Why I Shave Ritually, Not Religiously

A year ago this week I shaved my legs for the first time in two years. Here’s the story.

Why I Shave Ritually, Not Religiously - For the Birds - by Leanna Coyle-Carr

"’Bout time you shaved them hairy legs, ain't it?"

We were in a Chikfila parking lot, my dad and I. I remember. I was 11 or 12.

He held sway. I started shaving that weekend.

I had been wanting to shave my legs. The older girls at church did it, so the idea held a special womanly glow. There are few coming of age markers for girls and I craved one, needing something to announce my place on the cusp of young womanhood.

My mom had held me off a while. Perhaps she wanted to preserve my childhood. Perhaps she wanted a watershed experience for me, too, and maybe did not know how to give it. Perhaps it is difficult to watch your daughter grow up.

Regardless, at his words I got what I wanted. But it was not special. I remember feeling shunted to the bathtub to do the deed, isolated there with the shaving cream and the blue Venus razor.

I knew even then that I had gotten what I wanted at the cost of something dear.

The awareness still raises the fuzz on the back of my arms. The first rule of patriarchy is this: You can have what you want on our terms. This time the cost was body-confidence. Evidently there was something wrong with my body hair. Something was wrong with me. I was wrong.

This is the way of patriarchy. Get what you want, but only if you feel bad about it.

Sure, have it, because otherwise you are deficient and gross.

Turns out, sensitive skin made shaving difficult for me. Nevertheless, I scraped away fuzz before doing anything. I planned outfits and activities around whether or not I was hairless.

Because what if someone found out that my body was wrong? What if some male bumped into me at school and felt the rush of stubble? What if a fellow female noticed the sheen when my jeans crested my ankles?

Mortification and shame, that’s what.

Eventually the regimen got old. I critically assessed this obsessive “hygiene” protocol and learned that even though humans have been removing hair from their bodies for different reasons for the entirety of history, shaving as it stands today really took off because of US Capitalist marketing schemes in the early twentieth century. With rising hemlines Gillette marketers saw an opportune target audience. Convince women that their leg hair is dirty and undesirable and get an instant and endless razor market. (See Bustle article for more.)

I smelled the BS in the Skintimate.

But I hid my rebellion—under pants, long skirts, and tights just dark enough to shroud my shame.

One night in college I found myself at a Blessing Way. While a henna artist painted Hope’s legs in preparation for labor, her mother chuckled, “You should have seen those legs before she shaved.”

Tit for tat went back and forth ending with the mother saying, “Well, I bet your husband appreciates it when you do shave, that’s all I’m saying.”

I held my breath.

Hope’s husband Ryan, staid and steady, stepped forward and said simply, “I love Hope. I love Hope’s body and everything about her. Hair or no hair, makes no difference.”

“Wow,” I blurted, “I hope my husband is like that one day.”

Steady and staid Ryan ignited.

“He will be or he won’t be your husband,” he replied, eyes blazing.

“Leanna, if a man does not love every part of you—hairy legs included—then he does not love you at all. You can’t partner with someone who does not receive all of you. Can you understand that?”

From that night on I knew I wanted that kind of love. From a man, yes. But also from myself.

The first time Aaron and I hung out I brazenly shared my “policy.” I told him about the Blessing Way and how my feminism would allow for no body policing whatsoever.

Maybe I was testing him. Maybe I was trying to push him away.

Or maybe I realized I could not bear the affection of another man who thought it was “about time” for me to shave, shape, or shed any part of me. Maybe I was finally there, for one brave moment, believing that the wild woman that I am was worth it.

Aaron didn't run away.

Four and a half years later I encounter a woodland fairy while serving as summer chaplain at Peacehaven Community Farm. Her name was Carissa and we made fast friends.

Carissa’s warm creativity exuded from every wispy curl about her—even down to her fully grown leg hair, to which she barely made reference. For her, body hair was a non-issue, absolutely.

My own body hair grew as I rocked on Peacehaven’s front porch that summer, encouraged by this wild and wonderful sister who offered her softest and most sincere solidarity.

Why I Shave Ritually, Not Religiously - For the Birds - by Leanna Coyle-Carr

And two years went by with not a razor in sight.

During these two years I was in divinity school, which is a fairly safe environment for any experiment.

I wanted to know that I loved myself. I wanted to explore the freedom of womanhood and offer the example of my experience to others as Carissa had done for me. I also wanted to know for myself what would happen if a white woman in the south said no to the deeply embedded patriarchy just once in her life.

And do you know what happened? Not much. At least not much beyond me.

People noticed my leg hair, of course, but I was largely surprised by the general level of tolerance I experienced.

Little children were the best. They were curious, commenting often with a giggle, “So soft!” I will never forget when Kaitlin’s oldest toddler tapped my knee to get my attention and ended up stroking the fuzz on my shin in wonder. His little smile was full of delight, not disgust.

Disgust did come up, though. There were moments in which I felt unsafe. Looks of laughter were easy to ignore, but some men stared as if they were trying to figure out what I was. As if they wanted to lift my skirts and check.

I wasn’t a human in their midst; they analyzed me like a thing.

Those moments taught me a sad but important awareness. As messed up as it is, I carefully considered how much leg to show when I went into certain areas of town. I hated having to do this, but I hated feeling unsafe even more.

Most of the time, however, I felt free.

Why I Shave Ritually, Not Religiously - For the Birds - by Leanna Coyle-Carr

I came to like my legs and relished the feel of wind and water upon them. It was wondrously sensual. I felt good naked. My natural shading accentuated the luscious swell of my calves and thighs and the hollows under my arms.

Blessed be.

One year ago, divinity school stormed to a finish, I was finally at home with my husband, and, after the initial end-of-class crash, I realized that I needed a ritual.

I had just finished one of the most significant seasons of my life and...now…what? A certain restlessness would not permit me to go forward without doing something to commemorate this moment.

My eyes found the electric razor tucked away in the bathroom cabinet.

That could work.

So I did it, eyes misting as I made my prayers through deep breaths and smooth swipes with the razor. I felt such gratitude—I was home, the trials of the last few years were over, and I had made it.

I did not feel shunted off and alone in that bathroom that day. Indeed, I felt attended to and cared for, each pass of the razor a tender acknowledgement of all that I had become.

It was a coming age, and shaving was suddenly special to me for the first time in my life.

Take it back.

I want to say that to the patriarchy that shaped my father, my mother, and myself.

Take back the shame you heaped upon us, the ugly systems you constructed to keep us in check, that made us oppressors and victims, cowards and freaks.

Take it back.

But patriarchy doesn’t have ears.

So I take back myself. I reclaim my wildness and my beauty, my ability to go and do freely—hair or no hair.

These days I shave when I want. I shave when I need a ritual of transition or simply the pleasure of pampering. There is no rhyme or reason, no consistency to it. None at all.

I am flow and dynamism.

Shaving is now a medium for handling what’s real, not a demand to which I bow.

I shave ritually in the court of the One who made me—as an expression of the very essence of freedom—nevermore in the religion of the damned patriarchy.

Bless you for engaging this story of mine. I hope it encourages you as we navigate the systems at play in this world—as we pursue freedom in reality and beauty in our own selves.

How do you find and express ownership of your body?

I’d appreciate your thoughts. Drop me a line below, see me on Facebook, or click over to Instagram.

Thanks for being here, beloveds.