19 September 2014

Is Cooking Anti-Feminist? Part 3

Cousin Mary teaching my dad and me
her mother's secret kata recipe
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
Continued from Part 1, where I explore the connections between cooking, work, and leisure, and Part 2, where I unpack the dynamics between cooking and gender in my own family history.

In Part 3, I want to break down the argument presented in the study, The Joy of Cooking?, step by step. First, the authors assert that working mothers feel duty-bound to cook because of pressure from a traditional ideal of motherhood coupled with pressure from various “food gurus” who are advocating for Americans to cook more often at home. In the course of interviewing women to support this theory, they also uncover several barriers that make cooking difficult for their interviewees: poverty, work pressures, transportation, housing, child care. Finally, they propose a number of possible “creative solutions” to feed families without forcing mothers into the kitchen. 

The authors of the study seem to contend that no working mother wants to cook, but does so due to external obligations. They write, “Mothers felt responsible for preparing healthy meals for their children and keenly experienced the gap between the romanticized version of cooking and the realities of their lives.” Women are feeling even more pressure, they argue, because “modern-day food gurus” such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Rachel Ray, as well as political figures like Michelle Obama, “advocate a return to the kitchen.” (I’m just going to note here that Pollan’s book, Cooked, includes a gender analysis that demonstrates he is aware of these issues.) 

Of course, the ideal of motherhood exists; of course, mothers constantly feel guilty for not living up to it. But to say that mothers are manipulated to this extent simply by unrealistic standards is to ignore the ways that we defy these standards on a daily basis. A search for “good enough mother” turns up the words of many mothers who are rejecting the ideal. Periodically, studies come out that “prove” that stay-at-home mothers are best for their children, or that day cares will damage children irreparably. Do working mothers feel horribly guilty when these studies come out? Yes. And then they go back to work, either by choice or by necessity, knowing that their work is helping their children by providing the financial support they need and by modeling working womanhood. (And those studies get refuted.)

So while I don’t deny that ideology is a factor in mothers feeling oppressed by cooking, I would add that to pin the blame solely on idealized motherhood and foodies is to miss the point. 

If the ideal—and the sexism contained within it—is truly at issue, then how do partnerships that are less traditionally gendered look? I asked several mothers and fathers about how they divide cooking and other domestic work, and I received a range of responses. (Because this post will be long, I’ll include direct most quotes in a coda to this series.) I heard from stay-at-home and work-at-home dads who actively enjoy and take pride in cooking. I heard from opposite-gender couples who split cooking 50/50. I heard from same-gender couples where one partner did most of the domestic tasks. I heard from single mothers who are struggling to do it all. From a small sample, I received a breadth of possible family configurations, each negotiating cooking and domestic tasks in their own way. 

In the diversity of responses, one consistency stood out for me. Many women in opposite-gender couples, who had generally egalitarian relationships, said they cook because their male partners simply lacked know-how. No one had taught their men to cook when they were young. As adults, the men had little time or motivation to learn, so if their female partners wanted to eat decently, then they cooked. 

If families abandon cooking entirely, then we lose one path to gender equity: men who cook. I am fortunate that my son loves to help me in the kitchen. I count teaching him to cook amongst my small, daily feminist acts. One day, after picking up my son from preschool, my daughter asked him, “Do you want to play ‘Frozen’?” “No,” my son replied. “I want to help Mama make dinner.” Heart cockles: warmed. 

If gender dynamics and motherhood ideals can’t fully explain the problem of working mothers and cooking, what else is at play? One clue is revealed in this quote from Elaine, a white, middle-class married mother interviewed for the study: “When we get home it’s such a rush. I just don’t know what happens to the time. I am so frustrated. That’s why I get so angry! I get frustrated ‘cause I’m like, I wanna make this good meal that’s really healthy and I like to cook ‘cause it’s kind of my way to show them that I love them, ‘This is my love for you guys!’ And then I wind up at the end just, you know, grrr! Mad at the food because it takes me so long. It’s like, how can it take an hour for me to do this when I’ve already cut up the carrots and the celery and all I’m doing is shoving it into a bowl?” (emphasis mine) 

Elaine says herself that she likes to cook, but she is frustrated that she doesn’t have the time to cook the way she wants to for her family. I hear her longing for a certain kind of connection that a home-cooked family meal can bring, but time pressures turn a leisure activity into a stressful obligation. 

