Reader Request: Bodies and Decency

Reader Leah sent me this question via email:

Views on body hair seem to me like part of a larger trend of regarding certain secondary sexual characteristics of women as obscene or inappropriate. Here are several examples:

“Bikini area” – The top 6″ of my inner thighs grow pubic hair rather than leg hair. I don’t think I’m allowed to wear a bathing suit that shows this hair. Showing leg hair might be seen as icky or unconventional, but I’d be concerned about being reported for indecent exposure if I showed pubic hair. I’ve never seen a woman wearing a bathing suit that showed this type of hair in this location. (Incidentally, shaving gives me terrible ingrown hairs, so I eventually started wearing board shorts when I swim. I’m quite satisfied with that solution, but it makes me “weird” and people ask why I don’t wear a standard bathing suit.)

Nipples – You’ve mentioned several times that you have permanently erect nipples. Mine aren’t permanently erect, but they might as well be since I get cold easily. It irks me that it would be considered inappropriate to go around with the outlines of nipples visible through my shirt. (I’m pretty flat chested so otherwise have little need to wear a bra, and I find the thicker, more supportive bras uncomfortable. No good solution here.)

“Camel toe” – When did this become a thing? Having random creases in the clothing around one’s groin probably isn’t the most flattering look, but now there’s a name for it and it’s considered gross. As someone with unusually large labia, I’m more likely to have problems with this than some women are.

Certainly there are plenty of characteristics that are considered gross and shouldn’t be, such as being fat. However, the specific ones I list are secondary sexual characteristics. I’m usually fine with violating norms for what’s stylish or flattering, but it’s much harder when one is considered obscene and when it’s a sexual characteristic. What do you think?

Oh, I think so many things. I think about my friends with big busts who have been called “slutty” even when they’re wearing high necklines and layers. I think about the movie “The Cooler” – which is just marvelous, by the way – and how I learned that one of the sex scenes originally showed the leading lady’s pubic hair which caused the MPAA to give it an NC-17 rating. Because women’s body hair is that scandalous. (The scene was removed so the movie could get bumped down to R.) I think about the fact that unlined bras are almost impossible to find because of nipple fear. I think about the multitudinous ways in which women’s bodies are policed, and how strict and judgmental that policing becomes when it pertains to body features that are related to sex and sexuality.

But beyond that, I don’t know what to think. American culture is simultaneously obsessed with pushing the boundaries of bodily exposure and shaming anyone who enjoys exposing her body. I have no idea how to react to that, much less change it. I understand that the simplest way to push back is to refuse to conform – let your nipples show through, wear your swimsuit even if you haven’t shaved or waxed your bikini line – but, as Leah points out, when you run the risk of crossing the “decency” boundary, it makes that pushback trickier to navigate.

Have any of you had direct experiences with these issues? Have you been scolded or called out for dressing in clothes that expose or reveal secondary sexual characteristics? How did you react? Any ideas for how to stem the tide?

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14 Responses to “Reader Request: Bodies and Decency”

  1. Cloggie

    Ugh, yes! I worked in a conservative workplace and with an E cup, it was impossible to find tops for work. I ended up usually just wearing shift dresses or tops I didn’t necessarily like because I couldn’t find something that would: fit around my bust without pulling, not float around the rest of me like a circus tent, and not show an iota of skin. Some time in my first week, I wore a top that showed a small bit of cleavage. My boss both had my supervisor talk to me and called me into her office for “a chat”. My supervisor is also busty, so she was sympathetic and didn’t make a big deal about it. My boss, however, went on a 30 minute (felt like an eternity) monologue about how professional women are judged on every inch of their appearance. I was both mortified and pissed.

    A female colleague frequently wore lower-cut, but still appropriate, shirts that confirmed she was not covered in scales below the clavicle and the bos never said a thing. The only time I know of her ever remarking on someones clothes/body again was tell male colleagues to straighten their ties or put on a jacket for a meeting.

  2. Lynne

    Argh. I got chewed out by a supervisor once for not shaving my legs. It was humiliating, to say the least. Interestingly enough, this particular supervisor had her own “rebellion”, being a large busted woman who chose not to wear a bra. No judgment from me, it’s her choice. At the time, I considered shaving legs, pubes and armpits to be somewhat disturbing, as the concept of being sexually attracted to hairless bodies smacked a little of pedophilia. I’m still not sure why we feel as women like we have to remove every bit of excess hair on our bodies to conform to a standard of beauty.

