Marry me

Posted: May 19, 2013 in life
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I went to a wedding in Ghana a few years ago, and an image has stayed with me. It was a white wedding, and the bride was as you might expect – radiant, French-manicured, flawless. Her ivory-coloured dress was strapless, her hair swept up, her jewellery understated. It was as if the bride’s whole outfit was designed to give maximum impact to one central feature: her chest hair.

This bride had chest hair – lots of it. On her budget, the epilation options would doubtless have been numerous, but she had shunned them. I looked around, wondering if anyone else was a stunned as I. No one batted an eyelid. Since then I have become an amateur collector of mental images of Ghanaian women who flaunt their body hair with pride. It is becoming a rather crowded library. It’s getting to the point where if I see a pencil-skirt suit and stilettos without a generous layer of leg hair, it feels as if something is missing.

Remember Mo’Nique at the 2010 Golden Globes lifting up her dress to reveal her hairy shins? It was as if she needed to wait until she had earned enough emotional credit with the public – which she then had in spades following her incredible performance in the harrowing film Precious – to risk revealing her body hair. And when she did, she was making a deliberately subversive statement: she didn’t like shaving, and she didn’t care what people thought. She said: “I’m 42 and I’m very hairy.” She meant: “If you don’t like it, lump it.”

But I don’t think my Ghanaian bride, or pencil-suited professional lady, is trying to make a statement. And there is a high probability that they do care what people think. In flaunting their crop of chest and leg hair, they are attracting admirers, not critics. It’s not uncommon to hear a less hairy Ghanaian woman say jovially to a hairier one, pointing at her arm hair: “Ye ton anka me to bi” – which means: “If it were for sale, I would buy some.” Body hair is considered beautiful in Ghana. It’s not just legs. Chin hair, arm hair – and yes, chest hair – are all considered highly desirable by Ghanaian men. For many women easily pluckable strands on faces, upper lips and necks are left carefully in place.

This stretches far back into Ghanaian tradition, older ladies have told me. They tend to lament the trend among younger women to wax and shave and pluck. And I can see why – even though I still do a double-take at bridal chest hair, I’m realising there is something tragic about the growing number of women who embrace the razor, feeling so ashamed of their own cultural heritage. “In my ignorant younger days of raw cultural beliefs, hairy legs (eek!) were the beauties,” a Ghanaian convert to shaving wrote on her blog. Her disdain almost transforms women who leave their body hair intact into the poster children for a radical act of post-colonial defiance.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether this love for body hair can be considered a force for feminism. I’ve decided it can’t. For one thing, it has its limits. Underarm hair is a no-no for men and women in Ghana; it’s considered unhygienic and disgusting. Reveal even a modest crop and you are likely to be met with a look of disgust. Secondly, flaunting facial hair is a dangerous line to tread. While some men find it beautiful, others take it as a signal that a woman is a witch.

And finally, the majority of women who rock their body hair in Ghana are hardly sticking two fingers up at male preference. They are flaunting their leg hair to impress men. Men here actually enjoy running their fingers through it. Well, some do. A change is underway, according to a rough Twitter poll I carried out, as demonstrated aptly by this Ghanaian poet:

I’m crawling up your legs
With my flippant, flirty mind
I’m counting your unshaved hairs
Each a reason you’re not my kind


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