London-based photographer, filmmaker, and artist Ben Hopper has caused quite a stir with his project, titled Natural Beauty. Challenging female beauty standards, the photo series aims to find out why women with body hair are labeled as 'unsexy.'
“I am mixed race and have quite fair sensitive skin and thick dark hair. This made shaving a very difficult and often painful process. Stubble would always grow back within 24 hours, and trying to shave the stubble would end in bleeding and rashes. My underarms were never ‘pretty’ or ‘feminine’. I hated it and was made miserable by it. I remember wearing t-shirts with sleeves when swimming and jumpers on hot days just to cover up my prickly, irritated pits. I certainly couldn’t afford regular waxing at the age when societal pressure kicked in. I desperately wanted to have skin and hair like my friends and be accepted – not only by them, but also by myself. When I was 15 I even asked my mum for laser hair removal for my birthday (luckily my mum is a badass feminist who has never really conformed to ‘beauty’ standards or bothered with non-essential grooming and firmly said ‘No. your body is beautiful, you don’t need to burn it with lasers’). When I was about 17 and in my first serious relationship with a boy who loved my body a lot more than I did, I decided to try something radical. I decided to stop putting myself through pain, to stop being angry with my body for not being the way I wanted it; I stopped shaving.
I’d like to say I never looked back but I definitely have. I’ve shaved a few times since, normally because I’ve still been unable to shake the ridiculous feeling that I won’t be able to look feminine in a ball gown with armpit hair. I’ve been self-conscious when people glance or whisper or make a comment to me. I’m ashamed to say I’ve apologised to a few people about it, feeling embarrassed and nervous and wanting to make a point of excusing it before anyone else can comment. I have still sometimes covered them up in summer, and definitely made an effort to hide it during my year of working behind a bar. I didn’t think tipsy, overly forward folks (usually men) would withhold comments on them when I reached up to get a wine glass. However, during this year, I was contacted by Ben Hopper, and eventually and slightly cautiously agreed to let him photograph me for his Natural Beauty series. The experience completely changed my feelings towards my armpits and my overall confidence increased massively. The cat was out of the bag to all of my friends and a rather wider audience than I ever imagined (over half a million!!). After reading the comments on the Facebook post I felt proud to be an example of how beautiful women’s bodies are, no matter what they choose to do with them. I felt indignant about the nastier comments, and developed an ‘if you don’t like it, I don’t give a shit because it’s not for you, and your opinion on my or any woman’s body is irrelevant’ attitude. I’ve now realised that underarm hair acts as a really great asshole deterrent - just another reason to love and appreciate it. I do love it now. I may still shave from time to time, just as I may wear lipstick, or dye my hair – but like the latter two, it would be for the sake of personal choice and expression, rather than to conform to a standard I have no interest in upholding or contributing to in any way.
I think everyone should try going without any non-essential grooming at some point in their life. It will shave (pun intended) lots of time off your routine, and it’s really interesting to see what your body naturally does. You may find it freeing and empowering. You may even find that you like the way it looks as I did, and if you don’t you can always just go back to shaving, no harm done.”
– Maya Felix, December 2016 (photographed June 2014).
"I was interested to explore hairy armpits of females and how it is such a taboo," Ben told Bored Panda. "And I was also interested to explore the concept of how we perceive beauty in popular popular culture. [When] you look at fashion and film industries, you have a very, very specific kind of beauty standards for women."
“I stopped shaving completely when I was a teenager because of two instances. The first? I got tired of all the time wasted on maintenance and the discomfort that came with it. The second was when I went on a few multiple week-long backpacking trips; it would have been extremely inconvenient to spend hours ripping my hair out, so I let things grow. Being so close to nature let me dive deeper into and re-examine the relationship with myself and the world, acting as a mirror. In nature, there is wild; it is as beautiful as it is untamed. How could it be anything other than that? I felt so relieved and free when I let it grow out. It felt like being able to breathe. It was incredibly comfortable too. I felt a confidence and boldness returning, like I was replenishing some kind of primal power. People respond to it differently all the time. There are very encouraging/positive reactions—women who have messaged me to thank me for changing their mind and pushing them to challenge their motives/experiment with growing their body hair. Then there are people that start to fetishize it, which can be strange. People revere my decision as a feminist and bold political statement, which is ironic, considering how almost everybody has some kind of body hair. It is also funny because I am lazy and keeping it is the path of least resistance. There are people who are exceptionally rude and who speak from fear. People who say it’s dirty and that I must be a man. The more important questions to ponder are rather why and how do we live in a culture/society that has deemed it acceptable for certain people to have body hair, and unacceptable for others? Isn’t it absurd that it is socially acceptable for humans to have lots of hair on their head, but not on other parts of their same body? Isn’t it ridiculous and ironic that what grows naturally on its own is seen as unnatural? How did we get here? I will say that a very pleasant side effect of having armpit hair is its ability to ward off rude people whom I wouldn’t care to interact or associate with anyway. Because the people that care about that sort of thing and make it a point to say how disgusted they are, are precisely the kind of people that I don’t want in my life. At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference. If somebody wants to dye their hair, let them. If somebody wants to get a face tattoo, who cares? Whether a person decides to shave or not is completely up to them. It has nothing to do with you and your feelings of discomfort or your sexual desires. Everybody should have the ability to make personal choices about their bodies and not be criticized for them.” – Kyotocat, March 2018 (photographed June 2017).
"The armpit hair is considered to be very disgusting, non hygienic, repulsive, grotesque, very masculine," the photographer continued. "So, I was interested to find models who look like fashion models and film actresses, and just photograph them with body hair all out to have this kind of contrast between the popular culture fashionable beauty and the non fashionable beauty."