  3. loubeelou

    Ugh, I just did the trifecta shave this morning (underarms, legs, bikini area) and it was such a pain in the ass. I thought to myself, “If there was one thing I could change in our culture, I would make the existence of women’s body hair a celebrated standard of beauty”. Not only is it annoying to stay in compliance with this norm, but it’s physically uncomfortable. My underarms get super irritated by shaving, and I swear my healthy bacterial balance gets off-kilter when I shave or do any trimming “down there”. Why do I keep doing it? Why, indeed…

  4. Dust. Wind. Bun.

    I have So Many Opinions on this topic that I don’t quite have the time to get untangled in my mind to share at the moment, but I just wanted to say: I, too, wear shorts at the beach. My go-to is a bikini top and men’s swim trunks. I like having pockets, not needing a coverup to go into stores or restaurants, and most of all not having to either shave that same 6 inches south of the bikini line or deal with people looking at me funny (or my perception that people are looking at me funny). I suppose people may have been looking at me funny for the shorts, but 1) I care less about that kind of funny look and 2) I was also wearing a straw hat and giant sunglasses out in the ocean, with breakers splashing over my head, so that could have been the target as well. I also wear swimsuit bottoms with legs, even if just boy-short-cut, when I go to the pool, unless it’s quite late at night – I don’t care as much about the few adult swimmers and the lifeguard at 9PM, but I do care about mothers yelling at me for damaging their children at 4 in the afternoon, y’know?

    I can’t speak to the nipple issue as mine mostly stay tucked away, but I have the cleavage issue (hi-five, fellow big-boob friends). I too have a colleague who wears lower-cut/more cleavage showing shirts than I do and appears to not feel at all uncomfortable (and she’s right to feel that way – she’s dressed perfectly appropriately), where I’m much more cautious. Neither of us has had anyone criticize or even comment on it, but I know I worry about it more than she does.

  5. what not

    This drives me nuts, particularly the nipple issue. I’m a small-chested lady with a wide root, so I have no use for the concept of “support”, but I have prominent nipples. Aside from the occasional bra cut in an interesting way, I do not enjoy wearing them at all: The bands squeeze my abdomen uncomfortably, the straps fall off my narrow shoulders, and racerbacks (my general go-to) give me headaches if I wear them all day.

    I’ve compromised by layering a couple fitted tank tops that “hold me in” a bit, and I generally wear several layers most of the year and cave to bra expectations when it’s hot out. But I think other people’s publicly expressed titillation and/or offense are offensive in themselves, and I really wish our society would shove its social expectations of women’s appearance where the sun don’t shine.

  6. Natalie

    I went to the beach with friends on a whim one Sunday in March, and as such did not have time to do any shaving in preparation for wearing a swim suit. I had not been swimming all winter, and had let myself go natural. We had just moved, and I couldn’t find my usual board shorts, so I wore my conservatively-cut swimsuit bottoms with pubic hair showing on the sides. I was so self conscious about this the whole time we were at the beach, but I’m glad I did it. It’s not something I have the guts to do intentionally, but I also was not willing to forgo swimming just to conform to weird cultural standards of hairless beauty and modesty. It bothers me so much that showing unnaturally bare skin is acceptable, but showing that same skin with natural hair on it is considered gross, risque, or obscene.

  7. Andrea

    So, I genuinely wonder: if Bruce Jenner now chooses to remove hair from his legs, underarms, and face, will he be criticized for kowtowing to the patriarchy, or will he be celebrated for embracing these culturally-accepted female norms for his newly public identity? I’m being sincere, not snarky.

  8. Rebecca

    Ahhh. This is such a taboo topic and one that I commend you for raising on your blog. My opinions on this topic have grown more conservative as I have grown older and after becoming a mother to a daughter. I grew up, and live in, a liberal town (which I love!) where you can go topless in the town square, legally, so I think the standards of my community are different than other parts of America. Because of this I have gotten away with wearing see through/ nude clothing, no bras, etc. When I was younger I liked wearing those outfits. Now, I don’t like the attention that wearing revealing (and even fitted!) clothing brings me. I understand where you, and other women, are coming from asking for the acceptance of secondary sexual characteristics, but here is where the new found conservative side of me is going to come out even more: secondary sexual characteristics are still sexual characteristics & unless you want and are prepared to deal with the attention that showing them brings, cover them up! Rebecca// http://www.daisydisdain.com

    • Cris

      Adam’s apples and beards are secondary sexual characteristics, too. Should it be compulsory for men to wear turtlenecks and shave in the name of public decency? What makes men’s secondary sexual characteristics normal, accepted, and desexualized, while women’s are too risque to be shown in public?

