“SO WHAT?” — Man Repeller’s editorial mantra last month — is sometimes (ironically) easier said than done. It’s easier to act like you don’t care (or even admit that you shouldn’t) than it is to pick up your mental remote control and mute your critical inner-voice. When Kate Bowman decided to stop shaving her body hair at the age of 15, she didn’t just press the button on the remote, she took out the batteries entirely. Now a model, actress and student living in New York City, Kate spoke with me about making that decision and how it has affected her life and career.
When I started getting body hair in middle school, I shaved up to my knees because that’s what my mom taught me to do. I remember sitting next to a girl in science class and being teased by her relentlessly for having hair on my thighs and my arms. She announced it to the entire class. I was mortified. That was the first time it dawned on me that visible female body hair was considered abnormal.
Middle school is such an awkward time to begin with. I had frizzy hair and braces, which only made things harder. I was terrified of standing out even more so I shaved all my body hair just to try to feel less weird. I was desperate to have friends and to have a boy to like me. All I wanted was to fit in.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when that started to change. Maybe it was as simple as kissing someone for the first time or being attracted to another person, but embracing my sexuality transformed the way I thought, not only about physical things like body hair, but also about the way I wanted to represent myself. It was a huge mental leap. Gradually, I started becoming more comfortable with my body, especially as I realized I didn’t have to change myself in order to feel beautiful.
I think I was 15 when I finally came to terms with the fact that I just don’t feel like myself when I shave my body hair, so I quit. I was the only girl at my high school with ANY visible, unconventional female body hair. Even having hair in between my eyebrows was considered weird. But I was already pretty unpopular, so there wasn’t a lot on the line for me. In a weird way, since I wasn’t part of the community, or any friend group, I was even more inclined to lean into my differences. I was already disliked for stuff like my taste in music and how I dressed, so I figured why not go all in and embrace every non-conforming aspect of myself?
My parents were like, “Why are you doing this? What are you doing?” They thought my body hair was unhygienic and unprofessional. They were really nervous about me going in for my college interviews with visible armpit hair because it was too radical and too extreme, and it would draw attention away from my intellect, or my resume.
My classmates teased me incessantly. They said no one would ever like me romantically — no one would ever want to take my clothes off. At first I kind of believed them, because I was already unpopular, so I assumed my body hair would just exacerbate that. But the more I embraced my body’s natural appearance, the more I realized that I wouldn’t want to date anybody who had a problem with my choice.
If any man is trying to take control over anyone else’s body, especially a woman’s, they’re not forward-thinkers. They lack empathy. They’re stuck inside an old, boring, artificial beauty paradigm in which women are expected to look a certain way in order to be attractive. It’s outrageous and outdated, and I wouldn’t want to spend time with anyone who ascribes to that thinking, especially a romantic partner.
Now that I think about it, it’s actually a great way of vetting people, kind of like a test for whether I’d want to be around a person or not. If they object to something as superficial as body hair, they’re not worth my time or energy.
I started modeling when I was 18. I got my first big break modeling Gucci’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection for Purple Magazine’s Fall 2015 issue. The shoot was photographed by Olivier Zahm. My career took off shortly after that when Pat McGrath asked me to be a muse for her makeup line. That was three years ago. I’m 21 now, and I’ve been modeling on and off ever since, balancing it with my studies at The New School. Recently, I’ve been focusing on acting, and I have some projects I’m excited about premiering this fall.
It’s hard to say if my body hair affects whether or not I’m getting hired more or less as a model. I do think it’s really hard to find a place for it in the industry. So many jobs and castings expect you to show up “groomed”: brushed hair, a little concealer and mascara. They want you to look cute. They want you to have your legs and armpits shaved because you’re going to be trying on tons of clothes. At the end of the day you’re being hired as a mannequin, and mannequins are typically hairless. Female body hair is still too radical for most brands to endorse. It often creates a divisive image that stirs up controversy around a campaign or an editorial. I think brands are afraid of that because they want the focus to be on the clothes, or the shoes, or the product, and they don’t want anything to divert attention away from what they’re trying to sell.
I used to feel really guilty about shaving my armpits for a job, because I felt like I was taking away from what made me me. But now I feel like, when I show up on set and I model, I’m playing a character. I’m pretending to be someone completely different from myself. I’m wearing makeup I would never wear and clothes I wouldn’t necessarily pick out for myself, so shaving is just another part of creating an image of someone I’m not.
When I’m not modeling, I just let my hair do its thing. I don’t shave or even trim. I use a spray deodorant because that’s what my boyfriend uses, and it smells like him.
I’ve always been really politically outspoken on social media. I want to use my voice to inspire other people to educate themselves, or feel more comfortable in their own skin, so that’s what I try to do, and the response has been really positive. It’s one of the main reasons I continue to post. I love having that communication, especially with people who can teach me more. But anytime I post a picture where body hair is displayed, I also get an outpouring of hate — from all genders, but usually from older men. They’ll make comments like, “just shave.” The idea that strangers feel like they have the right to censor somebody else’s body is baffling to me.
When I first started gaining a following on Instagram, I was confused about where all the hatred was coming from. I’m lucky to live in downtown New York where I’m surrounded by an enormously open, accepting and loving community. Now the mean comments are just funny to me. It’s my body. It’s my choice. I can choose what I do and how I look. And it’s not even permanent! Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and decide I like the way I look with shaved armpits better, and that would be perfectly fine if that’s how I felt. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It’s never made sense to me that body hair is so gendered. I don’t judge anyone for shaving or altering their bodies in any way. If you’re doing something that makes you feel sexy, then nobody has a place to tell you that it’s not okay, or that it’s not sexy, because sexiness comes from within, as does confidence.
Growing out my body hair isn’t revolutionary by any means, and I’m not alone in doing it. Young people message me on Instagram every single day telling me how I’ve inspired them be more comfortable experimenting and taking charge of their own bodies.
It’s about more than just body hair, though. It’s about overall body positivity. Openly rejecting the patriarchal ideal of a hairless woman feels especially important given that there are so many other unrealistic expectations out there currently. If I can use my voice and body to show people that beauty comes from inside yourself, that’s a really powerful thing.
I’m aware of my privilege as a cisgender, white, able-bodied woman in being able to do that, though. It is much easier for me to make the choice to grow out my body hair than it is for a person of color, or a trans woman. I’m not a champion of the body hair movement. I’m not. I’m just being myself, and that’s the message I want to send: Be yourself, no matter what, in whatever way you feel most comfortable. Never let anyone else take your identity away from you.