"Girls are often anxious about their armpit hair as if it's a sign of being dirty or uncivilized,. But we should have the freedom to choose whether to accept what grows naturally on our bodies."
Those were the words of Xiao Meili, one of China’s most prominent women’s rights activists.
Ms Xiao’s latest campaign, through a competition titled “Armpit Hair Competition”, is to challenge social norms and to encourage women to take ownership of their bodies and not be dictated to about how they should look.
The goal of the competition is to challenge a growing belief in China that a woman is only attractive if she shaved her armpits.
The contest, launched on China’s popular micro-blog site Weibo on 26 May, calls for the best unshaven armpit photos from the public, and to post the photos with the hashtag “women’s underarm hair contest.”
The page of the contest has thus far attracted thousands of comments and generated debate about the issue, although to date there aren’t as many photos contributed as perhaps the organisers would like.
“Men have more freedom in terms of what to do with their bodies,” Ms. Xiao was reported to have said by the Chinese media. “I’m not calling on everybody to grow underarm hair. I’m just saying if some people don’t want to shave, the rest of us should not think their underarm hair is disgusting, unhygienic, uncivil or not feminine enough.”
Her campaign is supported by other prominent activists, such as Wei Tingting, Li Tingting and Zheng Churan.
The trio are famous for being detained by the Chinese authorities for planning a campaign in March against sexual harassment on China’s public transport system. They have since been released but remain under police investigations.
"I think this competition is very meaningful,” Ms Li Tingting said. “Consumerism is gender-based. The market is filled with all kinds of shaving products for women. We need some space to think about why women are obliged to shave ourselves."
"Men walk around half naked in China all the time, why can't women?" she asked. "For women, we need to free our minds and our bodies.
"For me, my body is my battlefield," Ms Li added.
Ms Li contributed a half-naked photo of herself with her hands raised to reveal her unshaven armpits for the contest.
“Women’s armpit hair is considered to be offensive, rude and ungraceful — how come it makes people so uncomfortable?” asked Xiao Yue, a 26-year-old feminist. “Women’s underarm hair can be adorable, interesting, humorous, sexy, serious, connotative and ever-changing.”
The “Armpit Hair Competition” follows that last month of the Hairy Legs Club’s call on tumblr for women to not shave their legs, and to post photos of their unshaven legs online. This was to make a statement about social expectation of women’s beauty.
Women from all over the world responded by ditching the razor and uploaded photos of themselves to the site.
Ms Xiao’s contest, however, is not the first in China to shine a spotlight on the issue of armpit hair.
Last year, another Weibo user initiated a similar contest, called “Girls not plucking their armpit hair”. The photos in that contest attracted a respectable 30 million views.
Winners in Ms Xiao’s contest stand to win various prizes, including the first prize of 100 condoms, the second is a vibrator and the third is 10 female urination devices, which allow women to urinate while standing up.