In Women’s Rights Battle, a Call to Underarms


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Wei Tingting, one of the five feminists detained in March as they were preparing a campaign against sexual harassment on public transport, is participating in the underarm hair contest.Credit Courtesy of Wei Tingting

As the summer warms up, bringing with it sleeveless tops, Xiao Meili, a women’s rights advocate, is collecting photos of women’s armpits. Her goal: to challenge a growing belief in China that a woman must have hair-free armpits to be attractive.

On May 26 she began a contest on the Sina Weibo messaging site for the best photo of a woman’s unshaven armpit, and she appealed to women to post pictures online under the Chinese hashtag “women’s underarm hair contest.” She and a few friends are judging the contest, which closes on Thursday. Winners will be based mostly on the number of reposts and “likes” an entry has attracted.

“Men have more freedom in terms of what to do with their bodies,” Ms. Xiao said in a telephone interview. “I’m not calling on everybody to grow underarm hair. I’m just saying if some people don’t want to shave, the rest of us should not think their underarm hair is disgusting, unhygienic, uncivil or not feminine enough.”

Shaving armpits is relatively new in China, dating only from the 1990s, she said. “For my mother’s generation, a woman not shaving her armpits is totally natural,” said Ms. Xiao, 25.

Although the contest site has registered more than 1.2 million views, only about 40 women had entered by Tuesday, though they included prominent feminists like Wei Tingting, Li Tingting and Zheng Churan. The three women are among five who drew worldwide attention for their detention in March ahead of a planned campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation. They were released on bail in April but remain under police supervision.

“The pictures have proved that women can celebrate their bodies, desire and love, whether homosexual or heterosexual, whether their underarm hair is long or short and in spite of raised eyebrows from passers-by,” Ms. Wei wrote on Weibo.

The Taiwan-born American movie director Ang Lee has said that he found hairy armpits on women sexy. In the interest of authenticity, he had Tang Wei, the lead actress in his 2007 film “Lust, Caution,” which is set in 1930s Shanghai, grow out her underarm hair.

As of Tuesday, the Weibo page for Ms. Xiao’s contest had drawn more than 1,150 comments. Not all were flattering toward the concept of women not shaving their underarms.

“This is not a question of pleasing anybody,” wrote a Weibo user with the online handle Arnorosayang. “According to our universal aesthetics, it’s just not elegant.”

“Shaving or not is a personal choice,” wrote a user called Amy101. “Why flash it? Armpits are quite private after all. I just hate being this high profile.”

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Xiao Meili, who organized the contest to fight social pressure for women to shave their armpits, posted a photo of her own natural growth.Credit Courtesy of Xiao Meili

Ms. Xiao said: “Even some of my friends don’t understand.”

There is precedent for Ms. Xiao’s campaign: Her contest is at least the second foray in China into the issue of women’s underarm hair. Last year, a similar contest called “Girls not plucking armpit hair,” initiated by a Weibo user, drew widespread attention. The contest also follows debates in developed countries beginning in the 1970s as some women stopped shaving in keeping with their feminist beliefs. It is still less common to shave in Europe than in the United States.

In Ms. Xiao’s contest, three prizes will be given out, paid for with unused donations from a walk Ms. Xiao undertook from Beijing to Guangzhou last year to raise awareness of child sex abuse in China. The awards reflect a feminist orientation: The first prize is 100 condoms, the second is a vibrator and the third is 10 female urination devices, which allow women to urinate while standing up.



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