I stopped shaving my armpit hair about 5 years ago, and the rest of my body hair 4 years ago. I was tired of constantly getting rid of my body hair since the age of 11. I started wondering "Why?”
- Why do we go through a painful process to get rid of something we were born with that keep growing? Why is being shaved considered to be more feminine? Why is body hair seen as something dirty?
...It’s all about these ideas society has put into our heads and it doesn't even make sense, so that was it for me, no more painful process to remove my natural hair. It made me feel more myself with body hair. I feel beautiful and it has helped me accepting and loving my body, feeling comfortable in my own skin.
At the start, I was scared of what people would say and I found most of my friends being really supporting about it. I've had people telling me I look "dirty", "smelly" and that no one would have sex with me if I didn't shave... But I've also had people encouraging me and telling me it's natural and beautiful.
I would like everyone to allow themselves to do what feels best for them instead of looking for someone else's approval.”
– Sheila Santiago (October 2018)
"I started thinking about the natural beauty project in 2007 and started photographing it in 2008. I knew that I wanted to photograph beautiful women with armpit hair but I didn't know how."
“I wanted to see what my body hair looked like.
There's something empowering about not hiding your body hair. You feel stronger for not giving in to the way you've been told to be. I really enjoyed people recoiling in disgust, it was funny. I would think, "you poor sensitive thing, so disturbed by something so natural".
When I see a woman with armpit hair, I think she looks sexy, powerful and strong.”
– Sophie Rose, tattooer. January 1, 2014.
At first, Ben tried to photograph different models in different places. "It was kind of cool, but it didn't really work," he said. However, things began to change when he moved to London, into his own studio, and started experimenting. "I always kind of thought to myself, 'I don't want to photograph everything the same way, just loads of girls lifting their arms.' I thought it was stupid, because I thought maybe I'll just photograph everything against a white wall. And then when I started experimenting in the studio, I realized that this is actually the best way to do it, because it keeps this kind of unified look. And and it's very simple. It's black and white, on a black background. And it just works. And when I published the project, I contacted Huff Post. They said they wanted to share the project, so I created a few images specifically for their post, and it just went crazy viral. So, I realized that that's a good formula and I stuck to it."
“I stopped shaving my body hair as I realised that it is a choice, not a given. That it was unfair to have to spend so much extra time, sometimes money (if getting regular waxes) and energy in order to fulfil this conventional expectation to be hair free. This expectation seemed to be based entirely on my assigned biological gender, which was purely down to chance. Not choice.
At first, my 17-year-old self was exceptionally proud and liberated. Flashing my underarms and legs with a zesty vigour for pushing social boundaries. I still feel such a way often. However getting older, and becoming more of a ‘grown up woman’, so to speak, I have been more challenged wondering how it could affect others perception of me, mainly professionally.
Over the years I’ve had mixed responses. Some very gratifying, where other ‘women’ have expressed feeling inspired to stop removing their hair also. On several occasions ‘women’ have called me “so brave” and shared almost sorrowfully their personal inner conflict on the matter. I’ve had conversations with lovers and ‘male’ friends who claimed to find my body hair attractive, symbolic of freedom and nature; that they don’t even notice it/care. I mention this as I think that one of the biggest motivations to remove body hair is wanting to be considered sexually attractive. I’ve definitely also noticed what I think are looks of surprise in public places. But quite frankly I’m not surprised at that as despite becoming somewhat more acceptable, it is still pretty rare to see a ‘woman’ with hairy legs or a man with shaved armpits, for that matter. I too can find myself staring at unusual appearances.”
Charlot Conway. Photographed May 2018, written July 2018
Ben found his subjects online. Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, you name it. He started really analyzing some of the models and hashtags he had been following, keeping an eye on the models who he knew had the hair or were up for letting it grow. "They come from different backgrounds," Ben said. "A lot of them are professional models, performers, you could say most of them are creative as well, doing creative work in one way or another. A lot of them are based in England. But also some of them come from different places, some of them passed through London, and I photographed them when they were here."
“It came alongside the realisation that the desire to wear makeup, shave or alter myself was born out of the notion that beauty can be sold. That beauty can, and must be bought; a concept not surprisingly enforced by the ’beauty' industry that have the most to profit. That we are not innately beautiful, that beauty is a product.
This is quite obviously delusional. As if people were not attracted to each other in all of human history before the first female razor blade was sold - only one hundred years ago. It was the obscure concept that I had to change myself to be beautiful. An idea enforced upon any female from childhood, that you simply would pluck, rip, cut at and mask your skin.
It was the makeup I cut first, it was easier. Because you see, ditching makeup would leave people questioning your beauty, where ditching a razor would leave people questioning your womanhood. Which is clearly ironic given that growth of hair is a sign of womanhood, fertility, and maturity.
The modern woman is made to feel as if her own body is unnatural; we're uncomfortable with our skin.
I remember a dance class at the age of around 10 and I became conscious of my leg hair for the first time. I was ashamed, embarrassed. I wanted to hide away; I hated my body for it.
Why should a child develop such an enveloping fear and resentment of the natural processes of their own body?
…Where going through a process that causes dry skin, rashes, wrinkles, over-stimulation of glands and general discomfort is what is required to be a woman …and that’s of course unless you buy yet another product to counteract these side effects.
I don't want to live in or harbour that society, where letting your body just be is a social and political act.
I know fully well that I was conditioned, and learning to love oneself took a certain amount of mental hacking and de-conditioning.
It was tough at first. I was an alien in my own body.
The mad thing is, this entire psychological burden, this complex so many women go through, was invented and perpetuated for one thing, money. It was power over the female form, female sexuality, transforming this power in to child like vulnerability. Putting barriers between a woman and her beauty, her sexuality.
You must do this, buy that, and then you'll be beautiful - as if beauty could ever be that shallow.
