I Stopped Shaving My Legs, And People Are Angry

​​​​​​I got my first ever hate job without shaving my legs. Or, more accurately, than having the ability to write about it for NBC News Think. Within an hour, I had a dozen emails. By the next morning there were two dozen more – plus more than 100 Twitter notifications.

I wrote about the double standards of leg hair, which I discovered through an experiment without shaving. Although several people thanked me for sharing my experience, the overwhelming response to my piece was anger. Readers told me I was overreacting. They made me narcissistic and stupid.

Instead of questioning social pressures, these commentators wanted to uphold the status quo. They were almost vindictive in their pursuit of this: I suffer for my partner, said their messages. What makes you think you don’t have to?

“This is a two-way street,” one Twitter user told me. “There are a lot of little things that gfs and wives would be upset about if men changed too.”

The underlying assumption, in this message and others, was that partners are pushing each other. Somehow this makes it fair and therefore acceptable.

Cue a round of embarrassment for everyone.

It is a wonderful — and material — belief. For one, it’s a zero-sum game. Everyone loses when we embarrass each other, especially over something as innocent as shaving. I didn’t hurt anyone when I stopped. I was not unclean or unhealthy. I was just questioning a system.

The disproportionate reaction, in the form of hate mail, was an attempt to discredit me to force me back into the fold. The implication, the “I suffered so you should too,” is part pride and part schadenfreude. He says: You don’t deserve to have it easier than me. You don’t deserve a way out.

When it comes to leg hair and body presentation, people of all genders are burdened by shame and conformity and control. But this kind of thinking is more than just a social issue. Recently, it has also come up in conversations about President Joe Biden’s student debt forgiveness program. Those who have already paid off their loans, as well as those who didn’t need to, may feel that they have put in their time and that current loans should do the same.

Maybe this is what we should be thinking instead: You don’t deserve to suffer now. I didn’t deserve to suffer like that, either.

Constant shame and suffering, on topics from student loans to body hair, doesn’t help anyone. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has an entire body of work dedicated to the ways shame harms us. It makes us feel disconnected. It goes against our sense of worth.

Worst of all, it keeps us small – because to be seen means to be vulnerable. It means in front of the masses. Or, in my case, facing their hate mail.

Americans are ashamed. It is present in our political discourse. He is present in the past, “from Salem to (Jerry) Springer.” One academic article on the subject goes so far as to say that understanding shame is critical to navigating the “political and cultural landscape of the United States.”

But has this obsession with shame served us as a whole? Brown would argue that it is not. She advocates for honesty and realism instead. In his bestselling 2012 book, “Daring Greatly,” Brown offers the following: “Perhaps the greatest single act of daring is to love ourselves and support each other in the process of being true.”

Being real and overcoming the cultural grip of shame would take many forms. When it comes to body hair, what if we acknowledge the cultural pressures we feel? What if we, as individuals, decided how best to navigate them?

When it comes to student loan debt and other social issues, like gun control, what if we questioned the systems in place? What we would say: Who benefits from this system?

The point of my initial article was to say that all women should stop shaving or that all men should worship hairy legs. Everyone has approved choices.

But that doesn’t mean we can shame people who don’t live up to our ideals. There is a quote by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her 2019 book, “Dear Ijeawele,” which reads, “Teach (your future daughter) that her standards are her own, and not those of others.”

To follow Adichie’s advice, you, as an individual, have to make your own decisions about your body. If you choose to shave your legs (or face or back or arms, etc.), great. If you choose not to, that’s cool, too. Do what works for you.

Life is hard enough without forcing ourselves to fit into each other’s boxes.

Natalie Schriefer is a bi/demi writer from Connecticut. She received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. Her recent publications include pieces with NBC News Think, Ms. Magazine and bi.org.

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