The study authors themselves name many of the barriers to cooking: food costs, particularly for healthy foods; basic food insecurity; long work hours; unpredictable schedules; differing family schedules; inadequate transportation; and long commutes to work. Some mothers live in particularly dire situations: “During the month we spent with Flora, a poor black mother who was currently separated from her husband, she was living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a cockroach- and flea-infested hotel room with two double beds. They prepared all of their food in a small microwave, rinsing their utensils in the bathroom sink.” 

Is cooking really the problem here? 

Would Flora benefit more if she were released from a gendered obligation to cook? Or would she perhaps find more relief if her city had a program to house the homeless like Salt Lake City’s

Sign from the New York City strike
of McDonald's workers this summer.
(Photo by Annette Bernhardt,
from WikiMedia Commons)
At the same time I read this study, which features at least four parents who work in the fast food industry, I also read William Finnegan’s article in The New Yorker about the efforts of McDonald’s workers to unionize and raise the minimum wage. Most of the workers he interviews have jobs at two different locations, if not three, and yet their hours are held under forty hours a week to keep them part-time. One mother who has worked at McDonald’s for fourteen years makes $8.50/hour, a 50 cent increase over the base pay—which is minimum wage—in a city where a living wage for a single parent with a child is calculated to be $30.02/hour. Finnegan writes, “American fast-food workers receive almost seven billion dollars a year in public assistance,” which includes food stamps. 

Moreover, employees do not get regular shifts. Instead, every Saturday evening, hours are posted for the following week. Each worker receives a thin strip of paper with her or his schedule. Imagine what this unpredictability means for parents trying to arrange child care. 

As if this level of exploitation isn’t enough, some workers don’t even get paid for the hours they put in. Finnegan reports, “Two former McDonald’s managers recently went public with confessions of systematic wage theft, claiming that pressure from both franchisees and the corporation forces them to alter time sheets and compel employees to work off the clock.” 

This kind of treatment is inhumane, for parents and non-parents alike. And it isn’t just the fast food industry. American workers put in longer hours for less pay than their counterparts in other developed countries, and they also take fewer vacations. No legal limits exist to prevent American workers from answering e-mails and analyzing spreadsheets when ostensibly having family time at home. 

Rather than an accusation against cooking for causing misery amongst working women, I would like to see an indictment of a brutal work culture engendered by skyrocketing inequality. I would like to see an examination of farm subsidies that make processed foods artificially cheap while making raw foods unattainably expensive. I would like to see a report on the economic conditions that create food deserts in certain neighborhoods when food is so abundant in others. I would like to see a denunciation of a political climate that makes raising the national minimum wage to a paltry $15/hour an impossibility. I would like to see rage against weak and ineffective initiatives to end poverty while the top 0.1 percent continue to attain new heights of wealth

The study authors suggest in their conclusion a variety of “creative solutions” to feed families healthy meals without continuing to overburden mothers. They suggest town suppers and healthy food trucks, to-go meals that parents pick up at their children’s schools to heat up at home. 

While I am interested in collectivist solutions, the logistics bring up more questions. Where would the food come from? Who would grow it? What food traditions would be represented? How would it all get funded? If families buy the meals, how could the meals be affordable yet made with good quality, fresh ingredients? 

The main question I have is, who would prepare these foods? How much would they get paid? What hours would they work? Because I can imagine, all too easily, that these programs would rely on part-time workers juggling two jobs, some of them parents. Parents who would work long hours to prepare food for parents, who are working too much to prepare food. Alternatively, I can imagine stay-at-home moms being asked to volunteer their labor, just as they are tasked with filling in labor gaps in their children’s schools. 

This isn’t a solution. It’s a displacement of the problem. 