Observing the harmful nature of advertisements, choosing the quality of information that will enter and shape my mind, rather than what a company, whose intentions are unknown to me, intends me to see, is a vital step in the process.
Spending time in bathhouses in traditional cultures or at open-minded festivals, one eventually gets used to the natural form of woman, a form we are so detached from in the West – all of that really helps too.
This openness is healing and vital, and indeed a feature of less neurotic societies.
Seeing nude women and children together, the beauty in that, and recognising hairlessness is a feature of prepubescent girls, not women.
I've finally reached the stage where I'm happy with my hair, and actually, I love my hair.
I find a little hair truly very beautiful and the altered form just appears somewhat absurd and uncomfortable.
Now I see hair as something soft and feminine, indeed really quite pretty, the opposite of how modern media portrays female body hair.
I've come to trust the natural processes of my body. It knows what's best for my health and me.
Look at art history or just look around you. You see the beauty of the human mind is so temporal - it doesn't last. But the beauty of nature is timeless and unchanging.
From this I take strength and I hope to inspire other men and women to do the same.”
– Cassia Chloe, artist and performer. December 2016 (photographed April 2014).
After some time had passed and Ben could reflect, he said that the project taught him a lot about photography itself. "I learned how if you figure out the right formula to utilize photography, it can be very powerful. This project reached tens of millions of people around the world, as far as I know, and it literally changed culture, it affected culture culture around the world."
From the age of 12, growing up with extremely sensitive skin, body hair was my worst nightmare. The fact that I'm a brunette with south European descent, living in a cold country without many sunny months was making it even harder.
Body hair was my biggest complex and I just decided to face it and love myself the way I am.
I was tired of the constant struggle.
It made me feel at peace with myself. I realised that we are responsible for what we like and what we don't like. I realised that beauty is really just in the eye of the beholder, and that all of us have a choice.
On a deeper level, it made me more connected to my feminine side and to mother nature too.
There were many bitter comments and weird looks.
People were making fun of me. I won't even say that it's unpopular where I live; there are just no women my age of whom I know that would not shave. I guess the situation is a bit different in Western Europe where people can more freely just be themselves.
In Poland it's still considered a real taboo unless you're a really old woman from the countryside. But it's nice that encouragement came from people I really wouldn't think of in the first place. It's a good way to tell between open, understanding people and those who constantly judge without any deeper thought.
Though as for the latter, for many of them there's still hope, it's mostly a matter of habit.
I would love to encourage all the ladies who are tired with this shaving terror to ditch the razor! But I'd like to encourage all the ladies who love their skin super smooth to keep shaving too. I just don't want anyone to do things against themselves just to please society. It's history repeating itself. Once there were corsets to keep women "in check", now it's the constraint of being absolutely hairless.
The good thing is we won't be needing such things anymore, people are getting more and more conscious, learning to love the truth instead of the programmed illusion.”
– Martha Aurelia Gantner, musician. May 2017 (photographed June 2015)
And to someone like Ben, an artist who questions himself on a daily basis, that's huge. "I doubt the impact and the power of my work, but then sometimes when I get a message from someone on the other side of the world, and they say, 'You know, I saw your project, and I have scars on my body from a surgery that I went through, and it helped me accept my body,' and it's something completely different than the armpit hair, so it really makes me realize that the project has done something good."
“I let my hair grow for the Natural Beauty project. It really intrigued me to see my whole body in its natural state. I wanted to know what it would feel like and how I would feel. I wanted to witness people's judgment on my body first-hand.
I wanted to see how that impact would affect myself.
It made me feel natural and vulnerable at first, and eventually empowered.
I've grown accustomed to my armpit hair, and it makes me feel beautiful. If I removed it now, I’d feel a little bare. I like the colour of my hair against my skin.
People’s reactions are mixed, as it's not mainstream.
I feel it’s extremely important to feel cushty in your own skin no matter what's on the outside.
The stronger I get from being in a vulnerable place, the less people's reactions hurt me. Some even humour me now.
As my hair grew, I grew stronger with it.”
– Gabriela Eva, musician. January 2017 (photographed January 2015).
To finalize, Ben wanted to once again highlight that the project's about the contrast between fashionable and non fashionable beauty. He doesn't want people to think that he photographs models who could be considered 'beautiful' in a very specific kind of way. "This contrast is to make people reconsider, to fu*k with the system. And then people are open for debate and more willing to accept."
I never stopped shaving because I never started.
I do remember my mother shaving when I was younger and I thought that was pretty unnecessary since she was a strict muslim.
I later realised it's a thing women do to look more desirable to men.
It really irritated me that the people who reacted negatively to my natural armpit hair were men.
Like it was the most disgusting thing in the world. It really gets on my tits.
This is just one more reason that I don't shave it off. It belongs to me and I don't make noise about the "ugly"; hair on men which are sometimes pretty painful in the eye... But you've got to get over it and don't let these idiots get under it.
I did do a special "birthday-shave" recently and it reminded me why I don't go through the tedious chore of shaving hair off my beautiful body.
I would recommend growing it to any women. A trim here and there doesn't hurt, but it is so beautiful - even my boyfriend has changed his opinion about it now. #lovethecavewomenlook”
– Ayan Mohamed, graduate architecture student. December 2016 (photographed April 2014).
”Armpit hair grows naturally, so one would think people would ask, 'why do you shave?' not the opposite. The fact that in this society something natural like growing your armpit hair is almost a statement, or a political act, is weird – and that’s a reason to grow. People react differently; depending on what environment I am in.
When I am very dressed up, people are more chocked and sometimes disturbed by it. Seems like jewels and armpit hair don’t match in high fashion. When I’m in jeans and t-shirt or wearing more punk or hippie style, people are more relaxed with it. It’s more socially accepted or anticipated. With the hair, sometimes I feel free and natural and sometimes like a freak (which can be fun or disturbing, depending on my mood).
