In October last year Swedish model Arvida Byström appeared with unshaven legs in an advertising campaign for Adidas. For this she received a barrage of online abuse, including threats of rape. It’s a common experience for women who choose not to conform to very specific, gendered standards of beauty. And it’s something Get Hairy February – which happened for the first time last year – challenges.
The campaign encourages women and female-identifying people to challenge expectations and inequality by growing their body hair during February.
“It’s hard to see that one in three women in Australia retire in poverty and retire with 50 per cent less superannuation than men,” says Get Hairy February’s founder, Alex Andrews. “It’s hard to see the wage gap because we don’t show our payslips in public. But we do show our legs. And we show our armpits, especially in February when it’s warm.
“When you are a young girl and you start to see body hair the first response you get is that you must remove it. We need to show young women and girls that they can make their own decisions about how their bodies look and it should have nothing to do with a Westernised standard of beauty. It’s got nothing to do with industry or lawmakers.”
The Get Hairy initiative raises money to help eliminate violence against women. Last year 450 people took part to help raise $40,000 for the Full Stop Foundation, which supports Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia.
2017 was an experiment to test out whether or not the campaign’s message would cut through. It did, and now it has expanded its focus; in 2018 Get Hairy will also raise money for Empower Together, an organisation that teaches consent training in high schools.
“This is definitely not a conversation you can have with just women or people who identify as women,” Andrews says. “It’s something we have to all do together. Empowered Together is all about that.
“This year we’re focusing on the education element. Forty-four per cent of sexual violence happens before the victim turns 18.”
If the link between your armpit hair, inequality and violence isn’t clear, Andrews can help.
“Hair is a really simple double standard,” she says. “It does represent the inequalities that our bodies experience. We’re still fighting for reproductive rights. We’re still fighting for our bodies to be considered acceptable as they are in all shapes and sizes.
“I think hair is a really powerful way of representing that because 95 per cent of women remove it.
“The World Health Organization recognises that inequality is a factor that leads to violence. And if we can start to bring these two issues together, we’ll start to see that they’re not two issues. It’s one issue and it’s about the way that our community respects and values all women and people who identify as female,” says Andrews.
The initial Get Hairy campaign elicited some negative reactions; personal attacks were posted on the campaign’s Facebook page, and participants were surprised that their involvement got “under people’s skin” Andrews says.
“Women’s body hair is an inflammatory subject,” she says. “It’s considered taboo, so I think it’s very easy for people to dismiss it as gimmicky.” But, she points out, no one questions the connection between growing a moustache to raise money for men’s health, or wearing a red nose to raise money for sudden infant death syndrome.
“It is so deeply ingrained; how widely our bodies are policed by our friends, by our family, by ourselves and our own internalised expectations around how women should look,” she says. It’s part of the reason Andrews says growing hair and raising money as a group, in a safe space, is so important. And powerful.
Andrews is also aware that not everyone will be able to take part. “But if you can, and you feel comfortable doing it, do it for those who can’t,” she says.