The answer to the question, “Why do working mothers find it so hard to cook?” is not an easy one, but cooking itself is not the problem. The way most Americans, not just working mothers, find it difficult-to-impossible to engage in one of the most fundamental human activities is but one symptom of a cancer in American culture. 

So what can we do? We can insist on connection. We are all linked: the farmers who grow our food, the migrant workers who harvest it, the drivers who transport it, the grocers who stock it, the corner-store owners who sell it, the food workers who prep and cook it, the parents who bring it home, the children who either eat it or complain about it. 

Cooking can be feminist or anti-feminist. But insisting on a more just and equal world is feminist to the core.

16 September 2014

Is Cooking Anti-Feminist? Part 2 (#365FeministSelfie 2)

#365FeministSelfie, August 26
Banana muffin for my son's birthday
celebration at school
Continued from Part 1, where I explore the connections between cooking, work, and leisure.

Second in my #365FeministSelfie series 

I grew up with three main parental figures in my life: my mother, my father, and my paternal grandmother. Their stories illustrate three very different narratives of gender and cooking. 

My grandmother cared for me nearly every day after school and many weekends. In Armenian culture in general and for my grandmother specifically, food held a central place. She turned out traditional Armenian dishes—tas kebab, kefta, dolma, yalanchi—dishes that could take all day to prepare, without even calculating in the time to grocery shop and clean up. She also made decent American fare: spaghetti, meat loaf, chicken marinated in red wine, garlic, and a little brown sugar. 

Both of my parents could count on her to feed me if they were unable to pick me up before dinnertime. She would call me to the table; when I lagged, she would inevitably chastise in her Long Island accent, “Anoosh, it’s gettin’ cold!” Obviously, my grandmother could cook like this, and care for me, because she was a housewife. For her, this represented a step up from her pre-married life, when she worked to support her parents and younger brother during the Depression and World War II. 

My mother, on the other hand, held a full-time job as a middle- and high school teacher at a K–12 private school. On the nights she fed me dinner, we ate primarily what I call insta-food: buckets from Kentucky Fried Chicken, packets of ramen embellished with chopped scallions and cubed spam, frozen fish fingers. I remember my mother saying to me once with irritation that when she was married to my dad, he expected her to put on dinner parties. As with many second wave feminists, my mother embraced the life of a professional at the same time she rejected the foremost task of the domestic: cooking. 

My father, on the other hand, had a reverse experience. Naturally, he had expected to lead a professional life. He had not, however, expected to find himself the sole caretaker of his child for half of every week. Raised on my grandmother’s cooking, he felt obligated as a parent to provide home-cooked meals. At a time when men were being encouraged to “embrace their feminine side,” my dad decided to learn how to cook. On weekends and when I was with my mother, he would put on an apron and cook up giant pots of staples like spaghetti sauce, black bean soup (a dish he’d eaten while in Peace Corps in Costa Rica), tas kebab, and adobo (a Filipino tradition from my mother’s family) and store portions in the chest freezer he kept in the basement. (He learned this from my grandmother, who likewise had a second freezer built like the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Dinners at my dad’s were always a complete meal: protein, starch, and a vegetable. 

When I reached high school, my dad made a new household rule: whoever cooked, the other person had to clean up. I had never felt particularly drawn to cooking, but I knew which side of that equation I wanted to be on. I pulled down cookbooks from the shelf over the telephone and started searching for easy recipes. 

And I liked it. 

Cooking took thought, but in a different way from, for example, writing an essay for an Advanced Placement course. I had the satisfaction of accomplishing something material, but without the drudgery and dirt of other types of housework. Cooking could be artistic, both in flavor and in visual appeal. It could be improvisational and experimental. And it created connection, whether it was simply a shared meal with my dad, or a batch of cookies that I gave out to friends. 

#365FeministSelfie, February 3
Making quiche, a recipe
my friend Zara gave me
The act of cooking itself created connection, too. I might spend a Saturday afternoon with my grandma as she baked a batch of churag, a kind of sweetened bread. Many recipes for churag exist, but my grandmother’s recipe was specific to her origins in Marzevan, a town near the Black Sea. Although she grew up in Istanbul, her family kept their country recipes. As we braided dough, she would tell me about her years in the orphanage after her family migrated to the United States to escape the Armenian Massacre, or her cross-country bus trip to California, or her journey to become an artist. Cooking was both the opportunity and the vector to pass down family history. 