I like to colour my armpit hair in blue, pink or white.
I think it’s beautiful.”
– Emilia Bostedt, actress. December 2016 (photographed February 2014).
“I stopped shaving at the age of 18. I was suffering from PTSD as the result of rape and was trying to regain autonomy over my body in any way I knew how. I had also reached a breaking point with the amount of catcalling and sexual advances I was experiencing and was willing to go to any extreme to protect myself from that. It didn’t take long for my body hair to become obvious, and within the space of about a month, I was already noticing the shift in attitude from men towards me, which reinforced the importance of continuing this. It also awoke deep anger and frustration that shaving was an expectancy for women and our beauty was dependant on it.
It made me feel simultaneously embarrassed and empowered. I struggled with wearing clothing that exposed my armpits unless I was at queer events or around other creatives. I wasn’t yet resilient enough to ignore people whispering about it in public or the double takes from people at the gym. Within my first year of growing my body hair, I shaved several times out of awkwardness, and it has been known to rarely happen even now.
The like-minded women around me celebrated it and embraced my armpits. It took longer for family and friends to be on board with it (with moments of encouraging me to shave for family events or holidays) but they too came around. Men took no effort in hiding their disgust, they called me ‘dirty, unclean, smelly, feminist(!), gross’ or other things along those lines. They fetishized me in a way that made me feel incredibly uneasy. I had to privatise my social media as fetish accounts were taking photos of my armpits, sharing them and consequently my inboxes were getting clogged up with ‘dick pics’.
About a year and a half down the line of this journey, I started regaining my sexuality and began dating again. I felt a bizarre need to warn partners in advance that I had body hair, as though it was necessary to be apologetic prior to them deciding if they wanted to sleep with me. Nearly everyone was okay with it and those that weren’t I stopped seeing as I was not going to shave for anyone. Weirdly enough, my hair taught me to take control and not take anyone’s shit!”
In the times I have shaved I have felt weirdly naked and vulnerable with discomfort at seeing the empty spaces where my hair should be. Luckily, the pain of regrowth has quickly reminded me that my natural state is hairy and how my body feels best! I find my body hair incredibly feminine and powerful, it has connected me to a strong and sexy woman within me, even if sometimes certain settings make me awkward and overly aware of it. I’m so glad that not shaving is becoming normal and acceptable. I always look back at when I was a teenager and the thought of even having pubes was a crime and laugh at how far I have come in rejecting what is expected of me. Whilst I have no issue in how people choose to groom themselves (especially because I occasionally remove my body hair) I have always been bewildered by the embarrassment a tuft of armpit hair can bring upon a room of rational people.”
– Jess Cummin (January, 2019)
I stopped shaving because I have extremely sensitive skin and my hair grows quite fast. It began to get painful because of the spots and cuts from shaving so regularly and it didn’t even look nice because of how rashy my underarms were. I started to question why I had to put my skin through this every day, even though all the men that I knew weren’t expected to. I realised how ridiculous it was and from then on only shaved when I actually wanted to (which is very rare and has become less and less).
At first I felt like I needed to hide my hair all the time in case someone saw and made a horrible comment. But after going out plenty of times without shaving I gained a lot more confidence. I feel more in tune with my body now that I’m not damaging my skin and taking more care of it. I also feel empowered by not shaving. For so long I had conformed to society’s expectations of what a woman should look like and I finally realised that I was beautiful regardless of whether I shave or not. I really inspired myself in a way, it can take a lot to go against what everyone sees as beautiful and normal, but I’m proud of myself for doing it.
I’ve had a lot of different reactions to my armpit hair. Some laughed, some looked uncomfortable and some agreed that I should be allowed to treat my body the way I want to. I often feel sad for the people who make nasty comments because they do not see the beauty of everyone’s individuality and the natural body. The people that accept me for who I am and love me no matter how I look are the people who matter to me.
I’m a strong believer that, as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, you should be allowed to do what you want with your body. Every individual has a preference for his or her own appearance. Some people wear make up and some don’t, some people have tattoos and others don’t and some people have underarm hair and others shave. I’m glad that I have realised that what I do with my body hair is my choice and no one has a right to tell me how to look. Being a part of the ‘Natural Beauty’ project has made me fall in love with my natural self and I hope that it opens people’s minds to becoming more accepting.”
– JoJo Pearson, July (2017).
Justyna Neryng. Artist. "Natural Beauty” research (2009).
I stopped shaving after reading Judith Butler and realising that I had no idea what my 'natural' body looked like, as I was convinced to perform my gender and shave by 15. I then continued not to because I felt the need to overcome the embarrassment I felt for not conforming. Not shaving shouldn't be a statement but it is. Eventually it became a really liberating experience and showers are so quick and easy now, I will never go back!”
– Alexis Calvas, February 2015.
“I realized at one point, when I was about 18, that I was shaving because I’d been doing that told what to do. I can’t remember being ordered to shave my body, but the message was singular and omnipotent when I was 10 years old - YOU WILL SHAVE, IT IS A SIGN OF MATURITY AND WOMANHODD! It came from my sister, from her friends, from television, from teen magazines, from every corner. And there was no voice, from any corner, telling me NOT to shave (expect maybe my mother, who was horrified that I wanted to shave so early because my sister was doing it). But: I hate being told what to do. So I decided to grow it out and see what happened if I stopped doing what people were telling me to do. And nothing bad happened. So I left it.
I felt like I was back in control of my body without having realized I’d lost control.
