History and Misconceptions About Women's Body Hair

by Rachael A. 18 days ago in hair

Why it's so taboo, and how that hurts women.

History and Misconceptions About Women's Body Hair

When I first started dating my boyfriend (now husband), I was nervous of the first time he would see me naked. There were the usual insecurities and normal sense of vulnerability associated with being so exposed to someone for the first time, but there was an additional layer of worry for me.

I don’t shave. At all.

I had stopped shaving several months before meeting my husband and my shaving had become pretty irregular prior to that. I had become a lot more comfortable with my body hair than I had been when I first started letting it grow out, but there were still lingering moments of insecurity and self-consciousness. I would get comfortable with my grown-out hair during the winter, then, at the first hint of warm summer weather, I would go to put on a pair of shorts and start to second-guess myself. Beaches were a test of courage.

Thankfully, I lucked out with my husband. He genuinely doesn’t care about women shaving. He knows the advent of female hair removal didn’t really become hugely normative in North America until around WWI and WWII, [1,2,3,4] and he knows there’s nothing inherently dirty or gross about body hair.

That shouldn’t be remarkable. Body hair is, after all, perfectly natural, and the same body hair on male bodies receives no ire or accusations of poor hygiene. And yet I know I’m not alone in the fear of people commenting on my body hair. This is a concern felt by most (if not all) North American women, especially in the summer, when hot weather makes it much more likely that we’ll be baring our legs and underarms to the world.

Photo by Alexander Krivitsk on Unsplash

These aren’t unfounded fears, either.

Women not shaving is frequently met with visceral disgust. A great example of this can be seen in the work of comic artist Yehuda Devir in a piece titled Winter is here. In it, the artist’s female partner is depicted unshaven—but exaggeratedly so, to the point that she has thick patches of hair more akin to fur. The animalistic depiction doesn’t stop there, however, as she is also shown with fangs, claws, and glowing yellow eyes, creating an appearance that is more werewolf than human. In the background, Devir can be seen facepalming and saying, “I hate the winter!” [5] This vividly communicates that women who don’t shave are disgusting, comparable to animals or monsters, and people in their life (especially male romantic partners) must suffer for their repulsive appearance.

Men are also not shy about voicing their specific preferences regarding female body hair, as evidenced by the responses of men to Get The Gloss’s questions on this topic. [6] Some say they simply ask that their partner be kempt and keep things under control, but that stray hairs, rashes from shaving, or any kind of facial hair are a big turn off. A recurring complaint is that a woman having more hair than a man makes him feel emasculated. And some bold men even go so far as to say that women shouldn’t have any hair below their eyebrows. As one man explained in great detail: “I like it when they get their arms and legs waxed and eyebrows threaded in particular. Waxing is definitely my preferred method of hair removal as it totally removes all of the hair and leaves a girl’s skin feeling silky smooth. As for downstairs, I think it’s all about a Brazilian.” [6] In regards to pubic hair specifically, a survey found that 30% of men listed women not shaving their nether regions as a deal-breaker in a relationship, 40% “had asked their partners to change the way they groom their pubic hair,” and only 6% preferred an unshaven woman. [7]

When Alysa Zavala-Offman embarked on an experiment of not shaving for a year, she received many negative responses from people in her life. Her husband, upon learning that she was no longer shaving, was openly repulsed by her, said he wasn’t attracted to men, and curled up in a ball and cried. One of Zavala-Offman’s best friends confided in her about her own husband’s reaction to learning that Zavala-Offman was no longer shaving. He ranted about how seeing her leg hair was disgusting, even when it was just peeking out from the bottom of her pant leg. [4]

It isn’t just men that react negatively to women not shaving, though. An article on WomenNow offered a long list of reasons why women should shave their body hair. Most of these focus on supposed hygienic benefits of shaving, as well as beauty and attractiveness to men. [8] As this comes from a women’s magazine, it is—at least in theory—supposed to be written by women, for women. Even still, it promotes the same arguments against women growing body hair that many men have made. There are also much more direct and personal examples of women policing each other for not shaving. Adeline Straatmeyer, in an interview with Refinery29, said that the women she ran with on the track team made several judgemental comments when they learned she had stopped shaving. [9] And Zavala-Offman was called disgusting by her own mother. [4]

When I was in university, my sociology courses dealt heavily with societal inequalities and prejudices, including unfair treatment faced by women. The way we were taught to approach such problems was to ask two questions: How did we get here? And who benefits?

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

How did we get here?