As I’ve recounted before, my mother and I had a fractured relationship during my childhood (better now). Some of my best memories, little islands of ideal mother-daughter moments, are baking with her, the one cooking activity she seemed to enjoy. Every aspect of sifting flour—the click-click-click rhythm of the handle, the sight of flour piling up in a drift, the dusty itch in my nose, and the anticipation of cake—is suffused with feelings of love and comfort. 

I can’t help but want to pass this down to my own children. 

Cooking is a microcosm of my family’s dynamics. It promotes tolerance of difference, because my husband is vegetarian and I am not. It embodies my family history through smell and taste. It retains the identity and memory of my immigrant origins. It symbolizes our togetherness and our cohesion as a family, not only when we sit down together to a meal, but also as we assemble it together, sometimes with a lemon from our tree or tomatoes from our garden. 

It can also provide a platform for strife, which is still a part of family life. Sometimes I want my kids to help, and they don’t want to. Sometimes they want to help, and I just want to make a meal in peace, alone. Sometimes I create a dish with love and devotion, and they just don’t like it. 

On the other hand, I have those times when my son says, “Thank you, Mama, for making a yummy dinner!” 

I persist in the face of my children’s disapprobation of my cooking because I want them to know that if you live a rich and varied life, you aren’t going to like everything. 

When I lived in Senegal, I ate some things that I did not care for: a slimy okra-based dish called suppu kànja, dried sea snails called yéet. In Fiji, I downed some chicken livers that not even cumin, coriander, and turmeric could make palatable for me. These were meals I ate in people’s houses, people who were not rich by the standards of their own countries, much less ours. The women prepared food for me with kindness and generosity, and yes, it took them hours to make, and to turn up my nose at it would have been the pinnacle of ingratitude. (These dishes were the exceptions—in the main, I love Senegalese, Fijian, and Indo-Fijian cuisine.) 

The first time I tried bitter melon at my great-aunt’s house in Hawai’i, I didn’t like that, either. Everyone laughed as my mouth puckered and my eyes started to water. When I was served bitter melon in Fiji, I was prepared for it, and I started to acquire a taste for it. Eventually, I learned how to prepare it myself, and I found a recipe for it I like. (My husband is still resisting its charms, however.) 

Cooking is not just about feeding the body. Food is heritage, tradition, family lore. It holds valuable knowledge about plant variety, preparation, and use. Our farms are becoming vast corporations; our fields are becoming monocultures. Do we want the same to happen to our kitchens and our bellies and our palates? 

I feel very lucky to live in a city where I can find nearly every ingredient that I can imagine to cook with: grape leaves for dolma and yalanchis, bitter melon for ginisang ampalaya, epazote for beans, cassava for Fijian pudding and West African stews. I can’t find these in my local supermarket, but instead must go to “ethnic” groceries and farmers markets. The simple act of food shopping ties me into the specificity of my place: people, communities, traditions, and economic networks that are marginalized yet still so central to what makes Los Angeles, Los Angeles. 

And so I choose to keep cooking. But for many mothers, to cook or not to cook is not a choice they can make, but a decision bounded on many sides by traditional sex roles, economic pressures, food insecurity, and poor urban planning. In Part 3, I address the authors argument point by point and examine some of the structural barriers to cooking, as well as some of the ways parents are trying to reconfigure domesticity to be more gender equal.

15 September 2014

Is Cooking Anti-Feminist? Part 1

Barefoot, pregnant, in the kitchen... and feminist
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
Barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen... the iconic image of a woman in need of feminism. Interesting to me that we say “in the kitchen.” “Barefoot” is self-evident, as is “pregnant.” “In the kitchen” is oddly coy. What is she doing in there? Well, she could be doing a lot of things, just as I do: washing dishes, paying bills, chatting with a friend. Doing a science experiment with a child. Heck, she could be sitting at the counter with The New York Times and a cup of coffee. 

