In a world of sexist social norms, how to be respectful of what you're into while being respectful of other people's choices
Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m a twentysomething man who has been dating a woman for a few months now. We’re both river guides and have known each other for a few years, but it wasn’t until this summer that things really started to click. She’s funny, adventurous, and beautiful. I’ll call her Lily.
I’m embarrassed to admit this problem to anyone, but this is an anonymous advice column, so here goes.
The thing is, Lily doesn’t shave her armpits. Intellectually, I’m drawn to the fact that she’s confident enough to rock body hair. I know a million reasons why Lily’s natural body hair isn’t unsexy. But when we’re making out, and her shirt comes off, it’s a complete turnoff to me. Seeing that hair just ruins the mood.
I know that if I’d grown up in a culture where women’s armpit hair was more normal, it wouldn’t bother me. I know it’s shallow, and I feel terrible that I can’t just get over this. Am I being a jerk if I tell her how I feel? I don’t want to ask her to change for me.
Look, you should never feel terrible about how your body responds to things. Your body does what it does, and what matters is how you decide to act on it. In this case, your body’s preference happens to line up with sexist social norms. Coincidence? Probably not; after all, you’ve been steeped since birth in a stew of highly specific expectations for female bodies. But you’re aware of that, so you’re already a step ahead of most Americans. You’re actively working to move toward the light.
You should know that most of us aren’t drawn, in a vacuum, to every single detail of our lovers’ bodies. We all have weird scars and zits and we burp and snore and blow our noses and get sick and get better again. When you’re with someone enough, you get well acquainted with their bumps and lumps and, yes, hair. But in a healthy relationship, these so-called flaws don’t stand out compared to the person as a whole. They are part of the person we love, the person whose neck smells like home. And when you’re getting frisky, you’re too busy inhaling that scent to think about too much else.
So the issue here isn’t that you’re not into your girlfriend’s armpit hair—that’s cool, that’s fine—but that it bothers you so much that it’s overpowering the general sense of WOW you should be feeling when her clothes come off. I mean, listen: Her clothes are coming off. For you. This funny, adventurous, beautiful woman wants to get naked and do exciting things together that should make both of you feel very, very good. And when she takes her shirt off, instead of noticing, well, gee, I don’t know, her skin? Her breasts? Her smile? You’re fixating on two soft patches of hair that grow naturally in a fairly hidden part of her body and you’re thinking, Eh, you know what? That’s not for me.
Friend, I don’t think the pit hair is the issue.
I think that you want to like Lily, you’ve decided she’s a good fit for you, but the chemistry’s just not there. Imagine her with bare armpits. Does she now strike you as a categorically different human, one of the hottest people you’ve ever seen? Does the lack of hair make all the difference? Or might you just find something new—her voice, or her hands, whatever—to fixate on if you took hair out of the picture?
Of course, you can tell her that you prefer bare armpits. She may already suspect that something’s up. Just make sure that when you talk to her, you place the blame, as it were, on yourself rather than her. “I know this is my hangup,” you might start. It’s possible that she’s already been thinking of shaving her pits or has no problem shaving for a partner. It’s also possible that she’ll be defensive or resentful. She might even be less attracted to you, thinking that you’re not as open-minded as she originally assumed. But in general, if you come to the conversation with humility and respect, she’ll probably return the favor.
What happens next is less about armpit hair and more about your respective personalities, your values, and your chemistry.
Maybe she chooses to shave, and you can’t keep your hands off each other, and everything’s great.
Maybe she shaves, and you discover, as you caress her silky armpits, that your hesitation was never really about hair.
Maybe she doesn’t shave, but you learn to get over it.
Maybe you both discover that you’re not right for each other.
The point is that you can control how you respond to this situation, but you can’t control what happens next. You can only be honest—with her and, more importantly, with yourself. Try not to get hung up on whether your pit-hair aversion makes you shallow. We all live imperfect versions of our ideals.
As you move into the future, whatever that is, remember that learned preferences can be unlearned. You might want to look up ethically-made porn that features women with body hair and see if you can train yourself to appreciate a greater diversity of enthusiastic bodies. That’s not for the world’s sake—these women are plenty sexy for themselves and their partners, and your approval means literally nothing to them. It’s for you. The more we learn to celebrate reality, real humans with real bodies, the richer our lives (and sex lives) become.