The pits

Summertime and the living would be easy -- if women didn't have to shave or wax constantly.

Published July 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

After 20 years in America, I still struggle with the question of whether I should shave my armpits when summer comes along.

Shaving was cruelly introduced to me when I arrived in an American college dormitory. As a modest female from humble Hong Kong, I was mystified by the sight of razors hanging out by a row of showers in the women's bathroom. For a moment I thought I had entered the men's bathroom. It may sound unbelievable, but for a foreigner who once thought cottage cheese was egg white marinated with mayonnaise, the thought was real.

I quickly learned that American women shave their legs and armpits and pluck their eyebrows. They may also wax their pubic areas and upper lip hair. I understand that some even shave their backs and stomachs. To attain the ultimate smooth look, women in America have committed themselves to constant maintenance and risk. I used to see some bloody messes caused by shaving. I remember my first college roommate telling me that after you start shaving, there is no going back. You just have to keep on going.

Philosophically, I don't have any problem with shaving. Hey, it's a free country. But what amazes me is the attention given to those who don't shave. I recently came across a piece in Newsweek mocking Julia Roberts for showing her armpit hair as she waved to fans in her cap-sleeved red dress. I looked at the photo and honestly did not think she looked vulgar. But if Newsweek dedicated a quarter page to this, it is obviously a sensitive issue for the country.

For me, it's not the hassle and nuisance of shaving but the lack of a point. I brush my teeth every day to avoid decay. If I don't, there may be long-lasting consequences. But shaving armpits? What does that accomplish? Are boyfriends, lovers or husbands so intoxicated by the curve of bare armpits that they whisper to women about how sexy their armpits are during passionate moments? Maybe so, but the thought of having the hair re-sprout thicker and denser sent my appetite for romantic whispers right out of my mind.

Peer pressure, I've decided, is the major consideration. Like birthdays, the struggle to decide if I should shave my armpits comes whether I like it or not. For many years, I resorted to not wearing sleeveless clothes. The tactic was not very creative, but it worked. Yet after years of depriving myself of sleeveless fashions, I began to crave sexy spaghetti straps or bareback outfits.

When I finally ventured into the world of sleeveless and bareback a few years ago, my tactic was not to raise my arms. Since I'm neither Princess Caroline nor Julia Roberts, waving to the crowds is not a prerequisite in my life. But I had to stop hugging friends at dinner parties. Instead, I shook hands. Did anyone notice I hugged in the winter and shook hands in the summer? I wonder. The gambit was less than ideal. Reminding myself not to raise my arms was so consuming and nerve-wracking that I sweated more than usual and was not able to enjoy events as much as I should have.

This camouflage tactic finally reached a crisis last year, when I had to attend my little sister's wedding in London. The wedding outfit was not the problem because I wore a suit. It was the sleeveless black evening dress for the pre-wedding dinner that did me in. I realized I could not have deployed my "keep the arms down" strategy because my daughter was with me and my husband was not. With a 4-year-old, I could never anticipate what I would be doing next -- reaching out to restrain her from knocking over wine glasses or clawing under the table to pull her out or letting her ride on my back. The possibilities of armpit display were unlimited.

So I gave up and scheduled an appointment at an exclusive spa a month before I left for London. For $30 and two minutes, I paid someone to inflict concentrated pain on my body while I lay naked under a soft blanket on a massage table. First, the lady in white rubbed my armpits in alcohol, then I heard some mixing and stirring noises on the counter behind me. For my waxing pleasure, the beautician applied a warm paste containing organic lemon and unrefined sugar, I was told, on the target area. Then, with a painful rip, 40 years of armpit hair was uprooted in a second.

My armpits were raw and sore for days. To avoid irritation, I walked around with arms slightly raised. It was not a complete Frankenstein walk, but close. After the pain came the itch. By the time I arrived in London, some of the hair had grown back in, but I felt better because at least my armpits had once been smooth. After the London trip, I attempted to keep it up by begging my husband to give me a lesson on shaving, but it was like talking to a wall. It was too far out of the comfort zone of a conservative Irish boy to teach his wife how to shave under her arms.

Summer is here again. No special events are on the calendar, but my next challenge is to swim with my daughter. After much soul-searching, however, I have concluded that I must face up to what I truly believe -- that armpit hair is simply not vulgar. For once, my new tactic is to just be myself. I have been blessed with not much body hair in general -- and I plan to push this gift to the limit.

By Mei Yan Leung

Mei Yan Leung is a writer in San Francisco.

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