I think I might have to break up with my boyfriend for the most frustrating reason ever: he can’t stand my body hair. I’m a trans woman, and when we met two years ago, I was very binary-identified. I was extremely anxious about being stereotypically pretty and passing, and I spent hours every day on my makeup, grooming and general appearance. I followed a super- strict diet and workout routine, and I obsessed over every single little thing I ate or wore or did. My boyfriend was really into my appearance, and I liked the validation. Now, though, I feel like I’m finally coming into my own, and I can’t be bothered as much— I’m not totally letting myself go, but I’m not going super femme every day either. I like being casual, and I honestly kind of enjoy an androgynous look. I consider myself non-binary to a certain extent, and my outlook has really been changed by non-binary style icons.
I recently started to experiment by letting my body hair grow out—I’ve never been that hairy to begin with, but I used to wax my arms and legs constantly. Now I don’t, and it’s noticeable. My boyfriend says that it’s weird and grosses him out because he’s straight and not into “hairy dudes,” which I find pretty hurtful because I’m not a dude. He says he has a hard time having sex with me and being seen in public with me unless I’ve shaved. Is that shitty or what? I’m honestly surprised because he’s been pretty good with me being trans up until now, and he can be really nice. Then again, I know I can’t force him to be into something he’s not. Do I break up with him?
Fuzzy & Fed Up
Your body, your rules! It seems like you might already know this, but for the sake of emphasis, and for all our readers out there, let me just reaffirm: body hair is beautiful. There is nothing wrong or shameful about being a trans woman, a cis woman, non-binary, or any other gender, with body hair. For decades, feminists of various stripes have fought for the right to have body hair (which is to say, the right to have a human body doing something that most adult human bodies naturally do) and not be shamed for it.
I believe that trans people, and perhaps particularly non-binary people, are especially implicated in this struggle, because our bodies have long been the site of intense cultural warfare. At the heart of the battle lies a single central question that goes much deeper than the strands of keratin that grow out of our skin, and that is: what kinds of bodies deserve to be loved?
This history of culturally enforced body-hair removal for women has evolved over time, and only reached its current peak relatively recently, as trans writer Frankie de la Cretaz notes in their fantastic essay “On Learning to Love My Body Hair in Transition.” Despite the fact that hairlessness as a marker of “true” femininity has become so ingrained in the dominant culture that many people barely question it (and can get quite offended if others do), Cretaz points out that the norm of shaving leg and underarm hair was largely created by beauty industry to sell products in the first half of the 20th century.
While women’s facial hair and neck hair has been targeted for removal for longer, it’s worth noting that the standard by which socially acceptable femininity is measured in terms of hair has changed over time based on the will of capitalism and arbitrary ideas about gender. This standard is particularly pronounced for trans people, whose bodies are hyper-scrutinized and scapegoated for mainstream society’s gender insecurities. This is to say, FFU, social reactions to our body hair are generally not a reflection of our gender or our worth. They are a reflection of other (usually cis) people’s unresolved hang-ups about themselves and their own bodies.
As a trans woman who primarily dates straight-identified men, I’ve noticed that many straight men have a particularly strong reaction to other people’s body hair. The very idea of an intimate encounter, whether sexual or nonsexual, with a hairy person can provoke enormous anxiety and inner turmoil in straight men, causing them to doubt their sexuality and sense of self. Among straight men who find themselves attracted to trans women and transfeminine people, the anxiety can take the form of an intense pressure on their partners to perfectly embody the image of hairless, silky-smooth femininity.
What is all this about, FFU? I suspect that it is about such men’s internalized fear and shame about their sexualities. All their lives, they have been taught that their social status and even safety among other men is reliant upon certain sexual and gender norms. To them, being attracted to trans people at all is already a terrifying transgression. To be intimate with a person whose body is not only trans, but also rejects feminine norms by—oh, crime of crimes!—being hairy may simply be too frightening to bear.
Of course, FFU, some might argue that preferences are preferences, and people are within their rights to desire or decline a hairy partner without being psychoanalyzed. Indeed, there is some truth to this, though I must admit that I am rather skeptical in cases like yours, where a person you’ve already been dating and presumably had some form of physical intimacy with for two years is suddenly “disgusted” by you because of a little arm and leg hair.
There is a clear distinction between simple preference and a reaction of denigration and disgust that shames your body and misgenders you, FFU—and an important boundary for your boyfriend to understand is that whatever personal emotional triggers he has about your body hair are his to work out. It might be fair for him to tell you that he finds himself most attracted to hairlessness (though this should be done with sensitivity and respect for your two years of relationship!), but it’s not at all okay for him to say that you “gross him out” or call/compare you to a “dude” when he knows you identify as female.
Do you need to break up with him, FFU? I think that depends on whether he has other redeeming qualities (which, I must say, you haven’t mentioned in this letter!) and how willing he is to take responsibility for his own insecurities without projecting them on to you. Everyone starts from where they are, and we’ve all inherited some oppressive gender ideas, but how willing is he to question those and explore them? When I say question, I mean literal questions, such as: What did he learn about gender and body hair growing up, and where did those lessons come from? What impact does he think his preferences and the way he expresses them have on you? And is your relationship important enough to him to do some self-reflection and get over himself, or is something as surface-level as body hair going to be an insurmountable barrier for him?
Here, I want to reiterate: questions about beauty and body hair are questions about bodies and love. My favourite writer on this subject is non-binary poet Alok Vaid-Menon, who writes about their own body hair: “they see dirty, i see magnificence. my body hair is cursive written across my body: a love letter to you & me. it is my infinity […] my body is so beautiful that beauty, it spills out of me.” In Alok’s words, I hear the strength and resilience of generations of transfeminine people, fighting for the right to be loved as we are.
Do not give in to anyone else’s shame, FFU—your boyfriend’s or anyone else’s. When people who desire us feel shame, it comes from a place of fear. You’re not responsible for their fear. Let them figure that out for themselves. You only have to keep on letting your body be what it wants to be: magnificent, growing, a letter of acceptance and devotion to yourself.
Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.