One writer shares how embracing her body hair as a teen has had long-lasting effects on her body image as an adult.

By By Gabrielle Kassel
Updated: April 23, 2019
Photo: Guido Mieth/Getty Images

It's the night before the biggest swim meet of the year. I bring five razors and two cans of shaving cream into the shower. Then, I shave my whole body-legs, arms, armpits, stomach, back, pubes, chest, toes, and even my palms and bottom of my feet. The little blonde-brown hairs gather like a tumbleweed in the drain, which I clean out twice during my shave-down.

After an hour (maybe more), I step out of the shower, wrap the towel around myself and feel the terrycloth against my completely bare skin for the first time in five, maybe six, months. Dried off, I drop the towel and take inventory of my body: broad swimmer back, muscular legs, and, now, hairless as a mole rat. (Related: What Happens If You Don't Shave for Two Weeks)

As a competitive high school swimmer, I didn't do Januhairy or No Shave November. Rather, I did No Shave October Through March. All the ladies on my team did the same. Not because our limbs and pits would be covered by corduroy and chunky sweaters. In fact, we'd be wearing just the opposite: Swimsuits; and athletic-looking suits with the high-cut thigh-holes and minimal strap backs, at that.

No, it wasn't to save bucks on blades. Or to make a political statement. Or to be subversive. We did it to swim faster.

The idea behind this was that our body hair-and the dead skin cells that accumulated from not shaving-would add an extra layer of "drag" (or resistance) in the water. Meaning, not only did we have to pull body weight through the pool, but also the weight of our body hair and dead skin. So, in theory, our hair would make us incrementally stronger throughout the season. Then right before the two most competitive meets of the season, everyone on the team (including the boys!) would shave down, removing all the hair and the dead skin cells in the process.

The hope was that when we dove into the pool for those potentially ~career making~ events, we'd feel more streamlined in the water, and be able to glide our way to a PR. (If this sounds extreme, consider the fact that, in swimming, a hundredth of a second can make a difference between first and second place).

For many women and femmes, figuring out their relationship to their body hair is something that takes a lot of thought, time, and even trial and error. (See: 10 Women Share Why They Stopped Shaving Their Body Hair)

But not me. Early on, I saw my body hair differently.

I was able to use my body hair as a tool that would potentially make me better as an athlete. It's existence on my body-whether I was strutting around the pool deck, wearing a dress to winter formal, or lounging in PJ's at home-was proof of my commitment to swimming.

I think part of why I embraced my body hair so readily was because, during your teenage years, you're constantly searching for an identity. *Not* shaving my body hair helped solidify that my identity was 'athlete' and 'swimmer'. It allowed me to become part of something bigger than myself: a team and community of women doing the same thing. Beyond that, all my role models-the older girls on the team, those with sub-one minute 100m freestyle times, the confident athletes-were all hairy and owning their body hair, too.

In other words: All the cool girls were doing it. (FTR, Emma Roberts grows out her pubic hair too!)

It's been close to a decade since I graduated high school and permanently hung up my goggles, but I still associate my body hair with athletic performance, community, and even confidence. Do I remove my body hair now? It depends. Sometimes I'll do a quick swipe of my razor over my shins or pits. Other times I'll rock a bush and hairy pits, but shave my legs. But (and this is important), I feel just as confident with body hair as I feel without it. And when I do shave, it's not because I'm trying to fit some cultural norm or to please others. (Related: This Adidas Model Is Getting Rape Threats for Her Leg Hair)

Photo: Gabrielle Kassel

In addition to helping me love my body hair, growing out my body hair for swimming taught me to love the other signs that I'm a serious athlete. In college, the bruises that covered my body after a rugby game were proof that I'd gone out on the pitch and given my all. Just as now, my calloused hands are a signal of my commitment to CrossFit.

When I look at my body I feel a sense of pride of what it's capable of-whether that's growing hair and swimming fast or building muscle and deadlifting heavy weights. And I credit a lot of this current self- and body-love to the fact that, in high school, I was encouraged to let my body hair do its own damn thing.

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