Skip to content

Backstories 2022

Olivia Knowles

“To shave or not to shave?” Olivia shares the moments she discovered people’s disgust and fear of women’s body hair.

This story was collected at our Margaret River backyard and is told by Olivia Knowles. Olivia shares the moment she discovered people’s disgust and fear of women’s body hair and how she is trying to unravel society’s conditioning of female beauty standards.

Backstories 2022 is a multi-sited storytelling festival located in suburbs of across Perth and regional Western Australia. In 2022, Backstories occurred in locations such as Geraldton, Kununurra, Bunbury, Margaret River and Lesmurdie.

Backstories 2022 Margaret River was made possible with funding from LotterywestDepartment of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, and Centre for Stories Founders Circle.

Interested in creating your own Backstories event? Get in touch at

Copyright © 2023 Olivia Knowles.

Photo by Ovis Creative Photography.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

This story was published on 9 August 2023.

View Story Transcript

Hi, I’m Olivia and this is my story. I remember being 13 and standing in my parent’s bathroom. I had my right leg up, bent over the sink, my foot in the basin full of warm soapy water. And my mum was gliding the razor up my leg in soft, gentle strokes and clumps of black and gold shaving cream, bobbing on the water.

And I’m feeling a little bit awkward in this moment of mother-daughter familial intimacy. And taunts from the school day echo in my head. Ew, gross, your legs are hairy. I didn’t realize that my… My hairy legs were gross until someone told me so. So I came home that afternoon and I asked my mum, can I shave my legs?

I was so embarrassed. I felt so much shame that day. And she went quiet and sort of pursed her lips a little bit. And she was probably thinking that. You know, I was crossing this threshold, the first of many, um, in high school and she didn’t say yes or no, just that she would show me how. So I’m there in the bathroom and I’m watching the thin, long, pale hair disappear from my legs, detach and, you know, float away over the water.

And like, I’m so glad to see it go. Like, I hope that it never grows back. But of course it does, and so begins this ritual of, you know, hypervigilance, always checking, you know, making sure my legs aren’t, you know, too hairy, too prickly, too gross. And I really learned how to fit in, you know, just enough, that I didn’t stand out.

After high school, I went on to study an arts degree and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up. So I just picked something that I enjoyed. And it was great because I could choose all my own like majors and minors and the units that I wanted to do based on my curiosity, um, and also based on what collection of units allowed me to create a really awesome timetable.

And that’s how I ended up in this unit called bodies and spaces. And I don’t actually remember very much about the unit itself apart from this one class. And it was all about body hair. And we spent time looking at body hair across history, across different cultures, how body hair is perceived, um, across different genders, the impact of capitalism and marketing.

And for something that I had done for so long, like unexamined and unquestioned, like my mind was just blown, like I had never thought about, body hair in this way before. And so I remember like leaving class. And just thinking, like, why do I do this? Like, why do I shave my legs? And I sort of vowed from that moment that I was going to stop shaving my legs.

Which I did. And not long after, my armpits, my armpit hair stayed too. And parallel to this time, I was growing really comfortable in my identity as a queer woman. And I’d met so many people from the LGBTIQA+ community who were expressing themselves in such a diverse and authentic range of ways.

And in doing so, they really created space for me to feel like I could do the same, to explore who I was and how I wanted to, you know, express that and present that, to the world around me. And I felt a lot less pressure to, you know, conform to the expectations of mainstream society and, you know, present, my body in a way that was deemed acceptable.

And so I felt like I had a lot more space and freedom to make my own rules. And my body hair was clearly intact and I felt so comfortable in my own skin. So after a few years of uni, I decided to take a semester off and go travelling in South America for three months. And it was a really whirlwind trip.

It was, you know, like full of a lot of exciting stuff and when I got to the end of the trip, I knew that I just wanted to spend my last few days relaxing by the beach, in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, um, reading my book, sipping cocktails, just chilling out. And I knew that I wanted to do like all of that while wearing one of those, teeny weeny Brazilian bikinis, the ones that have like the tiny triangle at the front, and the even smaller triangle at the back.