Interestingly, very few people ever made comments about my armpit hair. Children would sometimes stare, and I found myself thinking “How interesting! They have a sense elf what’s ‘normal’ gendered behavior by the time they’re three years old!” And in the relationship department, it probably attracted more men than it deterred. I was emanating a power and a self-confidence that lots of men (and women, I’m bisexual) found really attractive. I remember my friend Emily, who also didn’t shave her legs, always defending herself against anyone who commented that her leg hair was “gross” by throwing her hands up and saying “I’m still getting laid!!” The most fascinating thing to notice in retrospect is that negative comments and judgments from adults almost always came from women. Men, or at least the kind of interesting, intellectual, hip guys I like to attract, never really seemed to care whether there was hair under my arms or not. But women would sometimes take my armpit hair as a personal insult, like a breaking of an agreement that we are all supposed to groom ourselves according to a standard. Obviously, fuck that.”
– Amanda Palmer, musician. December 2016 (photographed April 2010 as part of the research phase for Natural Beauty).
At this point in life, I feel that the real question shouldn’t be ‘why did you let your armpit hair grow?’ But actually, ‘why did you shave in the first place?’ I’ve always been very hairy, as a child, teenager and now woman. I always felt very insecure about this as a teenager, thanks to the stigma perpetuated by society that it was not feminine to display the hair on your arms, legs and armpits.
I used to spend many hours shaving and also spent a lot of money on razors, creams and sticking plasters only to end up with skin irritations and unnecessary infectious spots that take an age to heal until the next time I had to start the cycle all over again.
One day my physical and mental irritation got so intense that I realised that shaving was not healthy for my skin. I did feel slightly unsure at first, however, it felt really good afterwards as I knew that by not shaving was making my skin healthier and what I was doing was in some way liberating me from the stigmas and layers of society that I’d been put upon as a child.
I come from Venezuela, where the beauty industry for women has become a national pastime for some and an obsession for others. In the last three decades, Venezuela has won more beauty titles than any other country; Miss World, Miss Universe and Miss Wherever… Many Venezuelan mothers impose the rules of the beauty industry almost as soon as you are born, babies getting their ears pierced a week after they’ve come out of the hospital. As soon as a camera appears at any social gathering, young girls immediately strike a fashion model pose with arms on the hips. To appear ‘perfect’, many families go into debt to pay for their daughter’s plastic surgery from the age of 13, in the hope that their princess will be talent spotted at the mall and be the next Miss Venezuela.
So in the decision to stop shaving also came the decision to take ownership of my body and start making decision about my body not just because of societies rules but because of my own body rules. I wanted to break that mental barrier I had with myself and society. I am not one to try and dictate the rules of beauty because I believe that beauty is very subjective and that the beauty that many see in my country will be considered different and out of place to many people in other countries and vice versa. Don’t get me wrong, I fully respect the decisions and changes that humans make to their own body, but I must make a big remark to this point as in my country there is a high rate of young girls that die from bad medical practice trying to get cheap plastic surgery done because they are being bullied and shamed in schools and in their local community. If anything, these simple words are to try and create awareness of how much pressure we put in young women throughout society.
We’ve spent so many years dictating how people should look, but we don’t consider the damages and the consequences of what these rules of beauty might bring upon people. It is true that at the end of the day everyone is the sole owner of their body and is able to make decision for themselves without having to account to anyone but we must do so with much awareness and care of our people and ourselves and not to please the rules of society. All these aspects made my decision to let my armpit hair grow, personally more important.
I know that the beauty industry in Venezuela has now become a big part of the culture and a way of pride I respect that. However, I feel that as the rules of beauty might be important to be placed upon young women at an early stage in life, alongside that, we should also make it of great importance to let the same young girls, teenagers and women know that it is ok to make decisions to our own bodies without following the rules of beauty and to let them know that they should not feel powerless of who they are or what they wish to be. In the same way that having plastic surgery at a very early age is acceptable, we should be able to accept girl’s decisions to leave their body hair grow. This I feel will create a much open-minded attitude towards beauty and will hopefully stop many mental health problems that with total disregard we start to show up at a very young age.
I’ve had the opportunity to have friends that have no specific concept of how and what the rules of beauty should come about. To me, they are the most beautiful beings I’ve ever met. They are true to their own body and shameless of who they are. If they decide to shave or not, it is because of their own choice. In moments of doubt, when I thought that not shaving was not “feminine" enough, I looked up to my two closest friends Anne and Emily. Both also didn't shave their armpits and reassured myself that what makes me feminine is not if I do or don’t shave, but actually being able to own myself and make decisions for my own body and not for the rules of beauty in society.
The response I got from others was not that stressful personally. I have not encountered many who have given a shit whether I let my armpit hair grow or not. If there were some weird looks, I was not really aware of it as I knew that there is a general understanding that everyone is getting on with their life and that everyone has their own thing to worry about. At the same time, I know that we are all creatures of judgement and we all have an opinion of something as we’ve been raised in society to have judgement in almost every aspect of live – I respect that. I also understood that we as humans are more self-conscious about ourselves than what the person next to us thinks of us. I mainly had the empowering feeling that my friends and family gave me by not really making a big deal out of it. Thanks to the rapid changes in society we’ve evolved into communities that have learned not to follow all those fashion statements that the beauty industry, the consumerist society and famous magazines like Vogue or Cosmopolitan place upon women. We’ve been able to own ourselves and not really make a big deal out of it and I feel that this statement needs to be strengthened. For those who asked kindly I answered and for those who had a mean thing to say I was very patient and never let it get to me as I knew that they just needed a bit more education and understanding on the matter.
