This post is part of the Inside Teaching MSU blog series. Read the full text here: http://commons.grd.msu.edu/index.php/category/inside-teaching/
The recent and unfortunate release of Veet's new "Don't Risk Dudeness" campaign has spurred furious responses from all over the interwebs. I will not spend much time here enumerating the various failures and offensive undertones of this campaign, including completely shameless in-your-face sexism, misogyny, and even a dash of homophobia. Tweets sprouted like mushrooms, with hashtags such as #notbuyingit and #BAdvertising. Notes on the matter were quickly published by HuffPost Lifestyle, HuffPost Women, and Jezebel.
My response, while also steeped in rage and incredulity, is a little more retrospective and personal. Yes, a blast from the past! Feel free to leave now, I will not be offended.
If my life was a movie, it would be titled "When Hairy met Salty". My mutt heritage of Mediterranean, Teutonic, and god-only-knows-what-other blood provided me with a wealth of hyperactive follicles that remain unfazed in the presence of shaving, waxing, lasering, and all other ungodly depilatory tortures made available for the sake of our Western standard of female beauty. Now don't get me wrong- I am not an anti-shaving zealot who balks at the sight of a razor blade. I have done my share of shaving for multiple reasons, including, yes, abiding by certain standards of beauty that allow me to blend in and be accepted in various social settings.However, in addition to making me think about my adult depilatory experiences, and how I want to be able to decide if and when I remove what hairs on my body, these horrible ads also made me think back to my pre-shaving days, and how shaving was such a big part of the ritual of "becoming a woman".
I was hairy from day one. In my early childhood, my peach-fuzz was considered cute, or simply ignored, by adults and children alike. However, as I grew older, this changed. I was no longer a careless, chubby-cheeked child who made witty remarks that adults found adorable. By age ten, I had morphed into a buck-toothed, pale, scrawny thing, and I spent most of my time reading and basically avoiding other people, especially girls. In my fourth grade class, girls were mean. And precocious! Conversations in the changing room rapidly shifted from the latest Hello Kitty craze to who made out with whom, and yes, the aches and pains of shaving. I was at a complete loss regarding most changing room topics, but I was becoming painfully aware of my peach-fuzz, which had darkened and thickened over the years. I remember one girl, a lot less hairy than I was, vividly describing how she would soon have to use a lawn mower to tame her rebellious leg-hair. Again, we were ten.
One day, anticipating the growing discomfort of wearing short-shorts for physical education the next day (hint: these were the regrettable and forgettable 80s), I swiped my mother's disposable razor from the shower and ran it repeatedly over my legs until they were strangely smooth. I was admiring my accomplishment when my mother walked into the room and stared in disbelief; she was livid. Given how my prolific follicles had previously been ignored by most adults, I had no idea why I was in such trouble. My crime was so serious that the consequences involved lectures from multiple female family members. "You are too young!" "By the time you really need to shave, your hair will be so thick it will be impossible!", they clamored. At the time, I had no idea why there would be a time when I "really" needed to shave. But after a couple of years, it started to dawn on me. Shaving was, of course, an important part of becoming sexually desirable. And it was clear that ten year old girls had no business making themselves desirable (Ha! Tell that to my then fourth-grade classmates).
Yes, shaving, or otherwise removing our body hair is an individual choice, but for many women, it is clearly a choice that responds to how we wish to be socially perceived, than to our own preferences for comfort and appearance. The Veet ads, in their tragi-comical portrayal, speak this sad and unnecessary social truth. We fear others' reactions to our hairiness. And we anticipate that our forced hairlessness will generate, on the other hand, "positive" social responses, including being considered sexually attractive and available. And as my retrospective reflection on my early days of shaving reveals, this is not something that women suddenly realize when they turn 18. We are taught, from an early age, that smooth, glabrous skin is sexy, and sexual, and we dream of the moment when we acquire the "license to shave". Perhaps this is one less thing that we should be imposing on girls and other women-to-be,and as we make the choice to shave, we should keep in mind that "to shave or not to shave" is not only an individual choice, it is a socially normative action that affects some of the more malleable members of our society.
There are numerous studies pointing to the reduced number of women who practice philosophy in academia, as either professors or researchers. The 2011 APA update on the Status of Women in the Profession states that, according to the 2009 Digest of Education Statistics, women account for roughly 21% of post-secondary philosophy professors. However, the same report also notes that this percentage can be broken down into full and part time appointments, in which case, women make up only 16.6% of full time philosophy faculty, and 26% of part-time instructors. While the report does not go into any detail regarding possible explanations for the low (although increasing) number of female philosophy faculty, there are many plausible explanations. The simplest one would be that there are simply not enough women with Ph.D. degrees in philosophy; a 2011 report by Julie Van Camp states that in 2009 (the most recent year for which data is available), only 29.6% of Ph.D. degrees in Philosophy were awarded to women- and this has been the second highest percentage yet (the highest being 33.3% in 2004). However, I would like to argue that there may be other, more relevant reasons for why the percentage of female academic philosophers continues to be under 25%, especially when there are reports pointing to the increase in women with Ph.D. degrees generally- the 09/14/10 online edition of the Washington Post reports that in 2010, more women than men graduated with Ph.D. degrees- that year, 28,962 of the degrees went to women, and 28,469 to men.
Studies proposing a conflicting relationship between the demands of tenure-track faculty life and women’s aspirations to have a family are also numerous. While I believe there is some truth to this, I think that framing the problem as a simple conflict between the tenure clock and the biological clock is not only simplistic, but potentially offensive to women, because it presupposes, among other things, that at least some women are bound by a socially and biologically determined urge to reproduce or otherwise form stable family units, and that when made to choose between this “urge” and their academic pursuits, they inevitably chose the former…because it’s in their nature! While I believe that some women (as well as men) definitely have an interest in procreating and forming families, the fact that men are less likely to find this desire conflicting with their professional goals is more grounded in societal expectations for the provision of care than in biological constraints for when and how one is able to procreate. Again, there is a multitude of research supporting the claim that women are more likely to be caregivers for children, the elderly, and other dependents. And again, there are always determinist arguments for why this is natural. But, for me, the important part of this for women philosophers is that this problem become recognized as a true problem for female philosophers aspiring to become professors, and that the root of the problem is not their own personal conflict (i.e., the choice was yours…you knew going into philosophy that you would not be able to have a family….), but is rather rooted in the academic system and the discipline itself. If males in the discipline are not only more likely to be successful at publishing and getting tenured, but are also more likely to be able to have all this and a family too, then there is something inherently unjust about the ways we are limiting women’s personal choices in philosophy.
Since it is immensely complex and possibly utopian to even think about “fixing” society so that child-rearing responsibilities are distributed equally among adult members of the family, I believe that the field has to be proactive in providing opportunities for women and men alike to have careers in philosophy as well as families, if they so desire. Now, someone might argue that this would give women in philosophy an unfair advantage, or that we would be losing academic rigor. Additionally, someone might argue that men and women alike are likely to have personal conflicts and barriers not related to the child-rearing and care of dependents that also impact their potential to succeed in academia, for instance illness, economic hardship, race, gender, nationality, etc. However, using Eva Kittay’s framework for dependency as a special kind of moral power, I would argue that the existing or potential responsibility of caring for dependents is a special kind of “conflict” (in a qualified sense), and that since women are far more likely to be responsible for care-giving, then provisions should be made to ensure that this does not count against them for academic success in philosophy.