’s because I hate being heckled on the street, and I fear the violence that can come with transphobic responses. I realise that I’m deeply unlikely to suffer an assault in broad daylight in my home town, but past experiences of violence – however minor – can exert a powerful control. I aim to pass for my own mental and physical well-being.

And so I shave my legs and my armpits when I think they’ll be seen in public, because I’d rather be seen as an Acceptable Woman than not be seen as a woman at all.

The thing is, I hope this might change with time. At the start of my transition, I used to wear eye make-up and straighten my hair daily. I used to shun baggy clothes, instead aiming to highlight what curves I had. As time has gone on, I’ve become more and more relaxed about my appearance. This is partly because I’ve become generally more chilled with time: I’m no longer bothered about people who know me being aware of my trans status, and this blog is hardly anonymous these days. But it’s also because of the impact of hormones, meaning that I pass more easily as a cis woman regardless of how I dress. I now wear make-up and dress in a more feminine manner on special occasions, when I want to put on a certain appearance: in this way, I’m now doing these things for me, rather than for others.

One of things I really like about the kind of feminism espoused by Those Pesky Dames is that it leaves room for all these complications. There wasn’t really time for an exploration of this in How to Get a Life, but it’s all there in their vlogs. They argue for a feminism in which you shouldn’t have to shave your body hair…but you should be able to if it’s the appearance you’re going for. A feminism in which you don’t have to wear make-up, but should feel empowered to do so on your own terms. A feminism that accepts that some of us really want to escape the governmentality that leads us to shave our legs, but for now, we remain constrained.

As such, I’m going to keep shaving my legs, despite acknowledging that (in my case) I’m not really doing it for me. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the achievements of those who aim to break down this norm.

12 thoughts on “Passing as cis: why I’d love to stop shaving my legs, but don’t

  1. It’s a complicated issue, and so many factors are at play. Attempting to in a sense redefine an identity to which one’s claim is contentious is incredibly difficult. It provokes questions regarding the validity of that claim, for a start, and plays right into the hands of second-wave nutjobs for another. On a rational level, it’s perfectly easy to understand that their accusations are without merit; facing them still fucking sucks.

    Beyond that, I don’t personally care a whit for passing as a cis, particularly – I care about passing as a woman. If there are cues that are socially defined as female, then an obvious helping thereof should hopefully at least indicate that I’m a trans woman even if I look like a man. Like, if I in a sense try hard enough, then that should be obvious, even if the attempt fails. I suppose I don’t feel confident enough in the validity of my own claim to womanhood to really stand in opposition to the popular conception thereof, to an extent. It makes it incredibly difficult to separate what is actually for my own sake, and what is not.

    • Check it out, you’re a posttranssexual* 😉

      That’s a really interesting point you make about being more interested in passing as a woman than passing as cis – in spite of your concerns about the validity of your claim to womanhood, I feel your point highlights how “trans” and “cis” can be seen simply as different ways of being a woman, rather than defining womanhood in themselves.

      I think this also goes to show the value of being explicit about whether or not we’re talking about “passing as a woman” or “passing as (a) cis (woman)”: it allows us to say different things. Moreover, it enables us to talk about passing as a woman without assuming that womanhood is defined cis-ness.


      • Useful as they are to separate, ‘passing as a woman’ does in fact mean ‘passing as a cis woman’ for a good proportion of the populace, sadly.

        • Indeed…which is why I’m going to keep writing about it in the bloody-minded hope that at least a small portion of the population catch on!

  2. I totally agree. What I find disgusting is the inclusion of the words “well presented” in job descriptions because it makes me worry about my hair and make up. You have no idea what they will be expecting, but I assume it will be sexist. Which is silly because they probably just want you to be clean but surely everyone comes to a job interview clean and presentable.A woman with leg hair would be turned away. Or a transvestite. No matter how “well presented”. What they probably mean is conformist. Which makes me feel really uncomfortable.

    I – I am happy to admit – have a real issue with body hair. I would love to stop shaving my legs but the hairs that grow back are not tiny little blonde ones but thick black ones. I get 1mm of stubble within 24 hours. It makes feel manly, well it did before the pesky dames.
    I don’t shave my legs because of society I shave them because I want to, but the shame I felt, the need to hide the truth – that was society.

    Its one thing for a group of young pretty girls (and I say that with love not sarcasm or resentment) to say how great it is to do, when they themselves did not look especially hairy. For some women it’s not an option, not because of society but genetics. Do I want a mustache? NO. But I no longer feel I need to hide the fact that I even remove the hair. I will no longer obsess about removing the little blonde hairs I do have on my body.

    Its on my terms now. It will take me a while to fill these new sassy boots but I will.

    • Yeah, these are all really difficult issues and resistance can’t always be straightforward if we just want to get on with our lives. I’m pretty sure the Pesky Dames will be some of the first to acknowledge that they obtain a fair amount of privilege from the manner in which their appearance happens to conform to yet another norm. Ultimately each norm you conform to helps you resist in other ways (hence the concept of “passing privilege” amongst some trans people – if you “pass” it’s sometimes easier get away with being more of a deviant in other ways!)

  3. Hi! I really liked you post! I’ve got the same issues you know, I have cis passability priv and I dont want to let go of this. But on the other side, I’ve been too much somehow oppressed by all these sexist norms of what a woman should be/wear/present herself in public… It has been about 5 years since I started transitioning, and at first, like you, I was always with make up and with an impeccable hair/clothes, always shaving my legs etc., out of the fear of not passing… Today I dont want live like that, forcing myself to do things I dont wanna do… I fear for my safety of course, but I’ve been getting rid of these norms slowly within my neighbourhood. Sometimes I walk with my hairy legs, sometimes I go out without a bra (and that was the most difficult action I took in this matter…) I just wear make up when I want to etc. It takes time, but it’ll get better I guess… We keep ourselves too much inside this passability bubble and that makes ourselves nervous and stressed all the time. Though I completely understand if one wants to stay on this for safety issues.

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  7. Thanks for writing this. It’s always good to know I’m not alone. So much of what you have written rings true for me.

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