However, for many women that choose to leave their body hair grow there is still a lot of bullying done for a simple personal decision. Which is why I feel that projects like Ben’s “Natural Beauty” is important and is helping create a much better understanding of these issues. This project creates a dialog for understanding and educate those that had no idea what’s going on. In Venezuela, like in many places of the world, there’s so much pressure put upon women to try and impress men with a specific dictatorial way of how women should look but I had a moment of realisation 5 months ago and it is the only reaction I keep in mind about my body hair. It was with my partner at the time and very good friend Chris. We started to observe our body and talk about how much hair we both had. He had barely any hair on his back and on the rest of his body where I had much more hair on my back than he did. He then told me that he loved that I had loads of hair in my armpits, my back and the rest of my body because it reminded him how beautiful and different we can all be in our very own way. By then, I was still a bit insecure about my body and myself but this realisation gave more strength to the believe that beauty is subjective in every manner and that it comes in all shapes, sizes, and even amounts of hair…
I have to give Ben a personal thank you for involving me in this precious project he’s been working on to appreciate women’s natural beauty and I would like to celebrate and congratulate all the gorgeous women involved in this project specially my two good friends Anne and Emily, as in many ways they have inspired and given me so much strength in making me proud of who I am as a women, it takes courage to reach a point where you are proud of your body in the society that we live in, well done to those who have reached that and keep going to who is still trying as it will be a very rewarding personal moment in the end. I feel that all women should try going without shaving for a time and experience their natural beauty with their body and if it’s not something that you like or enjoy about your body then you can always shave anytime.
Please celebrate your body! Own who you are and be that! At the end of the day we are all trying to figure out who we are everyday of the year as much as we are all changing and learning about ourselves every other day. Those who celebrate who and what they are, are creating a much open and safer space for those who are struggling to understand who and what they want to be in life. It might be easier said than done but give it a try. We’ll then help create a healthier and understanding society with less bullshit than there already is…”
Alex Wellburn, July 2017 (photographed May 2017).
I stopped shaving mostly because Ben asked but I was kind of excited to see what I looked like with body hair as I started removing it quite young.
It felt like my armpits were very conspicuous to start with as I have quite dark growth but once it got past an inch or so it felt more controllable and less like I was smuggling wigs.
Most people know me to be pretty open to new ideas and style choices so they pretty much didn't care or ask, but I did notice that sometimes in a pub or any large gathering of slightly drunk people that I would get more questions about it, or was assumed to be a staunch feminist. On the whole though most people either didn't notice or politely ignored it.
I think overall the most obvious things I learnt doing this was that most people are grown up enough to not care, and if they do they're mostly polite enough to just pretend they don't see it. That once your hair grows past a certain point it gets kinda itchy again so I recommend a little trimming if you are going to have it permanently. And that ultimately if I do or don't have body hair it's no ones business but my own.”
– Olivia Murphy, Fashion student, model. February 2017 (photographed April 2014).
“I stopped shaving completely when I was a teenager because of two instances. The first? I got tired of all the time wasted on maintenance and the discomfort that came with it. The second was when I went on a few multiple week-long backpacking trips; it would have been extremely inconvenient to spend hours ripping my hair out, so I let things grow. Being so close to nature let me dive deeper into and re-examine the relationship with myself and the world, acting as a mirror. In nature, there is wild; it is as beautiful as it is untamed. How could it be anything other than that?
I felt so relieved and free when I let it grow out. It felt like being able to breathe. It was incredibly comfortable too. I felt a confidence and boldness returning, like I was replenishing some kind of primal power.
People respond to it differently all the time. There are very encouraging/positive reactions—women who have messaged me to thank me for changing their mind and pushing them to challenge their motives/experiment with growing their body hair. Then there are people that start to fetishize it, which can be strange.
People revere my decision as a feminist and bold political statement, which is ironic, considering how almost everybody has some kind of body hair. It is also funny because I am lazy and keeping it is the path of least resistance.
There are people who are exceptionally rude and who speak from fear. People who say it’s dirty and that I must be a man. The more important questions to ponder are rather why and how do we live in a culture/society that has deemed it acceptable for certain people to have body hair, and unacceptable for others? Isn’t it absurd that it is socially acceptable for humans to have lots of hair on their head, but not on other parts of their same body? Isn’t it ridiculous and ironic that what grows naturally on its own is seen as unnatural? How did we get here?
I will say that a very pleasant side effect of having armpit hair is its ability to ward off rude people whom I wouldn’t care to interact or associate with anyway. Because the people that care about that sort of thing and make it a point to say how disgusted they are, are precisely the kind of people that I don’t want in my life.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference. If somebody wants to dye their hair, let them. If somebody wants to get a face tattoo, who cares? Whether a person decides to shave or not is completely up to them. It has nothing to do with you and your feelings of discomfort or your sexual desires. Everybody should have the ability to make personal choices about their bodies and not be criticized for them.”
– Kyotocat, March 2018 (photographed June 2017).
I first stopped shaving because it was irritating my skin and I wanted to give it a rest. After that, I decided to just let it grow and see what happens. I then stopped shaving altogether and let it alter my perception as it went.
Previously I felt like I had to shave every last hair from my armpits and legs, as it's what you're 'supposed to do'. People were picked on at school for being more hairy than other people, even before it became time for some hair to grow in. People are pointed out in the street for any difference anyone seem to find, and it seems okay for people to laugh and stare.
I have had it pointed out to me negatively several times over my life, that my arms are slightly hairier than some other people’s, as if that's somehow important or they didn't think I could judge that for myself.
Hair just seems to be a bad thing for women, unless it's straight, bleach blonde and perfect, and on your head - where it's supposed to be...
When my hair had grown back, I still felt this pressure going out, I was happy with it, but I felt other people might not be, and I was sure they'd let me know about it.
It's taken a while to get more comfortable with it, and I'm still not always confident about it, because my aim is not to offend or make anyone feel uncomfortable. At the same time, the people that do judge you so highly perhaps need to be offended and feel a little uncomfortable.
