The double bind of discipline: Body hair is wrong…right?

Imagine a woman with long, silky and smooth hair walking down the street. Throw in some wind and you got yourself a shampoo commercial. Plot twist? She lifts her arm to run her hand through her hair and suddenly you’re met with a scandalous sight: her armpit hair.

For a woman, taking care of her hair – wherever it may be – is an indicator that she has a certain economic, social and cultural capital. However there is a significant difference between the processes a woman employs to discipline the hair on her head and her body hair.

When the body is subjected to discipline, the body thus becomes docile – an anatomy which serves to achieve an ultimate ideal body that society equates to normal. Discipline, defined by Foucault, is the “calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior” and as such, adheres to a reward and punishment system. Within the context of discipline, the relationship between women and body hair illustrates how fashion is but an inorganic form that is equally free as it is disciplinary.

A smooth, body with no hair: the female ‘normal’.

To be considered natural, a woman still must put in a certain amount of physical and mental effort to appear natural to the public sphere. The definition of natural within the private sphere is starkly different to the normal that she performs in public. The balance between the two take a considerable amount of discipline, she must adhere to the social norms or rules that society has either explicitly or implicitly set out; the danger in this lies in the fact that in order to master her docile body to become disciplined, she is at risk of viewing the word normal as the distorted version of natural.

Another word that discipline can be linked to is fashion. In what way you may ask? As fashion showcases the unnaturalness of human social arrangement, we can interpret its inorganic form as a way society disciplines itself by adhering to the current trends. Moreover, fashion implies that there is an industry around it; the idea of change and innovation is almost always on par with fashion. Wilson, in her book Adorned in Dreams, states “to dress fashionably is both to stand out and to merge with the crowd, to lay claim to the exclusive and to follow the herd.” (Wilson, 6) Fashion’s contradictory nature thus emphasizes how unstable it is. Can we trust fashion? Perhaps not. Though one thing is clear, without the necessary discipline to follow trends, one is rejected from society in some form or another. In this way, fashion treats the body as more than a biological entity, it becomes a cultural artifact.

From this viewpoint, discipline has distorted the relationship between natural and normal. Natural is only acceptable when it has been disciplined into the public sphere’s version of normal, which in society’s case, is a euphemism for ideal. When a woman is seen having body hair – in public – she is punished accordingly. She can be subjected to public shame, general stigma or silent disapproval. Likewise, she can internalize her punishment by feeling inadequate, feeling rejected or unable to achieve the ideal.

 However, according to Bartky, “the disciplinary project of femininity is a “set-up”: it requires such radical and extensive measures of bodily transformation that virtually every woman who gives herself to it is destined in some degree to fail. (Bartky, 100) Following this train of thought, it would be just to say that to a certain extent, the pursuit of the ideal is but a mere illusion. Nonetheless, the practices of self-discipline have been so ingrained in society that it seeps into the minds of women; this self-regulatory technology is arguably the most powerful tool of discipline as it relies on previous bodies of knowledge to achieve the set of rules provided.

A key example that ties into body hair and its relationship to discipline, is the issue of black hair. Naturally, black hair is coarse, kinky and anything but straight. But throughout history, black women have undergone a multitude of processes (weaving, relaxing, straightening) in order to achieve more ‘normal’ hair – the European ideal of straight and smooth hair.

Mercer’s essay on black hair, has the same underlying principle as the issue of body hair on women. He says, “hair is never a straightforward biological ‘fact’ because it is almost always groomed, prepared, cut, concealed and generally ‘worked upon’ by human hands.” (Mercer, 34) Historically, black hair was left in its natural state. Coarse, black hair was associated with being a plantation worker. The rich, upper-class white ladies of the plantation houses all had straight, smooth and silky hair. After the end of the civil war, black women still attempted to mimic the hairstyles of their former owners partly to signify freedom, but also, to signify their knowledge and application of what it means to be fashionable.

Razors: the cheapest alternative for body hair removal.

When looking into body hair on women, the less the better. Razors can be purchased to shave one’s legs, armpits, or pubic hair. Hair removal cream brands like Veet also help women to remove unwanted body hair on her arms or face. Institutes like laser hair removal dermatologists, eyebrow waxing parlors or waxing clinics are also part of the technologies she has under her disposal. The key fact to remember is that these technologies further demonstrate her discipline, both her knowledge of how to use said technologies but the self-regulatory discipline she has to withstand body hair removal.

The question therefore lies in why a woman must put herself through such discipline in the first place? The double-binding nature of discipline answers this question perfectly. With a fear of punishment from a lack of discipline also comes the motivation of reward, which in this case, is social acceptance as part of the ‘fashionable’ and the ‘powerful’. The topic of lingerie helps to shed perspective. In Jantzen, Ostergaard, & Vieira’s essay, “Becoming a ‘Woman to the Backbone’: Lingerie Consumption and the Experience of Feminine Identity”, the title already speaks for itself.

Yet the items sold at lingerie’s most famous brand Victoria’s Secret suggest that femininity equates to an exaggeration of the female body. Therefore, in order to wear these products, women must in turn discipline themselves as worthy models. They must remove body hair in order to showcase their smooth and silky bodies; a woman in lingerie does not have armpit hair, hairy legs or pubic hair. The lingerie simply does not allow for it.

Essentially, the overarching concept of discipline is not only a restrictive force but also a language that involves shared codes and meaning; both the signified and the signifier must be recognized. As Roach and Eichler noted in The Language of Personal Adornment, without an understanding of the knowledge and application of discipline, it is not considered fashion if others can’t interpret its language in some shape or form.

As an ending thought, we can turn to the latest trend in body hair and surprisingly enough, it has nothing to do with hair removal, rather, hair coloring. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus proudly show off their dyed armpit hair. At first, this blatant disregard for discipline can be seen as resistance. Yet, is this the next step of discipline? The act can be interpreted as a political move, one against feminine stereotypes, a show of power or even a new fashion trend. Perhaps when you know the rules, master them, then break them, it is discipline. Perhaps resistance is actually the highest form of discipline.




Works Cited:

Bartky, Sandra Lee. “5.” Feminity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenolgy of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990. N. pag. Print.

Foucault, Michael. “Docile Bodies.”Discipline And Punish, The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, 2007. Print.

Jantzen, Christian, Per Østergaard, and Carla Vieira. “Becoming a ‘woman to the Backbone’: Lingerie Consumption and the Experience of Feminine Identity.” Journal of Consumer Culture 6.2 (2006): 177-202. Web. 5 May 2015.

Mercer, Kobena. “Black hair/style politics.” New Formations, No. 3. Winter. 33-54. Print.

Roach, Mary Ellen and Eicher, Joanne Bubolz. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Barnard, Malcolm. New York: Routledge, 2007. 109-21. Print.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Adorned in Dreams.” Fashion and Modernity. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003. Print.


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