Woman who gave up shaving debates prickly subject on British talkshow

Can it EVER be socially acceptable to have hairy armpits?

Like it or not, there are few sights more arresting than a woman with a hairy armpit. The unfettered growth of female underarm and leg hair is considered one of the ultimate social taboos, dismissed as the kind of eccentric behaviour that should only adopted by hippies.

But while as a society we are used to removing all our body hair, one woman has decided to challenge the notion that women must be hair-free to be happy.

Graduate student Emer O'Toole from Dublin decided to stop shaving for good 18 months ago when she came to the conclusion that too much pressure is put upon women to conform to what she calls 'artificial gender norms'.

Appearing on This Morning to debate the prickly subject, Ms O'Toole admitted that she started shaving at the age of 14, simply because it was expected of her. But now she hopes to challenge - and change - such expectations.

'I started examining my own relationship with my body, and my body hair,' she told Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langford in this morning's discussion.

'Why did I feel I had to shave? I thought back to when I first started shaving. When I sprouted hair at 14, I didn't think, "will I shave or not?". I just knew I had to shave it off.'

Appearing alongside Ms O'Toole on the sofa was salon owner Michelle Devine, who was said to be 'disgusted' by body hair.

Ms Devine, who admitted to being impressed by Ms O'Toole's self-confidence, said that girls - herself and her young daughters included - would have been bullied in gym class if they had shown signs of even fine blonde hair on their legs.

As a result, she depilated from an early age, and continues to do so now. 'It makes me feel feminine' she said. 'I don't have a husband or boyfriend - I do it for myself.'

And a staggering 80 per cent of the viewers agreed with her, as a live vote carried out during the debate saw an overwhelming majority of those calling in saying they were horrified by the idea of a woman with hairy legs and armpits.

Ms O'Toole mentioned a recent scandal in Dublin where salon owners were accused of offering 'virgin hair' waxes to 11 and 12 year-olds, claiming that such early action would ensure full adult hair never developed.

It is this kind of scandalous behaviour that Ms O'Toole claimed was adversely affecting young girls, adding to the already growing pressure they feel to remove all their hair from a young age.

After 18 months, Ms O'Toole says she is now almost entirely comfortable with her armpit and leg hair - and indeed, during the show, at Eamonn's request, she raises her arms to display the dark hair underneath. Singing 'get your pits out for the lads,' she appears to be brimming with confidence.

She has had moments, she admits, where she has reached for a cardigan to cover them up - but it's women, not men, who are most offended by her armpits and legs.

Men are utterly unfazed by the hair, she says, citing the fact that they too have hairy armpits as the reason for their acceptance.

Indeed, she says she could change the negative perceptions of the (mostly female) detractors if she had a chance to talk to them.

'We have to challenge the bullying,' she said. 'Over the past 18 months, if I've felt awkward in a certain outfit that shows my hairy armpits, I've started to examine where my confidence comes from.

'If it's my looks, and my self-esteem is linked to that, then I've realised I need to find other sources for that confidence.

'Your looks aren't with you when you wake up in the morning if you have to put your make-up on first. And they don't stay with you as you age.'

For Ms Devine's part, she was impressed, but unswayed. 'I wish I could bottle some of that confidence and sprinkle it on my daughter's before they go to school,' she said.

'You are making a stand for us ladies,' she added. 'People whisper and talk about you, but you don't mind - I'm impressed with your confidence'

This Morning's Twitter followers were less impressed. 'Definitely shave! Women with body hair are disgusting,' said one.

'Even Roman women removed their hair. Get plucking!' said another.

But one, in the overwhelming minority, said 'it's your body, so do as you please.'