“Mommy, can I put nail polish on?” It’s the night before my daughter is to start the third grade, but that’s not really the point. She regularly asks this question on random days when no such special occasion is on the horizon.
“No, honey,” I reply, but I know this won’t be the end of it.
“But why?” she whines.
“Because I don’t prefer things that are for the sole purpose of looking pretty.”
I don’t prefer is not how I normally talk, but it’s language I picked up from one of her teachers meant to soften kids’ tendencies to “yuck” each other’s “yums” at the lunch table.
I am hopeful but doubtful this will end the conversation.
“But, mommy,” she says, looking up at me from the bathtub while I moisturize my elbows, “then why do you shave your legs?”
I don’t have an answer.
As someone who spent 13 years in an all-girls school, I was raised to have strong beliefs and trained to articulate them effectively. But living one’s beliefs is more than dashing off a quick and fiery post on social media or telling your daughter she doesn’t need to mark up her body to feel special.
Many of us, new to activism in this era of hot-takes and presidential tweets-as-edicts, are just starting to figure out how to move from talking about change to making change. The transition can be overwhelming and full of pitfalls. When you see injustice all around you, it can be hard to take that first step, especially when you don’t know where the journey will lead.
For me, as an all-or-nothing type, part of my hesitation in getting involved with social justice was the fear of exposing my own hypocrisy. I have no qualms protesting assault rifles, because I can’t foresee a future in which I will need to own or use an automatic weapon. It was harder to show up at a Black Lives Matter rally knowing that as a white-presenting woman (being Jewish complicates this for a lot of people, but it’s hard to ignore my own privilege) I’ve benefited from institutional racism and white supremacy my whole life. But activism is also about being uncomfortable when necessary.
I was forced to face charges of hypocrisy head on when I got involved with Lancaster Against Pipelines, a group that is protesting a gas pipeline cutting through our community. Every time we do a direct action—whether a dance party near the construction site or an actual lockdown on heavy drilling equipment—our social media feeds, which I monitor, blow up with accusations.
“If you heat your home with gas, you’re a hypocrite,” they said. “If you drove to that construction site, you’re a hypocrite.”
They go on and on.
At first these comments really shook me. But in learning more about the movement, and organizing in general, I came to understand that baby steps, as frustrating as they may be, are sometimes necessary for making important gains on the path to social justice. Dismantling a system that is dependent on fossil fuels sometimes requires the use of fossil fuels. This contradiction was hard for me at first, but as we protest the pipeline construction, we also protest the system that denies us the choice of clean energy.
Why should I have to shave just because I’m a woman?
After my own daughter called me out on my hypocrisy last fall, I toyed with the idea of not shaving my legs. But then I thought about my favorite fall outfit: a brown corduroy skirt that stops considerably above my knee and the brown faux-leather boots that stop considerably below my knee. Then I thought about all the leg hair in between and the guy who asked my dad, when I was 12, if he would please let me shave my legs, because I was “gross.” I may prefer unpolished nails, but hairy legs are another matter.
Would I be fired for showing up to work like that? I doubt it. But would I feel comfortable exposing my dark leg hair against my pale olive skin? Not really. I knew this had to do with internalized misogyny, but practically speaking, having conversations with my co-workers about why I wasn’t shaving my legs sounded excruciating.
Then, a friend told me she almost never shaves her legs when it’s cold. “I wear tights all winter, so why would it matter?” she asked. I recognize that for many people who live in cold climates, not shaving in the winter is common. But it never felt like an option for me with my thick, dark hair and the cropped pants I wear to yoga class.
I don’t know when I stopped shaving. I didn’t mark it on the calendar or post about it on Facebook, I just stopped. I think I didn’t record it because I wasn’t committed to it. I didn’t know how it would feel, literally or figuratively, until I did it. And what if I did it and couldn’t stick with it? What message would that send?
A few weeks after my covert protest began (what my husband calls “Operation Winter Legs”), my daughter, again in the bath, looked up and asked, “Why aren’t you shaving?”
“For lots of reasons,” I replied. “Because it takes time I don’t have and uses hot water I don’t need to waste. And razors are expensive, and why should I have to shave just because I’m a woman? I’m dismantling the patriarchy.”
I really did say that to my 8-year-old, because I believe the more she hears these things the more likely they are to sink in … eventually. For her part, she shrugged and went back to pouring a pitcher of water over her long brown hair.
Sometimes you take baby steps when you wish you could run full throttle.
A few days later, my family was lounging in bed before starting another chaotic Sunday, when my pajama pants rode up, exposing my leg hair to my 5-year-old son.
“Ewww, mom!” he exclaimed. “Why do you have hair on your legs?”
Deadpan, my daughter answered for me. “She’s starting a revolution … or something.”
My husband and I laughed. I’m not sure I had a better answer. My leg hair was still private, something just my family saw, but maybe it was revolutionary in its own way.
“You don’t like it?” I asked my son.
“No, it’s yucky.”
“But how is my leg any different from your father’s leg?”
“I guess it’s not.”
I let the conversation end like that, but I could tell from the look on my son’s face he was really thinking about my question and his answer.
A few months later, he decided to revisit the topic. “Are you ever going to shave again?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.
Thinking toward summer, I can’t imagine wearing my favorite cutoffs or a sundress with hairy legs. But what message am I sending if I only have leg hair in the house? Is that an acceptable contradiction? A reasonable baby step, like driving to a protest against fossil fuels in a car that uses them, or taking our kids to a Black Lives Matter rally even though we watch them benefit from a system that denies Black and brown people fair and equitable treatment? Or would shaving for the summer further reinforce the idea that women’s bodies are meant to be tamed or, worse yet, hidden?
“Do you think I should shave?” I asked my son.
“Because girls don’t have hair on their legs.”
“No, most girls don’t,” I told him. “But most women do. I’m a woman, and I have hair on my legs.”
Sometimes you take baby steps when you wish you could run full throttle. Sometimes you do what you can, even though you wish you were strong enough to do more.