Alex Wellburn for 'Natural Beauty' by Ben Hopper (2017)
"At this point in life, I feel that the real question shouldn't be 'why did you let your armpit hair grow?' But actually, 'why did you shave in the first place?' I've always been very hairy, as a child, teenager and now a woman. I always felt very insecure about this as a teenager, thanks to the stigma perpetuated by a society that it was not feminine to display the hair on your arms, legs and armpits.
I used to spend many hours shaving and also spent a lot of money on razors, creams and sticking plasters only to end up with skin irritations and unnecessary infectious spots that take an age to heal until the next time I had to start the cycle all over again.
One day my physical and mental irritation got so intense that I realised that shaving was not healthy for my skin. I did feel slightly unsure at first, however, it felt really good afterwards as I knew that by not shaving was making my skin healthier and what I was doing was in some way liberating me from the stigmas and layers of society that I'd been put upon as a child.
I come from Venezuela, where the beauty industry for women has become a national pastime for some and an obsession for others. In the last three decades, Venezuela has won more beauty titles than any other country; Miss World, Miss Universe and Miss Wherever... Many Venezuelan mothers impose the rules of the beauty industry almost as soon as you are born, babies getting their ears pierced a week after they've come out of the hospital. As soon as a camera appears at any social gathering, young girls immediately strike a fashion model pose with arms on the hips. To appear 'perfect', many families go into debt to pay for their daughter's plastic surgery from the age of 13, in the hope that their princess will be talent-spotted at the mall and be the next Miss Venezuela.
So in the decision to stop shaving also came the decision to take ownership of my body and start making a decision about my body not just because of societies rules but because of my own body rules. I wanted to break that mental barrier I had with myself and society. I am not one to try and dictate the rules of beauty because I believe that beauty is very subjective and that the beauty that many see in my country will be considered different and out of place to many people in other countries and vice versa. Don't get me wrong, I fully respect the decisions and changes that humans make to their own body, but I must make a big remark to this point as in my country there is a high rate of young girls that die from bad medical practice trying to get cheap plastic surgery done because they are being bullied and shamed in schools and in their local community. If anything, these simple words are to try and create awareness of how much pressure we put in young women throughout society.
We've spent so many years dictating how people should look, but we don't consider the damages and the consequences of what these rules of beauty might bring upon people. It is true that at the end of the day everyone is the sole owner of their body and is able to make a decision for themselves without having to account to anyone but we must do so with much awareness and care of our people and ourselves and not to please the rules of society. All these aspects made my decision to let my armpit hair grow, personally more important.
I know that the beauty industry in Venezuela has now become a big part of the culture and a way of pride I respect that. However, I feel that as the rules of beauty might be important to be placed upon young women at an early stage in life, alongside that, we should also make it of great importance to let the same young girls, teenagers and women know that it is ok to make decisions to our own bodies without following the rules of beauty and to let them know that they should not feel powerless of who they are or what they wish to be. In the same way that having plastic surgery at a very early age is acceptable, we should be able to accept a girl's decisions to leave their body hair to grow. This I feel will create a much open-minded attitude towards beauty and will hopefully stop many mental health problems that with total disregard we start to show up at a very young age.
I've had the opportunity to have friends that have no specific concept of how and what the rules of beauty should come about. To me, they are the most beautiful beings I've ever met. They are true to their own body and shameless of who they are. If they decide to shave or not, it is because of their own choice. In moments of doubt, when I thought that not shaving was not "feminine" enough, I looked up to my two closest friends Anne and Emily. Both also didn't shave their armpits and reassured myself that what makes me feminine is not if I do or don't shave, but actually being able to own myself and make decisions for my own body and not for the rules of beauty in society.
The response I got from others was not that stressful personally. I have not encountered many who have given a shit whether I let my armpit hair grow or not. If there were some weird looks, I was not really aware of it as I knew that there is a general understanding that everyone is getting on with their lives and that everyone has their own thing to worry about. At the same time, I know that we are all creatures of judgement and we all have an opinion of something as we've been raised in society to have a judgement in almost every aspect of life – I respect that. I also understood that we as humans are more self-conscious about ourselves than what the person next to us thinks of us. I mainly had the empowering feeling that my friends and family gave me by not really making a big deal out of it. Thanks to the rapid changes in society we've evolved into communities that have learned not to follow all those fashion statements that the beauty industry, the consumerist society and famous magazines like Vogue or Cosmopolitan place upon women. We've been able to own ourselves and not really make a big deal out of it and I feel that this statement needs to be strengthened. For those who asked kindly, I answered and for those who had a mean thing to say I was very patient and never let it get to me as I knew that they just needed a bit more education and understanding on the matter.
However, for many women that choose to leave their body hair to grow there is still a lot of bullying done for a simple personal decision. Which is why I feel that projects like Ben's “Natural Beauty” is important and is helping create a much better understanding of these issues. This project creates a dialogue for understanding and educates those that had no idea what's going on. In Venezuela, like in many places of the world, there's so much pressure put upon women to try and impress men with a specific dictatorial way of how women should look but I had a moment of realisation 5 months ago and it is the only reaction I keep in mind about my body hair. It was with my partner at the time and very good friend Chris. We started to observe our body and talk about how much hair we both had. He had barely any hair on his back and on the rest of his body where I had much more hair on my back than he did. He then told me that he loved that I had loads of hair in my armpits, my back and the rest of my body because it reminded him how beautiful and different we can all be in our very own way. By then, I was still a bit insecure about my body and myself but this realisation gave more strength to the belief that beauty is subjective in every manner and that it comes in all shapes, sizes, and even amounts of hair...
I have to give Ben a personal thank you for involving me in this precious project he's been working on to appreciate women's natural beauty and I would like to celebrate and congratulate all the gorgeous women involved in this project especially my two good friends Anne and Emily, as in many ways they have inspired and given me so much strength in making me proud of who I am as a women, it takes courage to reach a point where you are proud of your body in the society that we live in, well done to those who have reached that and keep going to who is still trying as it will be a very rewarding personal moment in the end. I feel that all women should try going without shaving for a time and experience their natural beauty with their body and if it's not something that you like or enjoy about your body then you can always shave anytime.
Please celebrate your body! Own who you are and be that! At the end of the day, we are all trying to figure out who we are every day of the year as much as we are all changing and learning about ourselves every other day. Those who celebrate who and what they are, are creating a much open and safer space for those who are struggling to understand who and what they want to be in life. It might be easier said than done but give it a try. We'll then help create a healthier and understanding society with less bullshit than there already is..."
– Alex Wellburn (2017)