The only real negative response came from the people confronted by this picture on Ben's social media. And the hate wasn't limited to the underarm hair. Strangely, despite my insecurity, I just found those comments funny. If I had felt any need to respond, I didn't need to, because several other people I didn't know had already done it for me.”
– Louise Raines, February 2017 (photographed May 2014).
I stopped shaving because I quickly came to realise the absurdity that a lack of body hair equated with femininity. The first time I removed body hair, I was around 11 years old. I stole my older sisters razor and attempted to remove all of the hair from my body, not that I had much at the time. I assumed you needed to use a lot of pressure with the blade against my skin and ended up removing strips of flesh from my legs, which caused profuse bleeding. I still remember going to school wrapped in bandages and claiming that I had fallen down a tree. Looking back now, I think of how horrified my mother must’ve been that I had already been conditioned to remove the early signs of puberty that had only just arisen. Without recognising it back then, I had already equated body hair with something monstrous and unnatural that had to be eradicated in order to keep my body effeminate and ‘pure’. As I grew older, I reflected on this instance a lot and the meaning behind it, and eventually just stopped removing my hair all together. Most women will be all too familiar with the sharp knick of a razor blade against their leg or the spine tingling rip of wax on their labia. I simply chose to no longer bother enduring the pain, let alone the expense. I feel entirely comfortable not conforming. If people find me unattractive because of it, great! I then know that they’re the kind of people I don’t want to interact with.
It didn’t necessarily make me feel empowered, just comfortable. I don’t think women refusing to shave should necessarily be considered a radical act. Of course it’s a way in which women can refuse to conform to patriarchal beauty standards, but I don’t want my body to consistently be read as a political space. I hope that eventually our society will reach a stage where we are mature enough to no longer be shocked by women with body hair, that it will no longer be read as a form of feminist backlash or political statement, but just a normal human body existing within the world.
No one has ever really said that much about it. I think my mother and grandmother have dropped a few comments or jokes about it here and there, which is reflective of their generations’ expectations of ‘proper feminine grooming’, but I’ve never been ashamed for it. The most compelling reaction I’ve had has been from children. I worked as a nanny for a few years and the kids I cared for were always pretty shocked by my armpit hair. I’ve had kids ask me why I have hair under my arms like their daddy, and they’re always confounded when I tell them that their mummies also have hair under their arms, they just choose to remove it. I think it’s pretty important for them to learn that hair is natural on all bodies so that they don’t make the same mistakes I did when they eventually reach puberty.”
Sienna for ‘Natural Beauty’. Photographed and written August 2018
“For an understanding of why a person won't shave I believe it's important to understand what compels them to do so in the first place.
I became aesthetically aware of my body at a much earlier age than many expect one to. Having begun puberty aged at around 8 or 9, I found myself painfully conscious of the myriad changes to my body; most notably the weight gain, menstruation and of course, hair.
What ensued were many humiliating (and sometimes aborted) school visits to the pool and haunting horrorshow P.E. changing room experiences in my teens. Bullying occurs inwardly as well as outwardly, and the cruelty from others accompanies that which we inflict upon ourselves. Much of this derives from enforced expectations from/of others and of the self, both of which can skew our ability to see either kindly or rightly.
Within the spheres of sexual, societal and educational pressures and tensions that imbue adolescence (and our adult lives), there are multitudinous opportunities to doubt oneself. These are bred and fed by external expectations of who you are meant to be; this is manifested, manipulated and milked through imposed ideas of what you are meant to look like.
What ensues for many are torrid years of obsessive attempts to alter one's body and situation, in some ways wholly destructive and others which are apparently insignificant. For many and myself this was led by a desire for appeal and belonging; the inward necessity for these feelings being supplanted by an obsessive outward focus. Whilst healing and growth ultimately come from within, body shaming is an ever-rife phenomenon which impairs our ability to do so. Ideals of image are vitriolically and violently imposed to such a variant of degrees that the gravity of many instances are often overlooked. The expectations from our culture regarding body hair seemingly determines the body’s beauty on being almost or even entirely hairless. Whereas I support that for some this may be their own enjoyed preference for many others removing their hair occurs from conformity to expectation and from fears of rejection. Whilst I wrote this I was reminded of pressures in my high school which insisted that girls should shave their arms; not just the armpits but every hair from every inch of our arms. Many times, myself and others were ridiculed for not doing so. For reasons relating to depression and anorexia, I didn’t last long in my high school and because of those reasons there are many years where I have little recollection of my attitude towards body hair. Shaving didn’t often occur as a matter of importance, lest for the seldom visits to the world outside my house where I would shave if my underarms or legs were to be on show. Ultimately there were few occasions which necessitated the need in my mind to shave at all. However, shaving was always required if in company of others, romantically or platonically, if I were to avoid feeling akin to the Mexican wolf boys or Victorian Freak show attractions. Older and somewhat less riddled by issues of eating I began to let my underarm grow, partly due to the opinion of a partner at the time who preferred it. Realising the falsity in the prevailing message that everyone is repulsed by body hair, I began to take delight in not shaving. When I did shave again, generally for modelling jobs, I was irate at the discomfort it caused me. I also began to think about it more, realising that if hair is growing there that there is more than likely a bloody good reason for it. The underarm is a sensitive place and a vital area for the release of toxins. The axillary lymph nodes can become irritated and even infected from frequent shaving and use of harsh deodorising products. On a more superficial level, I would sometimes get rashes and pimples from shaving and regrowth which looked to me a lot worse than some hair. I’m sure some of you will recall the Veet adverts which came out not so long ago. These represent women with hair under their arms or on their legs as being wholly repulsive, deterring as well as shameful to themselves and others. More so than this, they are represented as inherently male attributes as shown by the morphing of the woman into an apologetic and shamefaced man.