But we know that’s not what she’s doing. We know she’s cooking. 

Recently, three sociologists at North Carolina State University published a study entitled The Joy of Cooking? pushing back against the narrative that a home-cooked meal is an essential part of familial harmony and a key step in reforming the food system. “The message that good parents—and in particular, good mothers—cook for their families dovetails with increasingly intensive and unrealistic standards of ‘good’ mothering.” This ideal, they argue, serves only to push working women back into the kitchen, where they find cooking unfulfilling. Moreover, their efforts are often met by family members with disinterest or complaints. Cooking, they assert, only continues to oppress women. 

A few writers picked this up, including Amanda Marcotte in Slate and Anna North in The New York Times. Predictably, a conservative in “The Federalist” responded: “It’s I guess what you can expect from feminists—sniping that the stress for women of at-home cooking isn’t worth the benefits.” 

So is cooking anti-feminist? 

I have certainly had my share of family meals where I have labored over the actual cooking—never mind the shopping beforehand—for at least an hour, only to have my efforts rebuffed by my kids. I have certainly experienced my share of anger and frustration over it, seasoned with the peculiar bitterness that comes from the ingratitude of children. I actively dislike cooking with my kids, because it takes twice as long, and the resulting mess is twice as big. I am a work-at-home mother, which means that my work hours end when school does, and shopping and food prep, tasks I accomplish faster and more easily without offspring, take a bite out of my precious work day. 

Yet I am not ready to concede the kitchen. 

What makes cooking oppressive? The authors detail the challenges facing the women they interviewed: unpredictable work hours, long commutes, difficulties procuring fresh foods and using them before they spoil. Cooking, they argue, is an unnecessary stressor in these women’s already-overburdened lives, so why not just taking cooking out of the equation? 

The irony is that at least two of the women, Wanda and Leanne, work in fast food, as does Wanda’s husband, while another, Greely, has her own catering company. They can’t cook at home because, between work hours and commuting, they are too busy providing food for other people—perhaps some of them overburdened parents like themselves without time to cook. 

The line between domestic work and wage work is highly charged for women, and is further tangled up in class and race. A century and more ago, upper-class women, usually white, were expected to eschew all forms of work. “Housekeeping” for these women meant managing the servants, who performed all the actual labor of domestic tasks. In contrast, middle-class women handled much or all of their own domestic work. Their exemption from wage work delineated their difference from lower-class women. For women of the lower classes, of all races, domestic work was wage work. One glaring exception, pre-Civil War, was enslaved women, who received no wages at all for the tasks they performed, either in the house or in the fields. African-American women who were freed still performed domestic tasks, but freedom made the difference in doing the work for nothing versus doing the work for pay. 

During the first and second waves of feminism, many white women agitated for the right to work; many women of color, on the other hand, wanted the right to leisure. Since then, women have gained the right to wage work—if not to pay equity with men—but the right to leisure remains elusive for many in the United States, women and men. 

Is cooking work or leisure? It can be hard to say. For a cook at McDonald’s, providing food is her job. When she comes home, the pressures that spill over from her wage work—time constraints, financial limits, physical exhaustion—make cooking stressful and anything but leisurely. 

What about a stay-at-home mother? For her, cooking might be a leisure activity and a pleasure, a domestic task she chooses to do. Alternatively, maybe she works—and cooks—at home because child care costs more than she would earn out of the house, and so economic necessity makes the choice for her. Either way, she does it and receives no compensation, even though the annual value of a stay-at-home mother’s labor is calculated to be $112,962

When parents work outside the home, the family often outsources those jobs and pays for them. Restaurant workers (likely immigrants of both genders) prep and cook the food. Day care workers or nannies (usually women) care for the children. Maids (women again) clean the house. When these jobs are paid, they count as part of the GDP

But to reduce cooking to labor is to collapse it into a singular, capitalistic dimension. Food and cooking have larger resonances than simply economics, however, as the study authors acknowledge when they discuss the ideological values placed on “the family meal.” Yet even this analysis is reductive and ignores the many other possible emotional and cultural dimensions of food, cooking, and the struggle for gender equity. 

