On May 26, Chinese women’s rights advocate Xiao Meili initiated a contest of women’s underarm hair on Sina Weibo. She encouraged women to send ‘selfies’ with their arms proudly raised, showing off their hairy armpits. Forty-six women participated in the contest and posted photos under the hashtag “women underarm hair contest” (#女子腋毛大赛#). Amongst them were three of China’s five feminists who drew worldwide attention for their detention in March this year over their campaign for gender equality.
The contest, which ended on June 10, has been viewed over 1.54 million times on Sina Weibo and gained more than 1,300 comments up to June 11. Six winners were selected from the photo competition, based on the number of reposts and ‘likes’. The first place winner received a hundred free condoms, the second place got a vibrator, and the third place winners were rewarded with ten female urination devices.
“Why are hairy armpits a taboo for women?”
Weibo user “Zhu Xixi Loves Eating Fish” is the first-prize winner of the “Women’s Underarm Hair Contest”. She said she enjoyed her underarm hair and posted a picture of herself revealing her unshaved armpits while smiling with her eyes closed. In the added comment, she says: “When I was still heterosexual, my boyfriend at the time just took it for granted that I shaved my armpits for the sake of wearing sleeveless T-shirts – until I shaved all of his underarm hair and let him experience what girls go through.”
“Chacha”, one of the second-prize winners, wrote on the contest page: “I love my underarm hair. It’s part of my body. I hope girls can reveal it without fear.” Another Weibo user called “Mimosa” commented to show her support and emphasize the importance of being true to oneself: “I think my hairy armpits look just fine, I never shave them,” she says: “I still wear vests in summer and I don’t feel ashamed of it. Most women have underarm hair. Why do we have to shave it? Why does it have to be a taboo? Do shaved armpits look beautiful?” She believes that there’s no point of listening to other people’s judgement as long as you are comfortable with yourself.
User “Poor and Bored” says that women shouldn’t shave their armpits for medical reasons: “Pulling or shaving armpits might lead to skin infection, as there are many lymph nodes in the armpits. It’s not good for your health. Nobody cares if you shave your armpits as long as you keep it clean.”
However, some netizens hold the idea that armpit hair is ugly and smelly. User “VansChan”, together with many other users, commented that shaving armpits has nothing to do with feminism. “Why is it relevant to women’s rights? Whether it’s men or women, revealing hairy armpits when wearing sleeveless tops is inelegant. We can smell it on the bus and subway. Allegedly, less than 30 percent of Chinese people use antiperspirants.”
“Shaving armpits has nothing to do with feminism”
User “Miseryzoe” is also an opponent of hairy armpits, and continuing the debate by stressing that men and women can’t be completely equal. She added: “I think hairy armpits for girls are ugly and disgusting. Shaving armpits has nothing to do with feminism. Most of these women who don’t shave their armpits are probably just lazy. I don’t believe they don’t think it looks terrible.”
After the storm of comments on the issue of women (not) shaving their armpits, Xiao Meili posted the history of shaving armpits on the Sina Weibo contest page. Shaving armpits started in the United States in 1915, when the fashion magazine BAZAAR published a photo of a woman raising her arms revealing shaved armpits. Then Gillette launched the razor for women to shave their armpits. The advertisement persuaded women to shave and “remove the objectionable hair” so that women would be beautiful, attractive and sanitary.
Xiao Meili had stated that the purpose of Weibo’s “Women Underarm Hair Contest” is to free women’s armpits and open up the discussion on the “definition of feminine beauty”. Women should have the right to choose whether they want to shave their armpits or not. One of the users “Tender 10384” showed her support for Xiao, stating that “the goal of this contest is not to suggest that women should have hairy armpits, but to make women realise that they have the ownership to their own body – women shouldn’t be forced to shave armpits under the pressure of stereotypes or the mainstream aesthetic.”
Shaving armpits is relatively new in China. According to Xiao Meili, it was not a widespread custom in until the 1990s. Since then, similarly to America and Europe in the 1920s, the idea was spread that women have to shave their armpits – making many believe that they have to in order to be accepted by society. The contest on Weibo has created a buzz amongst young Chinese women, helping them understand the difference between “can” and “have to”: they can shave their armpits, but they don’t have to.