I wholeheartedly feel that the only people who ought to feel ashamed or embarrassed are those that brandish cruel ridicule and admonish women like myself who choose not to shave. I feel those who fall into this category need to stop, take a moment and honestly ask themselves; why? Why do you feel so affronted? Why do you care SO much that you feel like you are justified in making your hateful comments? Why do you believe you have the right to dictate what another person chooses to do with their body? Why let it concern you so deeply? Why bother?
Ben is a dear friend of mine and I am so proud of him and all the spectacularly beautiful women that make up this series of photographs. Braving the ignorance of others and choosing to be yourself despite the bullying you may face is one of the most admirable qualities to uphold. Sharing the idea of being confident in who you are and how you are -even when it does not conform to what you are told is the ‘right’ way to be- is an idea which must continue to be perpetuated. Those who seek to harm others are ultimately only serving themselves a disfavour. Be yourself and be the beauty you wish to see in others. Remember that your skin is just the carrier for the true beauty which lies within.”
– Emily Cripps, February 2017 (photographed July 2014).
“I stopped shaving firstly because I was inspired by the Natural Beauty project. I am a firm believer in natural beauty.
Learning to love and accept yourself for who you are.
I know this isn't always easy but I would still never get any cosmetic work done. Working in the modelling, dancing, and acting industries can make you question the way you look, and you constantly compare yourself to other women. It can be tiring.
It was also a personal challenge and social experiment. I was curious how I would feel and how others around me would react.
At first it I felt a little bit physically uncomfortable because the hair was a bit itchy, but I was excited. I had shaved everyday since the moment I started to grow hair. My mum is a beauty therapist so I had tried every method of hair removal by the time I was 14. The hair took ages to grow, as my underarms aren't particularly hairy. When it started to get longer I found myself often stroking the hair, I couldn't resist playing with it. It felt quite erotic.
I got mixed reactions; my best friend already had long underarm hair so she knew how liberating and sexy it made you feel. My boyfriend at the time didn't like it very much, which made me want to rebel even more ha ha.
I would totally recommend trying it at least once.”
– Stephanie Tripp, actress. December 2016 (photographed August 2014)
Alessandra Kurr. Designer.
“I originally stopped shaving maybe five or six years ago, really for physical reasons at first – my skin has Keratosis pilaris (those little bumps, like ‘chicken skin’) and so shaving was a nightmare, particularly on my legs. I would get the most terrible ingrown hairs, to the point that most of the hairs on my legs would have to be picked out with tweezers or they’d turn into painful spots. The same would happen on my vulva if I ever dared to shave, and eventually started on my underarms too. I tried a few different hair removal methods but nothing really worked, and eventually, I started to feel that my body was protesting, so I just stopped.
When I stopped shaving I finally felt free of my body’s reaction to hair removal and all the pain and hours spent exfoliating, just for my skin to look terrible anyway. At first, I wasn’t sure about how it looked but I’ve really grown to love my body hair, and I’ve never had any complaints from people whose opinion I care about.
I worked in a bar when I first stopped shaving, so I had some shocked reactions from some of the (male) customers and regulars, I think it was just a bit before hairy armpits (on women) became more common to see, so some of them were disgusted reactions, but honestly I felt like it was a pretty good misogyny filter. Most people don’t even notice, some people like it.
I did start to feel like it was a feminist action too — men have body hair and don’t tend to have any issues with it from others, or themselves. But really I think a lot of it was just that I’ve always been pretty boyish, never had much of a skincare routine and never really worn makeup (not that those things are bad or unfeminist!) just because those things don’t interest me much and aren’t on my radar – I’m not ‘feminine’ in that way, so hair removal just became another one of those things that I just didn’t feel made sense to me. I can’t be bothered.”
– Jessica Hargreaves (October 2018)
I first stopped out of, I guess my “laziness”, and later realising I was just actively allowing myself to be more comfortable. So I let it grow, curious to what it would feel like au natural in an area so taboo and visible to the rest of the world.
It made me feel good! Like myself, like I couldn’t care what others felt, sort of empowered and comfortable in what my body naturally decided to look like.
People’s reactions were surprisingly very positive. It attracted partners; curiosity and questions that were enquiring and appreciative in fairly equal measure. There was of course some confusion, but I didn’t really feel any response that was actually directed at me in reality to be negative. Through the project with Ben, I did receive some rather alarmingly nasty comments from Internet trolls on my photo, but I thought in a round about way they were even more empowering than the compliments.
These people were commenting this way almost unanimously, out of ignorance, and perhaps their own insecurity. In the face of something so natural, this reminded me that I’m lucky as hell not to have that narrow mind holding me down.
The people complaining have a lot more to deal with than their own body hair growth. They feel they have to conform to a societal pressure I really don't adhere to. So negativity equalled empowerment and much hilarity for how small minded some very unfortunate souls could be in the face of natural physicality.
Having body hair is kind of in contrast to my job sometimes, and I don’t always have a full set of underarm lady hair or a generous lady garden! In fact sometimes I have the exact opposite. For me what it’s about is pro choice. If I choose to grow it, it’s because I feel like it, equally if I choose to take it all off.
This isn’t for me a professional pressure either; as a performer I don’t adhere to a anyone’s rules and a lot of the time actively enjoy challenging my audiences views on aesthetics with my own body as well as my costumes.
However, in saying that sometimes I like to feel all smooth and bald. Through this whole practice of liberated body image, I just wish to promote my own choice and to be conscious about what makes me happy in my skin.”
– Ruby Bird, producer, performer and costumier. December 2016 (photographed April 2014).
Disclaimer from Ruby: "..dyslexia isn't always a virtue, so please be understanding on my jumbled sentence structure..."