To shave or not to shave

Dear Alice,

I am a new foreign student here in the U.S. from Europe. There, girls don't shave legs or underarm hair. Now, every girl here tells me that I had to shave, should I? I basically don't really want to.

— Christine

Dear Christine,  

Welcome to the United States! As you mentioned, different cultures may have different standards for beauty and, as a result, normalize certain practices such as hair removal. A walk down any beauty aisle in your local store could reveal a wide variety of shaving creams, razors, waxes, depilatories, and bleaches. While there may be social pressures for women to remove hair from their legs, underarms, or face, not everyone engages in this practice. All this to say, there’s no requirement to shave or wax; ultimately, you have the choice to do with your hair what you want.  

As someone who is new to a country or culture, it can be challenging to feel comfortable. In order to “fit in” someone may choose to make changes to their lifestyle or appearance. At the same time, it’s good to think about how these changes align with your identity. If shaving isn't an activity you feel comfortable with or are interested in, then you may decide not to do it — it’s a choice, not a requirement.  

If you do choose to shave your legs, there are a few factors that are helpful to know. Once you shave, the hair will eventually grow back, typically within a day or several days. This means it can become a long-term time commitment to maintain hair-free legs and underarms. As the hair grows back, it may appear that the hair is growing back thicker. However, it’s worth mentioning that it may seem that way because the hair shaft has a blunt tip, not because it becomes coarser after shaving. If you’re interested in hair removal but don’t want to deal with shaving, another removal option you may try is waxing. This method can last anywhere from four to six weeks and doesn't usually result in the same “prickly” feeling associated with shaving. That being said, it can be painful and may require you to go to a salon to get it done, which could cost more money. Depilatory creams can also remove the hair temporarily by dissolving it. This may last longer than shaving, but some people find the creams irritating to the skin. You may find a trial and error process helpful in determining which hair removal process works best for you.  

As you ponder your decision to shave or not, it may be an opportunity to consider why people in your home country don’t remove leg or underarm hair. Are there certain values associated with leaving the hair? Is the practice rooted in certain health beliefs or cultural customs? How do you personally feel about these values or beliefs? Reflecting on these questions may help inform a thoughtful discussion with your friends about hair removal if or when it comes up again. That being said, you don’t have to explain your choice if you don’t feel comfortable. To further the conversation, you may also ask your friends why they choose to shave their legs and underarms. It’s possible that they haven’t really thought about it themselves and this may present an opportunity for them to reflect on their reasons for doing so.  

Taking some time to consider these various perspectives may help clarify your decision. With that in mind, the choice you make for yourself is likely the best one for you. Good luck and here’s to an enjoyable experience in the United States! 

Last updated Aug 20, 2021
Originally published May 09, 1997

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