At 13, I looked like a Meat Loaf impersonator. Bat Out of Hell era. I had long, straggling hair, a chin like a melting church candle, an unfortunate penchant for waistcoats and a fine collection of faded black jeans. More I’d Lie for You than ingenue. More roadie than radiant.
We were spending the summer – as we always spent the summer – in Falmouth, staying with one of my mum’s oldest friends; the man who ran the Miracle Theatre Company. One of the great things about having a teacher for a mum, apart from the ready access to felt tips, the huge supply of cartridge paper and being able to play Chuckie Egg on an actual computer at home in 1996, was that we could go away for a whole month during our summer holidays. Every year we would haul out to the coast and spend four damp weeks in Cornwall sunbathing in anoraks, watching plays, eating clotted cream (hence the Bat Out of Chin), swimming in the sea, making enormous sand mermaids (usually replete with breasts and armpit hair), walking the dog, catching crabs and studiously avoiding going to Flambards.
It was during this summer that I was taking one of those long, self-exploratory baths that happen during your adolescence. As a teenage girl, having a body can feel like frying an egg on a volcano – you’re never sure what’s going to burst out, pop open, spray, squirt, hurt or bewilder you next. There was a razor on the side of the bath and, out of sheer innocent curiosity, I started dragging it across my thigh. No soap, tepid water, a blunt blade and absolutely no idea what I was doing. But, I’d heard that this was what people did. And hey, I was people. Maybe I’d have a bash at it too.
Weeks later, when we got back to Oxford, I decided to have another go at my legs. Starting below my knee this time. I tackled the shire horse-like fringe of hair above my ankle and slowly worked my way up a bruised and sun-browned shin until I came to my knee. I stopped. Surely nobody shaved their knees. That was insane. Like trying to paint a butterfly hinge or vacuum a U-bend. No, I wasn’t going to shave my knees.
That evening, my mum leaned over the sofa to stroke my leg. An affectionate gesture as we stared at Roseanne, or Gladiators or EastEnders – I can’t remember which. Suddenly, she pulled her hand back. “Oh my god Nell – have you shaved your legs?” The tone was accusatory, shocked, even a little mocking. I wanted desperately to deny it, but how could I? My legs were, at best, patchy but I could hardly claim early-onset, localised alopecia. “Bill, Nell’s started shaving her legs!” my mum screamed to my father, who was in the kitchen, listening to Andy Kershaw and slowly putting away the saucepans.
My dad was furious. Disappointed. Confused. Not for the reasons you might expect – not because this marked my entry to the world of sex or because his little girl was growing up or because I’d nicked myself and bled all over his towel. No. He was furious because despite all his best efforts, I had given in. I was conceding to the patriarchal bullshit that said my body needed fixing. I was buying into the idea that women should deny they’re mammals. That we should mark ourselves out from men by being hairless. That we had to spend hours and actual money on pointless things like razors, waxing strips and bleach.
You see, my father is one of those old-fashioned feminists who goes into red-faced rants over anti-wrinkle cream, gags at perfume, tears his hair out at cosmetics. This was the man who taught me how to climb trees, lay bricks, took me up on the roof aged 10 to admire his pointing, and showed me how to fix a puncture. He would pull my wobbly teeth out with pliers and offered to pierce my ears with his own earrings. He had tried to bring me up to believe that my gender was as fluid, as personal and as faultless as his own. And here I was, shaving my legs like just another schmuck.
It was at that moment that I realised my body was a political battleground. That what I did to my skin, my eyes, my hair, my legs, wasn’t my business alone. That people – men – would have an opinion on it, and so I would have to have an opinion on it. And I would then have to defend that opinion, to them. If I wanted to shave my legs, then I was going to have to bloody well explain why. If I wanted to wear makeup, buy a push-up bra, walk in flat shoes, walk in high-heeled shoes, go on the pill, paint my nails, tattoo my chest or bleach my nipples, then people would feel entitled to argue with me about it.
Bill may have been coming to the issue with the best of intentions – to save me a lifetime of bodily deforestation and cosmetic bullshit. But he was also teaching me something more fundamental – that the personal is political. That my body is a weapon and a battlefield; and I was entering a lifelong fight to control it. So I carried on shaving my legs. I even, some years later, started shaving my armpits too. And, a few rushed dry strafing incidents before weddings and a bin full of disposable razors aside, I am happy with my decision.
But I now have two younger sisters – Bill’s second family. And, as I look at their soft, blonde legs as they career around his house playing football and making up dances, I understand some of his worries. I don’t want them to give in. I don’t want them to feel out of place. I don’t want them to feel that they have to change a single thing about their perfect microbodies. But, then, I don’t want them to feel like they can’t change either. I don’t want them to be scared to experiment. I don’t want them to feel restricted by social expectations, even if they’re my social expectations. And I certainly don’t want to be the person telling them what they should do with their bodies.
I only hope that when they have their first close shave with feminism they feel they can talk to me about it. Our bodies may be a battleground, but at least we can pick our sister-in-arms. Or, in this case, legs.