We speak to the photographer about the outrage her images of female body hair provokes
For such a natural thing, body hair sure does elicit a lot of strong reactions and feelings of outrage, something that photographer Ashley Armitage knows only too well. “Every photo I post of people with body hair who aren’t cis-men gets adverse reactions,” she says. “I’ve posted photos of non-binary people, trans women, and cis women with body hair and they were all met with anger. It doesn’t seem to matter what type of hair, either. Pubic hair, armpit hair, stomach hair, leg hair, it all makes people mad.”
Earlier this year, Ashley shot a campaign for the female-first razor brand Billie. It was the first ever advert to feature women’s body hair. Gorgeous and dreamy, Ashley’s photographs were an intimate look at natural femininity, showing women with underarm hair, leg hair, hair below their navels, their bikini line. Though widely praised online, not everyone was pleased with the images of women in their natural state, and when an Instagram account with a lot of followers recently posted one of the Billie campaign shots she encountered a strongly negative reaction. We spoke to Ashley about what happened.
One of your Billie campaign shots recently caused some drama on Instagram. Can you tell us what happened?
Ashley Armitage: My posts are mostly filled with positivity and support because that’s my audience. However, this time around an Instagram account with millions of followers posted the Billie commercial and opened the floodgates. There were super vile and toxic comments (mostly from men) saying literally, I quote: “I’d rather die than watch a girl run a comb through her armpit hair again”, and the worst, “Wtf is this...you come over here with armpit hair I’m fuckin punchin you in the pussy”. Sexual violence towards girls with armpit hair? That’s terrifying. Reading these comments shows me that we need this type of imagery. We will only normalise body hair through exposure.
What was the concept of the shoot?
Ashley Armitage: The concept was to show that body hair removal is a choice. We made it to say, “If you want to grow out your body hair, amazing! We support that. If you choose to remove your body hair, then Billie has great razors!” To my knowledge, we were the first commercial to ever show women with body hair. In shaving commercials, for some reason, women already have perfectly smooth hairless legs. How is body hair so taboo that we can’t even show it in an ad literally about body hair?
Why do you think people have such a strong reaction to body hair? Particularly since it’s such a natural part of the body.
Ashley Armitage: I think media has ingrained the sexist beauty standard into all of us so heavily that when women fall outside of it, some men feel they have the right to retake control of our bodies. I think they feel threatened by an “unruly” woman and that it’s their duty to re-exert their power over us. On the Instagram post of the Billie video I mentioned above, there were so many men commenting calling women who grow their hair “Feminazis”. Sometimes I forget that I live in such a liberal bubble, and that these people exist. When I get those violent comments on my work, it’s depressing but it encourages me to work even harder to get these images out into the world.
You repost the image every few months. Have you noticed reactions changing?
Ashley Armitage: Yes, actually! In the beginning, when I first started posting the photo of my friend, Irene Bowen, with a bikini and pubic hair poking out, there was a huge amount of people who were outraged. I think over the years, with all the body hair pictures I’ve posted, I’ve weeded out the sexist people and kept the good people. Now when I post that photo the comments are 95% supportive.
The image has been reported and taken down several times. How does this make you feel?
Ashley Armitage: Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me. It feels like yet another way for agency to be stripped from me. My art is silenced. It’s disappointing but it’s a sign that there is still much progress to be made.
What do you see as the main arguments on either side of the body hair debate?
Ashley Armitage: My side of the argument is that body hair preferences are personal choices. If it’s your body, it’s your choice. No one else has the right to comment on it or control it. Body hair is the same exact thing on any body of any gender. It isn’t suddenly unhygienic when it grows on a woman.
I guess the opposing side of the argument is that women should not have body hair because it's “gross”. I see that this perspective stems from the beauty standard telling us to be hairless. That’s why I want to flood the media with body hair pictures. I want girls and women around the world to see that we have options. I want men to see that this exists and it’s natural and normal.