There have been a variety of shaving practices and expectations throughout history. Cave people removed hair from their heads and faces to protect themselves during fights. [1] Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians removed all of their hair for purposes of cleanliness and beauty. [1,2] In both of these examples, the expectations laid on men and women, not women exclusively. However, during ancient Rome, hair removal trends targeting women emerged; specifically, removing pubic hair was a sign of cleanliness and a marker of class among women. [1,2] Pressure to remove hair did became lax later on in history, with Elizabethan era fashion allowing women to avoid shaving their legs (though they were expected to shape their eyebrows and remove upper lip hair), [1,2] and the 1700s and 1800s brought about a period in which women were mostly able to do whatever they wanted with their body hair. [1]

Then came the safety razor. This was originally for men, as was shaving in general at that point in history. [1,2] The safety razor, combined with indoor plumbing and private bathrooms in the home, meant that shaving became a much cheaper and safer activity for the average person. [2] However, shaving was still widely regarded as a masculine practice, so when Gillette released a safety razor targeted at women in 1915, it was met with hesitance and skepticism. [2]

At the time, women were really only expected to remove so-called “unsightly” hair from their face and neck. This was largely done with depilatory creams, which could be expensive and dangerous. [2] There was definite appeal in using safety razors. But there was also definite social stigma—no woman wanted to be shunned for the manly practice of shaving. When the men returned from the war, women began secretly using their razors to shave. [2]

But fashion and advertising would take strides to push women to buy their own razors. The biggest push was the emergence of sleeveless dresses, which were paired with the imperative that women must remove unsightly hair from the underarm region in order to wear these dresses appropriately. [1,2,3] This pressure would rise and shift with WWII, when hemlines rose and stockings were hard to come by due to nylon and silk shortages, leading to women beginning to shave their legs. [1,2,3] By about 1964, “98% of all American women aged 15-44 shaved their legs regularly.” [2]

Hair removal didn’t stop at the legs and underarms, though. Porn and fashion adverts throughout the 1980s and 1990s pushed more and more images of women with shaved pubic hair—either trimmed into submission or completely removed. [1] Women followed suit with their own grooming practices.

Throughout this history, body hair on women came to be regarded as dirty and repulsive. But, as it turns out, these ideas are entirely unfounded. Body hair serves several important purposes in humans.

Unlike apes and other mammals, the hair that covers our bodies is thin and short. This is to allow for temperature regulation in extreme heat via sweating. Some areas of the body, however, tend to have thicker hair, such as the underarms and genital regions. Apocrine glands in these areas release strong-smelling chemicals that are unique to the individual and aid in attracting sexual partners, much like pheromones. These odors can be amplified when they’re caught in the hair around the glands. [10]

Our hair is also helpful in protecting us from parasites such as bloodsucking insects. When an insect lands on a hairy arm, we notice it a lot faster than if it were to land on a hairless arm. [11]

Lastly, despite claims to the contrary, pubic hair is actually better at keeping our bodies clean. Hair in the nether regions is linked with lower risk of infections because it creates a natural barrier. [7]

This means that pressure for women to remove body hair is largely based in completely unfounded ideals of hygiene. Worse, the intense norms that drive women to continue body hair removal practices can actually jeopardize their health by disregarding the natural functions of such hair.

Photo by pina messina on Unsplash

And who benefits?

The hair removal industry, which is part of the larger beauty industry, is a growing market. According to Transparency Market Research, by the end of 2022, the hair removal industry is set to make gains of $1.35 billion USD globally. [12, 13] Part of what helps this growth is the increasing popularity of at-home hair removal.

That’s a big number, but what does that mean for women as individuals? Well, it varies. Different women have different hair removal practices. For example, an article from Refinery29 shows that there can be significant fluctuation in the cost of hair removal from woman to woman, depending on what methods she uses, how often she does it, and how thick or visible her hair growth is. One woman reported spending only £90 per year, while another spent £1,008. Another good demonstration of this variation is from one woman who reported her costs before and after laser hair removal. Prior, it was about £1,200 per year, while after the laser it was down to £400. [14]

Going off of averages, however, women spend about £23,000 on waxing in their lifetime, or £6,500 on shaving in her life. [15] In USD, that’s roughly $30,000 and $8,500 on waxing and shaving, respectively. Yikes.

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Where do we go from here?

I don’t know about you, but lining the pockets of already super wealthy corporations so they can continue feeding off the insecurities they manufactured through completely unscientific claims about hygiene is not exactly on my to-do list.

