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Opening Arguments

The armpit of change

The silly people are in charge and, God! they just won't shut up:

Breanne Fahs, a professor of gender and women’s studies at ASU, is offering bonus points to female students who grow their leg and armpit hair for 10 weeks during the semester. And male students (would be unfair to leave them out) seeking extra credit are tasked with shaving every inch of body hair from the neck down. Participants are required to keep a diary of hirsute “experiences,” along with others’ reactions to furry thighs and stubbly chests.

It’s all part of a social experiment Fahs has incorporated into her course curriculum since 2010. “There’s no better way to learn about societal norms than to violate them and see how people react,” Fahs told ASU News, a student newspaper. “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.”

Indeed, one female student told ASU News that cultivating a hairy existence was a “life-changing experience.” Friends were repulsed. Her mother was horrified. But she came away from the experience empowered by her newly politicized perception of grooming habits. “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.”

Another student confessed that before taking part in Fahs’ “activist project” she was apathetic about “gendered socialization in our culture,” but has since urged other professors to motivate more “armchair activist[s] theorizing in the classroom.”

Down with "gendered socialization in our culture"! Away, "socially prescrbed gender roles"! Be gone, "societal norms"! Hooray for the empowerment of the "life-changing experience" of growing armpit hair.

Not real deep thinking here. Hell, that wouldn't have been anything but knee-jerk, reactioanry liberal cant even back in the 1970s when a lot of the feminist bushwa seemed fresh and was relatively entertaining.

Look, they can break all the "societal norms" they want to and even tell themselves they're doing something important or at least halfway interesting. It's a good thing to get out of the way in your 20s, though, so you can look back from adulthood and be properly embarrassed by the whole thing. If you wait till your 40s, you're going to look pathetic, not daring.

Societal norms -- even gender ones -- exist for a reason. They're the way we keep track of what kind of behavior is expected of us. Knowing when and under what circumstances to go outside them is part of the human experience. But that does require knowing what they are. It's like being a creative writer. You can break the spelling or grammar rules when you think it will be effective, but you first have to know what the rules are.

Remember that dust-up over the Tweets about Miss Indiana having a "normal" body? Boy, that got the "societal norm" nuts out in droves. Such pageants create false priorities by elevating beauty to ridiculous heights! They encourage women to care more about looks than brains! What about all those poor fat girls and thin girls?

Somewhere in all that, it occurred to somebody to point out that "average" and "normal" aren't the same thing. One is a purely objective mathematical construct -- we can say with certainty that Miss Indiana does or does not have an "average" female body. But "normal" is a subjective standard depending on society's aggregate opinion. Whether Miss Indiana has a "normal" body depends in large part on who is doing the describing.

That's a fine insight, but it isn't nearly enough. We need both objective and subjective standards to make our way. "Normal" doesn't lose it's validity just because it is subjective. "Normal" is in, fact, a useful concept that tells us where a society is at any given moment. And most people know what it is. If we didn't know what the old normal was, how could we understand all this "new normal" stuff the commentators keep throwing at us?

Furthermore, when a certain number of people have a certain view of what normal is, doesn't that get us almost to the concept of normal as an objective standard?

Here's Mortimer Adler in one of the chapters on beauty in his "Six Great Ideas":

"But we have no right to impose our taste on others unless we can find grounds for prescribing oughts in the sphere of the enjoyable. Even if such grounds cannot be found, we may still find that beauty is not entirely in the eye -- or the mind -- of the beholder."

And I'll give the last word to Jeffrey Deaver, who has the novelist's knack for obliquely noting the way standards change over time. In "The Skin Collector," his latest Lincoln Rhyme mystery/thriller, he has a scene in which a tattoo artist complains about the sort of people who get tattoos today:

"Tats used to be insidious. The inked were bad boys and girls. Now getting a work's like putting on a charm bracelet or a tie. There's a joke somebody's going to open a tattoo franchise in strip mals. Call it Tatbucks."

Go ahead and flout the norms. But if enough people do, "normal" doesn't disappear. It just changes. Tattos are "normal" now, so to be an outlaw, you have to pierce your body in bizarre places and disfigure it in all sorts of unspeakable ways.

Or -- God help us -- grow armpit hair. Go put on some deodarant, you disgusting rebel you.