I was a young teenager when I first shaved my legs. I was the last of my friends to do it, and it felt like a rite of passage. Grown up women were hairy, grown up women shaved their legs. It didn’t occur to me to ask what Jesus thought of shaving your legs.
When I got married I remember asking my husband what he preferred. He’d made some comment about armpit hair that my sisters had teased him mercilessly about, but he was a bit befuddled by my question: adult women have hair on their legs, he said, it’s nothing to be ashamed about. But I considered my leg hair unfeminine, so I kept shaving it.
Then I moved to Tanzania, where body hair is given much less attention, and clothes cover more of the body. And all of a sudden, I found myself not only shaving my legs less often, but also not thinking about the hairiness of my body so much. Instead of every 3 or 4 days, I went to shaving about once a month.
Up to that point, I hadn’t realised how much attention I gave to my appearance. It wasn’t really
about the time it took to shave, but about the headspace, the worrying about what people thought, thinking when I’d need to shave them again, making fashion choices that coincided with the level of hairiness, and just general discomfort with my body.
When I stopped shaving my legs, the background tapes that played in my head were silenced,
giving me more space for other things. Which was good, because I was learning a new language in a foreign culture while working on a university ministry team with my husband and juggling our toddler, while also trying to keep in contact with our partners and supporters in Australia. I needed every last bit of mental and emotional energy! The point is, stopping shaving my legs actually helped me to better follow Jesus. It cleared out a bit of space in my head.
This is a point some feminists have been making for years. Well, not the Jesus bit! But the reason the second wave feminists were known for their hairy-legged- ness was not because they didn’t care about their appearance, but because they thought there were more important things to focus on. They noticed that the lesser demands made on men’s appearance gave them greater opportunities in life. The point was not to be ugly or less feminine, it was just to spend slightly less time thinking about appearance and slightly more time thinking about other things. That’s how it worked for me too. I was happier and more productive for not shaving my legs.
This might sound like I’m saying all Christian women ought to give up shaving their legs, and if they don’t they’re superficial or less committed to Jesus. But let me tell you about what happened when I came back to Australia.
Because I enjoyed the freedom and the time that not shaving my legs gave me I thought I would continue to shave them less. But then I was sitting at a church meeting in someone’s backyard on a blistering hot day and we all had our feet in a kiddy pool. Every other woman there had shaved legs, and I had my unshaven ones. They were still noticeably less hairy than all the men, but they didn’t look like the other women’s legs. And I felt embarrassed. I tried to talk to myself about it, but I found myself doing mental gymnastics about it, and going over the same territory.
So I decided to start shaving my legs again, not because I’d been shamed into it by other women, but because the mental work it took for me to be OK with not shaving them became too great. In other words, the hair on my legs became a distraction from loving others and thinking about them. It was better to shave my legs. That became how I was able to focus less on myself and more on others.
One of the ‘others’ I ended up being more able to focus on was my husband. He actually got a
happier wife out of this, because she was a less self-conscious wife. I often hear discussions about beauty framed in terms of pleasing your husband, but a mature husband will be pleased by his wife’s liberation from the shackles of worldly beauty, and her pursuit of Christ. He’ll know that just as she might need to adjust her ideas about what she should look like in order to follow Christ, so might he.
It’s been said that true humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. This is how I think about beauty too. It’s not that I want to pursue ugliness or unkemptness, but I do want to think about my appearance less. Because I want to think about other things more. Sometimes not shaving my legs has given me more headspace. Other times shaving them has afforded me that. But the point is that I don’t make my decision about shaving my legs according to a worldly definition of what is or isn’t beautiful or feminine, but will give me the most headspace to pursue the calling of a Christian woman, which is to fix her eyes on Jesus.
Tamie comes from Adelaide and lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). She and her husband blog here