And in order to really pull that off, I knew that I needed to get the Brazilian wax to go with it because when in Rome. So I felt really, you know, confident. I’ve got this, you know, bikini and I’m walking along, on the way back to the hostel and I pass this beauty salon and I’m like, okay, I’m going to, I’m going to do it.

I’m going to get this wax and then I’ll be ready to go, you know, at the beach the next day. So I walk in and I don’t speak any Portuguese at all. And this is pre iPhone time. So I only have my sort of trusty lonely planet language guide with me and all the sort of charade skills that I can muster up.

So I go in and after, you know, 10 minutes or so of back and forth, with the salon lady, I’m feeling pretty confident that I’ve booked the appointment that I need. And so she leads me up the stairs, like it’s going to happen there. And then there’s no time for me to leave and, you know, back out or second guess my decision.

I’m in here now. So I follow her up the stairs and down this long corridor, past a group of ladies on the right who are having their, you know, their tea break. We go into the room opposite and, you know, the lights are these sort of bright fluoro lights. The room is white. There’s like one of those fold out beds in the corner and, you know, the confidence that I had in booking my appointment and all the adrenaline and, you know, that back and forth charades sort of starts to disappear.

Like I become very aware that I’m in unfamiliar territory. I don’t know the protocols here. I haven’t done this in my home country, in my first language, let alone, you know, where I am now. So I am feeling a little bit nervous. I don’t know what to expect and I definitely don’t want to take my knickers off too soon.

So I sort of realized she’s chatting to me about what to do and I understand that I need to go over, to the bed. I need to take off my pants and I need to get on the table. And she hands me one of those little, sort of like modesty paper towels. So I do that and I’m hopping on the table, starting to feel really nervous.

I’m sweating a bit. I’m holding the towel. And I’m looking up into the lights and thinking like this, you know, this doesn’t feel very comfortable. This sort of reminds me of the first time that I got a pap smear. And then this pain, like I have never felt before, the pain of hot wax being applied to, you know, one of the most sensitive areas of the body to years worth of pubic hair with the force of, you know, a woman who’s on a mission.

And is, you know, taking on this challenge with full gusto and I just dissolve into this mess on the table. I’m sweating profusely. I’m grabbing the side of the wall, I’m crying out. I’m trying to tell her that this is the most pain that I’ve, you know, ever been in. And she doesn’t care. She doesn’t really understand what I’m saying.

She’s just laughing. She keeps going. She’s ripping and ripping and ripping and I, you know, I’m trying to tell her and I realize she’s not listening, but she’s talking. And then I realized she’s talking to the ladies across the hall who can all hear me crying out. She’s laughing at me. I feel like they’re laughing at me.

And I kind of start laughing at myself because I think like, you know, I paid money for this. And in my delirium at some point, I remember glancing down and I realised that she had taken everything off. Like I thought that she was going to leave me, um, a strip or one of those like fancy designs that I’d heard that people got.

But no, it was all gone. And I remember when I went back to the hostel later, like I didn’t recognize myself, but I wore that bikini for the next few days on the beach and I read my book and I relaxed and I, you know, I drunk cocktails and I didn’t have to worry about a pube out of place, but it was certainly the first and last time.

So, I’m 34 now and I’ve been on a journey with my body hair for two decades now. But things still pop up from time to time that sort of remind me of how deep the conditioning goes. I remember a couple of years ago, a colleague said to me, Oh, I really wish I could grow my armpit hair, but I don’t want to be, you know, I don’t want to be seen as unprofessional.

And that certainly made me think, you know, when I’m taking, you know, public transport to work in summer, you know, holding the rail on the train, or I’m giving a presentation in a sleeveless top, like, sometimes I wonder, you know, what people might think. And then more recently, I was a maid of honour for a good friend’s wedding.

And I, you know, I thought then as well, like, there’s going to be…a lot of photos, there’ll be a lot more attention on me as a member of the bridal party. I was already feeling a little bit out of my comfort zone, you know, with everyone getting like tans and waxing and eyebrow appointments and nails done and all of these things that again were kind of, unfamiliar to me and I thought, Oh, should I just, you know, shave my legs?

Like I don’t want to draw, I don’t want to draw attention. So, to shave or not to shave is really, I think, a question, a discussion, an opportunity for self-exploration. And my body hair’s been growing for a long time now, and so have I.

Back to Top