Mary Marcus: East, West, Armpits and Gender Inequality

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FullSizeRender-1-e1438723388782-1080x675One of the great things about the East Coast versus West Coast is the sight of armpit stubble on women, who in the East, don’t keep their arms rigidly down if there’s anything sprouting there. I’ll be in class, arms are in the air, and there it will be, a tuft here, a stray hair there, a five o clock shadow somewhere else. And every time I see such evidence, I am filled with glee.

As I keep reminding readers, ad nauseum, I am from the South originally, where such underarm goings-on are frowned upon and now live a lot of the time in Los Angeles, the world’s preeminent leader in the bleach-blond-no-body-hair look.  I have dark hair and light skin so for me there’s never been anywhere to run and hide.

I have two very close friends who are cringing as they read this. Because I know every morning in the shower, come rain or shine, they are in there with their Venus razors sliding the folic-i away. Yes, most women (and two of my very favorites wouldn’t be caught dead without a smooth armpit.)

This is, of course, a very big gender inequality issue. Though I have to say, I have a female relative, who has never done anything about armpit hygiene and when she lifts her arms (as she is want to do) it is not a pretty sight. It is a scary sight, one reminiscent of that scene in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the one that horrified me throughout my young life when the bodice of the night nurse is ripped open and there it is, the hairy chest of the psycho killer of the night nurses who was there all along.

I remember well, the first sight of those dark lurking hairs under my own arms. I wrote about this, in my recent novel Lavina, and even in a work of fiction, I found the task daunting. Poor twelve-year-old Mary Jacob feared the hair would soon cover her body like an ape. I remember that feeling. It is SHAME; it is HUMILIATION, especially if one doesn’t know how to remedy the situation. And has no kindly grownup to ask.

I can’t remember what came first, my period or the hair, but I remember having to inform my mother, who looked at me and hollered, “NO!”

Which was very similar to the response I got when I had asked her sometime before, what a Social Disease was. My parents had the album of West Side Story (Oh, Officer Krupke, we’re down on our knees, for no one wants a fellow with a social disease). I could carry a tune as a kid, and that tune was one I carried perhaps for the reason that I knew on some level it elicited strong reactions from grown ups. “Who told you about that?” she snarled.

My father died just as the armpit situation was developing. I had on a sleeveless shirt; my arms were down rigidly at my sides, because I knew it smelled differently there.

It was Thursday night. The cook’s night off (Aline’s predessser Lulu). And on her night off we always dined out, and often at Morrison’s Cafeteria. As I said, my arms were glued to my sides, I thought I was safe, but I wasn’t safe, my old man glared at me, “You smell!” he said.

“No sir,” I replied. My family wasn’t rigorously southern, we didn’t enforce the inter-family yes’m and no sir. But I caught on to the fact that adding the “sir” worked well on him and could even, if I was lucky, mitigate his outbursts.

I said, “No, sir, it’s not me, it’s that steak sauce you’re putting on your steak.”

And in fact, Heinz 57 Steak Sauce to this day can send me into a real tizzy of olfactory shame and humiliation.

My brother already had hair under his arms. He had been given deodorant, some t-shirts to wear under his dress shirts and probably a talk about the birds and the bees.

Is it a different world out there today? In same ways yes. Still, why all these depilatory palaces everywhere one looks?

My dear husband took the shot for this blog at my request this morning. It is of one such palace on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica where on last count on the eighteen or so blocks of stores, there are more than eighteen places to get waxed.

Gentle reader: you do the math.

MaryMarcus25Mary Marcus is the author of The New Me and the critically acclaimed Lavina. Visit her website for more.

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On August 6, 2015
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