      • Rebecca

        I don’t know the answers to your questions Chris! Those are really good points that you bring up. I was only viewing this from a woman’s perspective and was thinking about women’s characteristics and now you have layered a whole other dynamic to this conversation. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I am going to have to think about your questions for a bit.

    • Lauren

      But they’re not secondary “sexual” characteristics, they’re secondary “sex” characteristics. Sex as in sort of analogous to gender, not as in having sex. There’s nothing inherently sexual (or there shouldn’t be) about sex characteristics, since we all have them all the time but are not asking to be seen in a sexual light all the time.

  9. Ruth Slavid

    I understand how annoying this must be for a lot of people, and it sounds like there are some very restrictive employers out there. But as a general rule, shouldn’t anybody, men or women, wear clothes that mean that people will be able to look at their face rather than straying elsewhere? I know that this is tricky when it comes to shaving legs – we probably should learn to accept leg hair – but I kind of feel that pubic hair, on both sexes, should be covered up in non-intimate situations. I notice that men dress more modestly now as well. The ‘budgie smuggler’ style of swimming trunks has virtually disappeared (except in France where it is compulsory in public pools), and most men in lycra wear loose shorts on top. I really don’t like seeing men in singlets displaying their underarm hair. I agree that men have less to cover up than women, so it seems unfair, and I certainly don’t advocate defoliation unless you want to, but I do question how ‘in your face’ any of us, men or women, should be.

  10. Maureen Roberts

    Interesting topic. I wear a work uniform (scrubs) with several shirt layers (sports bra, tank top, long sleeve knit top, and finally scrub top – it’s very cold in our building), so nipples showing through clothing is not a problem there. But when I exercise, I find that I still have nipple show-through even when I wear a sports bra and a running shirt (or actually even when I have 2 shirts on – a short and long sleeve – in winter). I get changed to exercise at work and leave from there, and I feel both self-conscious and angry at the same time. Like, I’m wearing 2 or 3 layers, should I have to do more than that to avoid being scandalous?

    And I have 2 new pairs of running tights that give a camel-toe appearance, but are otherwise comfortable. I tried them on at home and was really happy with the fit, til I noticed that in the mirror. I texted a friend for an opinion and she said I should return them. I thought about it for a few minutes, but the tights were really comfortable, had a pocked in back large enough for my phone (which NEVER happens) and were a really good price. Should I have to pay twice as much for Athleta or LuLuLemon because someone will be offended that I have labia? My ultimate decision was “Fuck that!” and I kept the tights. At 38 I don’t much care what people think of my appearance but those things to cross my mind when I’m getting ready to go for a run. When I walk through the hospital, do my coworkers think I’m gross?

    And I get irritated about the pubic hair thing, too. I don’t have an unusual amount, but I feel coerced into removing enough hair to wear my bathing suit without any showing at the bikini line. Why is this? Mens’ pubic hair can come up to their belly button and that isn’t weird to see. I am at the point where I only shave my legs if I feel like it, but I still feel very obligated to remove pubic hair. And I hate that the current style is to have practically none. Am I gross for mostly just leaving mine be? Are other women in the gym locker room grossed out by me?

    I love being a woman but I do think it comes with so much baggage that men don’t have. Noticing it more now that I am approaching 40. I think it’s because I don’t just automatically think all the “rules” are normal anymore. God, you could never have gotten 14 year old me to believe I’d be seen out of the house without legs shaved that very day. LOL.

  11. shriker_tam

    I have pretty much stopped worrying about leg hair and armpit hair, but can, like you, still get worried about the pubic hair on my inner thighs. I also don’t like shaving with a razor, as it gives me rashes, ingrown hairs, and itches.

    However, I have found that using a trimmer works quite well. You don’t get completely smooth, the hairs will still be a millimetre or two long, but my skin doesn’t get irritated and it doesn’t itch. And there’s no fear of cutting myself. And I figure the only people who will be close enough to my crotch to see the stubble know me enough that I cen tell them to shove it if they complain 🙂