From an article titled "I think gorilla-like back effusions of hair are rather a turn-off": 'Excessive hair' and male body hair (removal) discourse.:

For instance, many of the German male athletes, much like their female compatriots, had completely hairless armpits; an observation that seems more than simply anecdotal, having been evidenced in some academic work (e.g., Brдhler, 2011). In contrast, the majority of male athletes from Great Britain and the United States (US) sported a full, bushy look, suggestive of not shaving their armpits – although the same could not be claimed of their chests, backs and abdomens. These cultural differences in depilation appeared almost a reversal of female Olympic athletes’ hair removal practices (or lack thereof) during the 1970s (Lenskyj, 2012). In this earlier period, a number of East German female athletes had hair growing in their underarms, a feature that was located more broadly within wider policing of ideal Olympian femininity, and was viewed as indicative of some-thing being ‘wrong’ with these women (Rosen, 2008). Negatively associated with performance enhancing drugs and differing ideals around feminine athletic embodiment, an ideal image of the female athletic body based in Anglo-gendered-norms was noticeable (Lenskyj, 2012). This criticism was combined with what was already considered a European sensibility (Basow, 1991), still used in negative stereotyping of European women today (see, for instance, Fahs, 2013a).

I don't understand the meaning of this phrase. I have some vague ideas as to its possible human-speak alternative, but I'm not sure.

  • It generally means prevailing cultural norms and expectations determined what was and wasn't appropriate for women (and men) to display in their bodies, and one of the expectations held by British and American cultures, at odds with Eastern European cultures, was that women should be hairless (as a sign of "purity" and "innocence") and when women from Eastern Germany showed up at the Olympics with unshaven armpits, they were perceived as flawed, or at least un-feminine, by the West.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 6, 2016 at 15:20
  • 3
    It's academic-ese; none of the words are misused, technically speaking, but the words were deliberately employed to give an objective, clinical, gloss to what ultimately is a criticism. By the way, the hair itself isn't what's being referred to as a feature (though that would be ok from a prescriptivist English perspective: underarm hair is a feature of your body just as your nose is a feature of your face, and, if you have a nice nose, then maybe one of your best features). Rather the feature in question is the denigration of non-head-hair on women, as "unfeminine" or "primitive".
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 7, 2016 at 16:01
  • 1
    And furthermore, this "feature", the denigration of East German athletes, especially women, was located in a broader discourse, a broader social phenomenon that sought to control women through shaping expectations of what is or is not appropriate for them to do with their own bodies. Just like a passage can be located within a text, this implicit criticism was located within the culture of the West (and believe me, still is).
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 7, 2016 at 16:04
  • 2
    By the way, all this is precisely what makes learning a second language, to the point of true fluency, hard. And why I've personally never had the guts to do it. I respect and admire all your guys very much for doing it!
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 7, 2016 at 16:05
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    That prose is its own hairy armpit.
    – TimR
    Jun 7, 2016 at 22:04

3 Answers 3


In this earlier period, a number of East German female athletes had hair growing in their underarms, a feature that was located more broadly within wider policing of ideal Olympian femininity, and was viewed as indicative of some-thing being ‘wrong’ with these women (Rosen, 2008).

This sentence is saying:

  • There is a "policing" of "ideal Olympian femininity,"

    • To police X means to enforce the ideals or standards of X. It can mean through a defined, legal-like process or through social pressure.
  • The feature of "hair growing in their underarms" is one of the things policed (it is not said by whom nor IMHO clearly implied),

  • it is policied more broadly than something else (that "something else" is not said and IMHO not really clearly implied) [correction] the policing of this feature is done as part of "ideal Olympian femininity" and not something more specific, or by itself. So "hair growing in their underarms" was not "policed" separately but as part of a bigger category,

  • The feature "hair growing in their underarms" is viewed as "some-thing being ‘wrong’ with these women"

The missing information above is not present earlier in the paragraph. That information may be

  • present earlier in the text,

  • somewhere within the in the citation "Rosen, 2000"

    • in this case, the missing information is something either the writer expects you to be familar with or the writer has simply cherry-picked from the citation without fully integrating the information into what he/she was writing.
  • 1
    One quibble: I think by "more broadly" the writer means that there was criticism of this one particular thing -- underarm hair -- but that this was part of a bigger thing -- policing of ideals of femininity in general. That is, policing of underarm hair, but more broadly, policing of ideals of femininity in general.
    – Jay
    Jun 9, 2016 at 16:50
  • Agreed, I updated with a correction. Definitely a tangled web of words in any case.
    – LawrenceC
    Jun 9, 2016 at 16:54

a feature that was located more broadly within wider policing of ideal Olympian femininity, and was viewed as indicative of some-thing being ‘wrong’ with these women

To understand the phrase, we need some background. Background that the writer is assuming that the reader either knows or can follow the references to determine.

During the 60's and 70's the cold war was still bubbling on and women's track and field events at the Olympics were being dominated by Eastern Block, particularly East German, athletes. Many of these women seemed to exhibit characteristics best described as androgynous. We now know that many of these athletes we being forced to take cocktails of drugs to increase their performance, drugs that had side effect with many developing masculine sexual characteristics as a result. Possibly the best known case is of Heidi Krieger, a shot putter who eventually had gender reassignment surgery and now lives as Andreas Krieger A side effect of this was that many genuine athletes who exhibited features that were considered 'male' were suspect

the increased importance of women’s sporting success had resulted in numerous elite female athletes developing traditionally perceived masculine physical characteristics. Broad shoulders, strong muscles, and a desire to win - Femininity Control at the Olympic Games, Amanda Nicole Schweinbenz and Alexandria Cronk

In the 1968 Grenoble winter games gender testing was introduced for the first time under the leadership of Jacques Theibault, head of medical controls for the games.

According to Thiebault, the very name 'sex control' sparked confusion, for it applied to female participants only. He tellingly suggested that the term 'research into femininity' be used instead. In his view, femininity entailed a group of characteristics peculiar to women. - Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women's Sports, Lindsay Parks Pieper

Initially testing was random across a small sample but this was seen as ignoring the most likely offenders...

This 'problem' was best be solved if they tested 'the most obvious' of the athletes. One can assume that 'the most obvious' implied the women who did not subscribe to Western femininity. - Pieper

So, that's the background that led to the policing that is talked about: on the one hand a genuine problem of systemic drug abuse and on the other, a cultural expectation of 'Olympian' archetypes that female competitors were expected to comply to.

Sorry that was a bit long-winded, but it's needed to provide the context to the statement.

The writer is observing that the underarm hair was a characteristic that did not match with the prevailing image of the Olympian female form - therefore it raised suspicions that the women concerned were, by association either cheats or not 'proper' women.


This convoluted text is referring to some sort of de facto pop-culture grooming code for the Olympics. The passage itself forms half of a careless solecism:

a feature that was located..., and was viewed...

Which could be corrected to:

a feature which was located..., and that was viewed...

And includes sorry redundancies like:

more broadly within wider

These four words mean widespread or popular.

Boiling it down:

In the 1970s East German female athletes had hairy armpits, but modern sexist Olympic committees are run by clean-shaven Anglo-Americans who act like grooming police, and they tried making people think there must be something being ‘wrong’ with those German women (Rosen, 2008).

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