ASU professor encourages students to defy body hair norms

July 3, 2014

To shave or not to shave?

That’s the question confronting students in classes taught by Breanne Fahs, associate professor of women and gender studies in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Since 2010 Fahs has offered students the chance to participate in an extra-credit exercise related to body hair. four students posing on campus Download Full Image

Female student participants stop shaving their legs and underarms for 10 weeks during the semester while keeping a journal to document their experiences. For male students, the assignment is to shave all body hair from the neck down.

“There’s no better way to learn about societal norms than to violate them and see how people react,” said Fahs. “There’s really no reason why the choice to shave, or not, should be a big deal. But it is, as the students tend to find out quickly.”

Stephanie Robinson declined to participate in the project during the first two classes she took with Fahs, but took the plunge during her third opportunity. “It really was a life-changing experience,” she said.

“Many of my friends didn’t want to work out next to me or hear about the assignment, and my mother was distraught at the idea that I would be getting married in a white dress with armpit hair,” Robinson said. “I also noticed the looks on faces of strangers and people around campus who seemed utterly disgusted by my body hair. It definitely made me realize that if you’re not strictly adhering to socially prescribed gender roles, your body becomes a site for contestation and public opinion.”

Robinson says part of her motivation for deciding to participate in the exercise was that in previous semesters she felt left out of the sense of the camaraderie of the students who were all bonding over their body hair, or lack thereof for males in the class.

“It’s interesting how peer pressure within the class can create a new norm,” Fahs said. “When practically all of the students are participating, they develop a sense of community and enjoy engaging in an act of rebellion together.”

That act of rebellion isn’t quite the same for males as females, according to Fahs. It’s not uncommon in our society for some men to engage in “manscaping,” removing hair from some parts of their bodies. For the extra-credit assignment, she asks male students to shave everything below the neck and maintain it for 10 weeks. This makes the process labor-intensive and gives men some insight into what women who shave go through, she said.

Some male students have come up with strategies to add a “macho” element to the project. “One guy did his shaving with a buck knife,” Fahs said. “Male students tend to adopt the attitude of, ‘I’m a man; I can do what I want.’”

“Although a co-worker questioned why I shaved my legs, I felt comfortable in my own skin,” says a former male participant, Kurt Keller. “It helped having classmates who were so willing to lay it on the line too.

“I think shaving is an expectation that partners can place on each other because of personal taste,” Keller said. “However, just because a boyfriend or girlfriend pressures you to shave, it must be your own decision. I really hope that people, including myself, can treat our bodies with respect, regardless of relationship expectations. If your partner expects you to do something that feels unnatural, at that point there needs to be a separation, or at least a discussion.”

Fahs said there’s more of a tendency on the part of women who stop shaving to be concerned about the reaction of their romantic partner. Men who shave tend to focus more on what other men think. Both genders bump up against sexism and heterosexism in their experiences, albeit in different ways, she explained.

Student Grace Scale once dated a man who decided one evening to tell her about all the things he “hated” about her body, including the hair on various parts of it. “This was the first time that anyone had critiqued my body in such a way, and I didn’t even have to think twice about the following breakup,” she said.

Scale says she was surprised by the strong reactions of some of her male friends during the 10 weeks. “One of my dearest friends – at the time – compared my underarm hair to ‘the sludge in the bottom of the garbage can,’ and continued on a rant about how growing body hair had a direct correlation to challenging men’s authority and position in society.”

Jaqueline Gonzalez credits the body hair project with helping to shape her into the activist she is today. “The experience helped me better understand how pervasive gendered socialization is in our culture,” Gonzalez said. “Furthermore, by doing this kind of activist project I was no longer an armchair activist theorizing in the classroom. So much is learned by actually taking part in the theory or idea we learn in the classroom, and we could benefit from this type of pedagogy being taken up by similar classes.”

Gonzalez isn’t the only person who believes projects like this should be implemented elsewhere. “I’ve been surprised by the amount of positive feedback I have received,” Fahs said. Faculty members at other universities are considering using the exercise in their classes. Fahs said she looks forward to seeing how the exercise works in other settings. “There is a big difference between imagining not shaving and actually trying to not shave,” she said.

And the American Psychological Association was so sufficiently impressed with the body hair exercise that the organization gave Fahs the Mary Roth Walsh Teaching the Psychology of Women Award through Division 35 in 2012. She has had papers about the project published in academic journals, including Feminism & Psychology, Psychology of Women Quarterly and Gender & Society.

Fahs earned her doctorate in women’s studies and clinical psychology from the University of Michigan. Her research interests focus on themes of women’s sexuality, critical body studies, radical feminism and feminist histories, and social movements and political socialization. Fahs teaches New College courses, including Critical Perspectives on Sexuality, Psychology of Gender, and Race, Gender and Class. She has also developed some unique upper-division courses that examine topics as diverse as hate speech and manifestos, gendered bodies, and the philosophical and literal dimensions of trash.