In Part 2, I unpack the relationships between cooking and gender by recollecting my own experiences with cooking, food, and family from childhood.

In Part 3, I respond to the authors argument point by point. 

31 July 2014

Kids > Advertising

Photo by Haan-Fawn Chau
My latest piece on Zócalo Public Square: Your Edgy Billboard Is My Kid’s Nightmare. An abridged version of the article appeared in Time. I discuss the billboards advertising FX’s show, “The Strain,” that frightened young children all over Los Angeles, and respond to the CEO, John Landgraf, who said, “We had to terrify some children in order to launch this show, but I think it was worth it. Just saying.”

If you care about this issue, here are more resources:

1. Sign the MoveOn petition, “Ban Violence and Sex on Billboards (California)

2. Join the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (national)

3. Support Ban Billboard Blight and follow their calls for action (Los Angeles)

To take action on an offensive outdoor advertising campaign in your city:

1. First, call the company responsible for the ad campaign (in this case, FX) to demand that the ad copy be replaced with less offensive content. Be sure to follow up. FX announced that the ads for “The Strain” would be pulled, but most remained up until after the show's premiere nearly a month later. 

2. Call your city council to complain about the ad campaign and urge the council to put additional pressure on the media company to pull the offensive copy. The council will be effective and responsive in direct proportion to the number of constituents who call in.

3. To target a specific billboard, call the outdoor advertising company that owns the billboard. 

4. Continue to advocate for stronger regulations on outdoor advertising.

11 May 2014

Mothers' Day 2014

Photo by Kevin Miller
Love to the mothers. 

Love to the ones that wake in the night, night after night, then stumble through the days, keeping on. Love to the ones that care for sick children, offering juice and tea, placing cool cloths on feverish heads, fluffing pillows and tucking in blankets. Love to the ones that pack the lunches, that launder the linens and clothes, wash the dishes, scrub the toilets, that buy the food and the clothing and the toothbrushes and then, choose a small toy or treat or longed-for thing, just because. 

Love to the ones who answer questions, who give advice, who say “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out”, who say “you can do it”, who say “no”, who say “because I’m the mama, that’s why.” 

Love to the ones who soothe hurts. Who give hugs and kisses. Who refrain from giving hugs and kisses in public because it’s embarrassing. Who see you past each heartbreak. 

Love to the ones at home with their babies, going a little bit stir-crazy, lost in a whirl of milk-diapers-nap, dreaming of taking a shower or talking with a friend or doing something, anything that makes them feel knowing and capable rather than bewildered and inept. 

Love to the ones who labor all day to provide for their children. Love to the ones who rise in the early hours for work, who carry still-sleeping kids to the neighbors’ or the sitters’ houses until it’s time for school. Love to the ones who work all night so they can see their kids in the mornings and in the evenings. Love to the ones who work part-time, at low pay with no benefits, trying to find a third way that works. 

Love to the ones who discovered unknown depths of sadness and fear during their pregnancies or after, who are struggling to return to the surface. 

Love to the ones who parent alone. 

Love to the ones who did not birth their babies, but took them in and gave them the families their birth mothers could not. 

Love to the ones who cared for their babies by giving them up because they knew they were not ready or able to mother their children all day, every day, for the rest of their lives. 

Love to those for whom this day brings pain. 

To the mothers whose babies passed on before them, who live with an ache and a void every day. Love especially to those whose babies were torn from them by unexpected violence. 

To the mothers who had their babies stolen from them by coercion or by force. Love especially to Nigerian mothers in Chibok who wait every day in sorrow and despair. 

To the children whose mothers could not or would not give them all the love they deserved, whose mothers carried an inner wound that they, in turn, used to wound their children. 

To the children whose mothers have passed on, for whom this day reminds them of loss. A missing that just goes on and on. 

Love to the mothers who, in the true spirit of this day, write letters, make phone calls, march in the streets to make a healthier, more peaceful world for all of us. 

