Rachel McAdams' natural body isn't 'empowering', it's normal

Opinion: Why the rise of "natural" beauty in Hollywood actually upholds patriarchal standards, rather than changing them.

It might sound ridiculous, but this week's biggest entertainment story is about Rachel McAdams showing her armpit hair in a recent Bustle magazine shoot. Shock, horror, a woman with body hair! We simply must write breathless headlines about how brave she is!

If you're as mortified as I am that a completely normal photoshoot showing a beautiful Hollywood star with a small smattering of armpit hair has taken over your Instagram feed with declarations of how "empowering" said images are, then you'll also be wondering just when the decision to not scrape a razor over your poor, raw armpits every single day of your life, lest someone see some completely natural body hair, became such a revolutionary act.

Rachel McAdams in Bustle magazine
Rachel McAdams has armpit hair, which should come as a shock to nobody. Photos: Bustle

It must be said that Bustle's original story made absolutely zero reference to McAdams' choice to bare her natural armpits, instead opting to highlight her contribution to her craft and pop culture as a whole, as well as her choice to step back from acting to enhance her mental health.

Alas, other publications had other ideas – instead, dragging a video from the bottom of the article, in which McAdams gives her teenage self advice including tips on shaving her legs, to the very top of op-eds declaring her a veritable provocateur for displaying such an outward demonstration of pop feminism. Meanwhile, reactions online have ranged from praising McAdams as empowered, all the way through to declaring that she is now graced with "the ick".


However both angles appear to ignore the key issue here: that such widespread, anxious commentary about us viewing a completely normal woman's body that is shown without being shaved, primped, made-up and photoshopped even exists.

Impossible standards

It's all part of a greater trend priming the rise of "natural" women in Hollywood. Last month we saw Justine Bateman unintentionally become the face of the natural ageing movement, and Jamie Lee Curtis advocating for embracing your natural self as you age. Although on the surface, a movement towards portraying "natural" women in the media seems positive, it also speaks to an impossible new beauty standard; that your normal body should also, always, look magazine-cover ready.

Rachel McAdams in a red dress
McAdams is busy promoting her new film, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Photo: Getty

McAdams may have displayed her underarm hair in a glamorous photoshoot – but is that really so revolutionary? Does a beautiful Hollywood star, styled in expensive outfits and lit perfectly for a photoshoot really empower the average woman? That it's headline-grabbing is, in itself, a way of both profiting off feminist ideals while also providing select environments within which it is acceptable. Would such praise be heaped upon McAdams if she had, for example, displayed her underarm hair on a coffee run, papped by street photographers?

Steeped in sexism

The beautifying and commodifying of natural female body features like underarm hair, in order to garner clicks, is covertly steeped in sexism. Headlines written in order to profit off pop feminism are one-offs, intended to show shallow support for women's movements without delivering any real support behind them.

That she likely had to even ask for the publication not to photoshop her pictures exposes the double standards at play here. If we're so supportive of women's natural bodies, why do we routinely require them to be edited – oftentimes dramatically, and without their consent? Even an ultra-thin beauty like Zendaya isn't immune from being photoshopped. Why is displaying our natural body hair without retouching headline-worthy? Such faux-feminism simply reinforces traditional beauty norms, by placing things like underarm hair in the "other" box.

It's true that McAdams has made a bold choice in subverting the patriarchal expectation that women appear hair-free – various studies have shown that women with body hair are perceived by men as more aggressive, active and strong. But why shouldn't she? And why should it leave us still so shocked? Is there a perception that McAdams is some kind of modern temptress – the woman who launched a thousand op-eds, simply for appearing as her natural self?

After all, women's natural bodies aren't "empowering" – they're normal. And it would do us all a service to treat them as such.

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