New College’s bachelor’s degree program in women and gender studies (with BA and BS degree options) is an interdisciplinary program emphasizing intersectional approaches to the study of gender, race, class, ethnicity and sexuality in national and transnational contexts. The program seeks to further the understanding of women and gender, and to promote social justice. New College is the core college on ASU’s West campus.

Behind the scenes of King's speech at ASU

July 3, 2014

Earlier this year ASU University Libraries and the King Center in Atlanta made available for the first time a previously unknown recording of a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Arizona State University approximately a half-century ago.

Titled “Religious Witness for Human Dignity,” King delivered the speech to an audience of 8,000 people at ASU’s Goodwin Stadium on June 3, 1964 – less than one month before the landmark Civil Rights Act was signed. MLK reel-to-reel tape Download Full Image

The recording was among a box of reel-to-reel tapes donated by deceased Phoenix businessman and civil rights leader Lincoln Ragsdale and discovered by Phoenix resident Mary Scanlon while shopping at a Valley Goodwill store.

After the discovery, a committee of ASU archivists, historians and scholars worked over the next few months to verify the recording’s authenticity. Kristen LaRue, outreach program coordinator in ASU’s Department of English, transcribed the speech for the university and immersed herself in the sounds of King’s voice for several hours over two days.

LaRue spoke to ASU News about her experience, which she recalled as a “geeky thrill” as well as an intimate brush with history.

Q: Before you transcribed the MLK tape in Tempe, were you familiar with the teachings of Dr. King?

KL: Growing up in rural 1970s Montana, most of what I watched on television – including footage from the civil rights movement – seemed exotic and foreign. The only familiar thing in Dr. King’s appearances was what I heard – and that was the English language. Even that was inflected with an unfamiliar southern accent (my own speech had something of a Fargo, North Dakota, sound). I knew by listening to news anchors and commentators that King was important, that he had done and said something special and good. But those events seemed very, very far away.

I moved to Arizona in 2002. I first saw the ASU photograph of Dr. King sitting next to G. Homer Durham on the library archives website when I was doing research for something else. I couldn’t believe he had been here. Here! Where I live! It made me feel not-so-removed from that incredible moment in history. Then when I heard a recording had been found – utter nerd joy. To imagine him speaking in my environs – in the early summer desert air, in the presence of Palo Verde trees and saguaros – was a new intimacy.

Q: Did you do a straight listen before you transcribed the tape, and if so, what was running through your mind as you were listening to Dr. King's words?

KL: Because the tape wasn’t yet available to the public, I knew I needed to work quickly on the transcription. I didn’t do a straight listen before starting work on it. The listening I did could be described as “deep,” as I played and re-played the 45-minute tape for nearly two days straight in order to type his words exactly as spoken. I remember thinking that I was writing down history – for the first time. Others had, of course, listened to this speech before I did, but no one in the world had yet put all of these particular words to paper. It was very, very exciting for me.

Q: The U.S. Senate filibuster, which tried to block passage of the civil rights bill, was the new wrinkle in this speech. What can you tell me about the filibuster and why it ultimately failed?

KL: Since I’m not a King or civil rights expert, I don’t know much about the filibuster itself. However, through the work of ASU English professor Keith Miller, I am a bit familiar with King’s recycling of his and others’ words. Through research I found that he gave portions of this speech – verbatim – at other appearances across the country. Apparently King had a mental catalogue from which he could pull speech material as needed, or as “the spirit moved him.” But I found it meaningful that since the filibuster was tied to a very specific moment in time, this part of the speech had a limited shelf life, so to speak. It wouldn’t have made sense to repeat it in other addresses.

Q: There's been mention of King's exhaustion in his voice due to his relentless speaking schedule and a “nagging virus bug." Did you pick up on that right away?

KL: I’m a music historian and have [a master's] in music history and literature from ASU. I did my early training in vocal pedagogy and performance, and have some later training in music therapy. So, for better or worse, I am always listening to voices for clues about a person. I was anticipating a certain timbre when I first heard King’s voice on the tape, so I was surprised to hear it sound tight, gravelly and tired – not the fired-up, energetic presence with which I was familiar. But it was unmistakably his, which was authenticated by our team of scholars. It was thrilling to hear him get started on one of his famed, cascading orations that sounds like he’s preaching at church. From what I could hear on the recording, the Arizona crowd was slightly less boisterous than a southern Baptist congregation, but there was quite often enthusiastic applause and, at several points, laughter.

Keith Miller told me about the incredible number of public appearances and speeches King was making in those days. I also knew he had two others earlier that day in Phoenix, which put the fatigue I heard into context.

Q: What did you personally get from this experience?

My personal takeaway: to have had a very small part in helping this recording, and therefore this speech, find its way into civil rights history is very satisfying. I do often enjoy working “behind the scenes” on various projects, but none of these projects had gone on to have national impact. Until now.

The Department of English is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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