But (understandably) a lot of people probably look at a problem like this and think it’s so much bigger than them, so big that whatever personal choice they make isn’t going to leave any lasting impact. Not so, my friend. That analysis by Transparency Market Research found that the biggest threat to the gains in the hair removal market is “the increasing trend of accepting one’s appearance in its truest form.” [13]

Choosing to embrace your body hair can also have a ripple effect on the women around you. During Zavala-Offman’s year of not shaving, she felt alien and pressured to conform just by the simple fact that she didn’t see any other women who had body hair. [4] And many women have begun posting images of themselves with unshaven underarms to promote self-love and fight the unfair policing of women’s bodies. [9]

Even if you don’t feel comfortable growing it out, you can also help by just being supportive. Show love and stand up for the ladies getting hate when they post pictures of their fuzzy bodies on social media. Don’t let outdated and completely unscientific social norms pit you against other women.

References:

  1. Lubitz, Rachel. 2016. ‘The Unusual and Deeply Sexist History of Women Removing Their Body Hair.’ Retrieved January 17, 2019 (https://mic.com/articles/151191/the-unusual-and-deeply-sexist-history-of-women-removing-their-body-hair#.HzDyAnTxB).
  2. Matteo, Virginia. 2018. ‘When Did Women Start Shaving? The History of Female Hair Removal.’ Retrieved January 17, 2019 (https://owlcation.com/humanities/When-Did-Women-Start-Shaving-The-Painful-History-of-Female-Depilation).
  3. Mental Floss. ‘When Did Women Start Shaving Their Pits?’ Retrieved January 17, 2019 (http://mentalfloss.com/article/22511/when-did-women-start-shaving-their-pits).
  4. Zavala-Offman, Alysa. 2017. ‘I Went a Year Without Shaving. Here’s What I Learned About Myself, My Body, and My Relationship.’ Retrieved January 17, 2019 (https://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/i-went-a-year-without-shaving-heres-what-i-learned-about-myself-my-body-and-my-relationship/Content?oid=6748847).
  5. Devir, Yehuda. I hate winter. Retrieved January 17, 2019 (https://www.yehudadevir.com/fullscreen-store-page/comp-joe8wcyo/77551414-3539-47a8-a78e-df4d4e99009c/66/%3Fi%3D66%26p%3Dw50bi%26s%3Dstyle-joe8wcyr).
  6. Foley, Erin. ‘What Men Really Think About Women’s Body Hair.’ Retrieved January 18, 2019 (https://www.bodyrock.tv/men-really-think-womens-body-hair/).
  7. Young, Sarah. 2017. ‘30% of Men Say Pubic Hair is a Relationship Deal-Breaker.’ Retrieved 18, 2019 (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/female-pubic-hair-male-opinion-women-body-relationship-split-deal-breaker-a7705861.html).
  8. Zeeshan, Nousheen. ’19 Reasons to Shave Body Hair.’ Retrieved January 18, 2019 (https://womennow.in/19-reasons-shave-body-hair/).
  9. Lubitz, Rachel. 2018. ‘6 Women on Why They’re Over Shaving Their Armpit Hair.’ Retrieved January 17, 2019 (https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/women-not-shaving-armpit-hair).
  10. Conger, Cristen. ‘Why Do Humans Have Body Hair?’ Retrieved January 17, 2019 (https://health.howstuffworks.com/human-body/parts/human-body-hair2.htm).
  11. Choi, Charles Q. 2011. ‘Why We Still Have Body Hair.’ Retrieved January 17, 2019 (https://www.livescience.com/17459-human-body-hair-parasite-detection.html).
  12. Sena, Matt. ‘Beauty Industry Analysis 2018 – Cost & Trends.’ Retrieved January 23, 2019 (https://www.franchisehelp.com/industry-reports/beauty-industry-analysis-2018-cost-trends/).
  13. Transparency Market Research. 2017. ‘Hair Removal Market to Gain a Value of US $1.35 Billion by the End of 2022 Globally: Transparency Market Research.’ Retrieved January 23, 2019 (https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/10/18/1149031/0/en/Hair-Removal-Market-to-Gain-a-Value-of-US-1-35-Billion-by-the-End-of-2022-Globally-Transparency-Market-Research.html).
  14. Murray, Georgia. 2017. ‘This is How Much Time & Money We Spend on Hair Removal a Year.’ Retrieved January 23, 2019 (https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2017/11/181852/time-money-hair-removal#slide-1).
  15. Thornhill, Emily. 2017. ‘This is How Much Women Spend on Hair Removal in Their Lifetime.’ Retrieved January 23, 2019 (https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/beauty/hair/news/a41199/women-spend-cost-waxing-hair-removal-lifetime/).

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Rachael A.
Rachael A.
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