I got my first hate mail ever over not shaving my legs. Or, more precisely, over having the audacity to write about it for NBC News Think. Within an hour, I had a dozen emails. By the next morning there were two dozen more ― plus more than 100 Twitter notifications.
I’d written about the double standards surrounding leg hair, which I’d discovered through a no-shaving experiment. Though some people thanked me for sharing my experience, the overwhelming response to my piece was anger. Readers told me I was overreacting. They called me narcissistic and stupid.
Instead of questioning social pressures, these commenters wanted to uphold the status quo. They were almost vindictive in their pursuit of this: I suffer for my partner, their messages said. What makes you think that you don’t have to?
“This is a two way street,” one Twitter user told me. “There are plenty of petty things that gfs and wives would get pissed at if men changed also.”
The underlying assumption, in this message and others, was that partners pressure each other. Somehow this makes it equal and therefore acceptable.
Cue a round of shame for everyone.
It’s a fascinating — and concerning — belief. For one, it’s a zero-sum game. Everyone loses when we shame each other, especially over something as innocuous as shaving. I didn’t hurt anyone when I stopped. I wasn’t unclean or unhealthy. I was just questioning a system.
The disproportionate reaction, in the form of hate mail, was an attempt to ostracize me to pressure me back into shaving. The implication, this “I suffered so you should too,” is part pride and part schadenfreude. It says: You don’t deserve to have it easier than me. You don’t deserve a way out.
When it comes to leg hair and body presentation, people of all genders are burdened by shame and conformity and control. But this type of thinking is bigger than any one social issue. Most recently, it’s also come up in conversations around President Joe Biden’s student debt forgiveness program. Those who’ve already paid off their loans, as well as those who didn’t need them, may feel as if they’ve put in their time and that current loanees should do the same.
Maybe what we should be thinking instead is this: You don’t deserve to suffer now. I didn’t deserve to suffer then, either.
Perpetuating shame and suffering, on topics ranging from student loans to body hair, doesn’t help anyone. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has an entire body of work dedicated to the ways that shame hurts us. It leaves us feeling disconnected. It messes with our sense of worthiness.
Worst of all, it keeps us small — because being seen means being vulnerable. It means facing the masses. Or, in my case, facing their hate mail.
Americans are obsessed with shame. It’s present in our political discourse. It’s present in our past, “from Salem to [Jerry] Springer.” One academic article on the subject even goes so far as to say that understanding shame is critical in following “the political and cultural landscape of the United States.”
But has this obsession with shame served us as a whole? Brown would argue no. She advocates for honesty and realness instead. In her 2012 bestseller, “Daring Greatly,” Brown offers the following: “To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.”
Becoming real and overcoming shame’s cultural hold can take myriad forms. In terms of body hair, what if we acknowledged the cultural pressures we feel? What if we decided, as individuals, how to best navigate them?
In terms of student loan debt and other social issues, such as gun control, what if we questioned the systems in place? What if we asked: Who does this system benefit?
The point of my initial article was never to say that all women should stop shaving or that all men should worship hairy legs. Everyone is allowed preferences.
But that doesn’t mean we can shame people who don’t conform to our ideals. There’s a quote by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her 2019 book, “Dear Ijeawele,” which reads, “Teach [your future daughter] that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people.”
To follow Adichie’s suggestion, you, as an individual, must make your own decisions about your body. If you choose to shave your legs (or face or back or arms, etc.), fantastic. If you choose not to, that’s fantastic, too. Do what works for you.
Life is hard enough without forcing ourselves to fit into each other’s boxes.
Natalie Schriefer is a bi/demi writer from Connecticut. She received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. Her recent publications include pieces with NBC News Think, Ms. Magazine and bi.org.