Love to the mother beneath our feet, who gives us all life and sustains it. Who feeds us, gives us water, provides our very breaths. 


03 April 2014

18 March 2014

#365Feminist Selfie 1: Hair (specifically, body hair)

The brows are lightly waxed.
Because I'm half Armenian.
First in my #365FeministSelfie series.

I haven’t shaved for 23 years. I know, I know. Shaggy underarms are at the top of the list of Feminist Stereotypes, probably right next to “burning your bra.” You’d think I attended college in the 1970s rather than been born during that decade. 

I tried shaving, but after six years of gashing my legs and getting red, itchy rashes under my arms, I threw in the towel. 

Actually, the reason I thought that not shaving could even be possible was due to Pia, the Swedish exchange student who attended my high school during my sophomore year. Pia wore miniskirts, showing her long, white-blonde leg hair to God and everybody. Of course, within two months she had begun to shave as part of her acculturation process. But she had already made her impression on me. 

I’m going to say right here, because I know the first riposte this post will provoke, that I have had my fair share of sexy times with men even though I don’t shave. (I say only “men” because I doubt anyone is going to chime in on the comments with “No self-respecting hot lesbian would want you with that disgusting pit hair.”) Yes, Virginia, there are hetero cis-men who hit skins with women with body hair and either don’t mind or actively enjoy it. After all, ahem, I do have two children with my handsome, hetero cis-man husband. 

I am not alone in my alarm at American culture’s intolerance for body hair. Not because I think that all women should let their body hair GROOOOW FREEEEEE! I am not opposed to women (and men) who trim, shave, wax, electrolyze, or thread off some or all of their body hair. Bodily autonomy is a feminist principle. 

But I do object to a culture that excludes, shames, or punishes women (or men) who do not wish to participate in depilation. 

I never thought about how early this enculturation starts, until one day when my daughter’s friend, five years old, came up to me and whispered, “Most women shave off the hair under their arms.” She said it in the exact tone of an old lady admonishing another that her slip was showing. “I know,” I whispered back, and smiled. She shot me a look of mingled incredulity and distain and walked away. 

I am fortunate that the kind of places I have worked—queer-oriented public health, publishing, teaching abroad, graduate school—did not require a conventional [American] cis-woman presentation. I didn’t have to shave, wear high heels, or wear make-up. This is not to say I don’t groom myself (although my grooming has slipped a bit since my small children have transformed the simple ritual of showering into a major undertaking). 

I just don’t think women should be held to a higher standard of appearance—that is, one that demands more attention, time, and expensive products—than men. 

I hate that stock sitcom gag where a man rolls his eyes over how long it takes a woman to get ready to go out. On the one hand, the joke theatrically bemoans the vanity of women; on the other, it writes over the ways men have historically required women, as their property, to represent and display beauty and—by extension—wealth and class. Although most of us are no longer categorized as property, we can still be props—as adornment, as visual pleasure for the male gaze, as symbols of affluence, often in service to increasing men’s social capital. (And the methods of beautifying—the couture, the accessories, the jewelry, the shoes—simultaneously showcase yet hide the labor of those of far lesser economic and social status—mostly women, some even children.) 

My refusal to shave is one way that I opt-out of the expected time-consuming ritual of costuming for feminine performance. It’s my small, daily rebellion against this facet of sexism. By being “out” about not shaving, perhaps I can be Pia to another woman or girl. 

It is also an assertion of the importance of my pleasure, my time, and the integrity of my body. I have decided that men’s aesthetic pleasure does not rank above my bodily discomfort—pain from cuts, itching from rashes. I prefer to use my time doing something that gives me pleasure rather than removing my body hair. 

For some women, the removal gives them pleasure, and that can be a feminist act, too. 

But in a gender-equal world, every woman deserves the right to her own calculus. 

In Britain, women are going razor-free in August (i.e., Sleeveless Season) to raise money for women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). So if you do shave but are poils-curious, you can experiment for a good cause.

And now, to cheer us all up, please see this Robot Hugs comic on the Body Policing Police. Enjoy!