We are hairy beasts, y’all.  As much as we hate to admit it, as much as it makes us squirm, there’s no way to get around that fact. We belong to a class of animals called Mammalia.* We are mammals, which, just for a little biological review, means that we give birth to live young, we’re warm-blooded, we produce milk, and our bodies are covered with hair. But most of the messages we receive from society teach us to give little acknowledgement to our animal-ness, and many of us are more than a little freaked out at the thought of embracing our natural bodies because to do so requires admitting to the similarities between us and other animals.  We tend to think of ourselves as an utterly unique species, but our mammalian characteristics fly in the face of our separatist tendencies.

Natalie Angier, in Woman: An Intimate Geography, gives a tongue-in-cheek explanation as to why we as a species got the scientific names we did, and she explores why our species was linked to the animal kingdom via the breast, instead of by the other characteristics we share with monkeys, pigs, zebras, polar bears — oh, and beavers:

Zoologists accepted that humans were a type of animal, as uncomfortable as the notion was and remains. A taxon was needed that would link humans and other species. Whatever feature Linnaeus [the father of modern science] chose to highlight as the bond between us and them inevitably would become the synecdoche of our beastliness. All mammals are hairy, but men are hairier than women, so Pilosa wouldn’t do. The structure of the ear is too dull to merit immortalization through nomenclature. The breast, however, has romance and resonance, and best of all, it is most highly articulated in women.  In the same volume in which Linnaeus introduced the term Mammalia, he also gave us our species name, Homo sapiens, man of wisdom, the category distinguishing humans (men) from all other species. “Thus within Linnaean terminology, a female characteristic (the lactating mamma) ties humans to brutes, while a traditionally male characteristic (reason) marks our separateness,” Schiebinger writes. Through zoology and taxonomic reinforcement of woman’s earthiness, rational men found convenient justification for postponing matters of women’s rights until woman’s reason, her sapientia, was fully established (134).

So Linnaeus, as generous and thoughtful as ever, “hog-tied us to other mammals by our possession of teats” (Angier 135). But why not our hair? Having hair is part of our physiology and serves quite a few very useful and needed biological functions. It’s a pretty important part of being a mammal. Hair does great things for us. Hair on our bodies serves as protection, barrier, thermal insulation, as a sensory security system against potentially dangerous crawly things, and last but certainly not least, sensual pleasure.  Hair protects us by absorbing radiation, eyebrows redirect water and sweat away from our eyes, and armpit and pubic hair reduce friction in the closest of quarters.

This makes me wonder: What’s wrong with having hair on our bodies? Why do we spend so much time and energy finding ways to rid ourselves of our hair? How do we compromise our biological systems when we do so?

For starters, caustic chemical treatments cause skin rashes, redness, itchiness, and burning.  Shaving and waxing can cause ingrown hairs, and can irritate the other structures of the skin, causing pH imbalance and skin inflammation, both of which can increase the development of acne and other skin problems.

Hair covers our whole body, every inch of it, except the soles of our feet, the palms of our hands, and our lips. We have hair on the outside of our body, as well at the borderlands between the internal and external body, like the insides of our ears, the lids around our eyes, the inside our nose, and the area surrounding our genitals. It’s all there for a reason. Hair also reminds us, along with the fact that our species bears live children and produces milk, and that our bodies are warmed by our blood, that we are mammals –- that is — we are animals.

If the Fathers of Science classified and positioned breast-barers in a conveniently lower status than non-breast-barers, could claiming and celebrating our hairiness and our place of belonging within the animal kingdom be a way to subvert what science has decreed us to be? Oh yes, I think it could.  Because women are the ones who bare breasts, but both men and women have hair.  We are equal in the biological class Pilosa.

But thanks to Linnaeus’ titillating categorizations, do we as women feel internal pressure to prove our full humanness, our right to claim homo sapien by doing our best to de-emphasize our mammalian characteristics? Waxing our upper lips and shaving our legs are certainly less drastic ways to deny our animalness than voluntary mastectomy.  But less drastic options are nevertheless painful, dangerous, and just plain time-consuming. By our very language, we are forced into a dichotomy—if we are animals we cannot be human and if we are humans, then there’s no way we’re admitting we are animals. Since science historically placed women in this more-animal-than-human category, getting rid of as many visible mammalian characteristics as possible is one way that we can try to “pass” as homo sapien – Men of Reason.  But have we paused to ask ourselves, is that really how we want to self-identify?

Busty ladies are no less human and no less animal than hairy dudes are.  So what is the big freakin’ deal?  We are hairy! We are beasts! Let’s celebrate the power that this fact gives us! I’m not saying that we have to end our hair removal methods and rituals in order to claim this power.  But let’s just pause and ask what’s so scary about being an animal with hair on her body? We don’t have to deny our animal nature in order to have equality with men. But let’s not stop at gender equality. Let us strive for a world that supports respect and appreciation of all living things. Let’s stop seeing humans as superior to the rest of the living world.  Let’s stop thinking we’re better than the hairy ones, the feathered ones, and the scaly ones, because–hello!—we are covered with hair too.

We can celebrate our hair as our membership pass to the rest of the natural world – to give ourselves a sense of belonging in the wondrous and beautiful biotic community we are a part of, whether or not we personally choose to pay attention to it. By accepting and celebrating our animal nature, we suddenly are able to connect to everything around us (the trees, the birds, the river, and the ground that’s underneath the sidewalks we walk) in a way that’s mutually supportive and not from a place that sees nature in opposition to human civilization.  To me, this sounds like a pretty sweet deal.  We have hair because we are animals, and that’s not such a bad thing.

*Just in case you’re wondering, biological taxonomic classification of humans is as follows: Homo sapiens, of the family Homonidae (us and the apes), of the order Primates, of the class Mammalia, of the Phylum Chordata (vertebrates), of the Kingdom Animalia (as opposed to Plantae, Fungi, Protista, or Monera).