Nowadays, a woman has a choice – to shave or not to shave her legs, armpits, or intimate hair, with many removal options available, including creams, waxes, shaving and high tech laser removal. However the decision to go au natural remains controversial. Even pop culture has weighed in on the conversation, with women on television showing and talking about their body hair. We’ve progressed to the point where even lingerie ads feature women with body hair.
In the beginning
The history of hair removal can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. Investing much time into the whole idea of a beauty regime, both men and women removed all body hair, including their heads, considering body hair to be uncivilised, dirty and a sign of low birth. They used tweezers made from seashells, pumice stones and beeswax and sugar waxes, and the first razors, made from copper, have been dated back to 3000 BCE. There’s also evidence that women and men in ancient Turkey used homemade pastes to remove much of their body hair.
This idea of class and cleanliness carried over into the time of the Roman Empire, as you can see with many of the statues from this period – all are shaved. Wealthy Roman women used similar methods as the Egyptians for hair removal.
Jumping forward in time, things hadn’t changed in the Middle Ages, with women’s body hair still seen as a class thing. However, the fashion, as dictated by Elizabeth I, was to remove visible facial hair, rather than the body hair hidden by layers and layers of finery. Eyebrows were removed, along with shaving the hairlines, giving the impression of a larger forehead and higher brow which was seen to signify status and a higher level of intellect (hence the term high-brow meaning clever and upper class).
In the late 18th Century, a more civilised approach to hair removal came about when Jean Jacques Perret, a French barber, created the first straight razor. Originally designed for men’s facial hair, women adopted the idea of a straight blade, despite this being one of the few eras when there wasn’t a standard dictate for women’s body hair. This was closely followed by Camp Gillette bringing out his safety razor in the 1800s. Around that time, Poudre Subtile, the first effective depilatory cream not made from cat faeces, was produced for ‘women of refinement’.
Harking back to the idea of social class, in the early 1900s adverts for creams began appearing that claimed they removed the ‘humiliating growth of hair on the face, neck, and arms’ (legs and pubis could be ignored though, apparently) , but by the 1920s fashion started to play more of a role. As sleeveless dresses were becoming popular, leading fashion magazines began featuring models with raised arms, displaying bare armpits. The adverts chose their words carefully to sell products, still playing on the enduring role of social class – body hair removal was seen as a ‘necessity’ and a ‘feature of good dressing, good grooming and good class’, while other ads claimed you’d be ‘unloved and embarrassed’ if you had ‘ugly, noticeable, and unwanted hair’. If you shaved, however, you were seen as dainty, attractive, feminine and stylish.
The politics of shaving
This view continued into war time, and the nylon shortage meant women had to forgo stockings and have bare legs, encouraging Remington to bring out the first electric razor for women. Posters of glamourous pin-ups, such as Betty Garble, with her smooth shapely legs, encouraged women to shave, and it became an act of patriotism. Much like makeup and red lipstick at the time, being beautiful was seen as a duty to the country, boosting both the morale of the nation and the soldiers missing home. Makeup ads used phrases such as ‘Keep Up Morale for National Defense’ underneath their lipstick ads, and shaving was seen as the same civic duty.
With the introduction of the bikini in 1946, the stage was set for women to start trimming pubic hair again. In the 1950s, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine introduced clean-shaven, scantily-clad models, and sexy, lingeried women became benchmarks for the ideal look.
As skirts got shorter into the 60s, wax strips soon became the removal method of choice, but as the decade moved on, electrolysis and lasers entered the mainstream as safe and reliable methods.
However, at the same time the feminist movement was gaining momentum and turning its back on the idea of removing hair, in favour of the natural look. Women began to bring to attention the fact that shaving was just a social construct – a woman with body hair wasn’t unfeminine, a form of control and a way to push products.
This trend became part of wider counterculture phenomena. Anxieties about women’s emancipation were articulated, and flaunting female body hair became a method of protest. At the time, hair was a symbol of rebellion for other groups too. Blacks advocated against conforming to beauty standards set by white people, letting their hair grow in a natural way. Male students wore their hair long as an act of rebellion against the ongoing war in Vietnam. The body, once private, became a site of political struggle.
In 1987……*drumroll please*….. Hollywood discovered the Brazilian, and from then on, the practice traveled rapidly via word of mouth. Soon, actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow were talking about it and, in a scene in Sex and the City circa 2000, even Carrie Bradshaw gets one.
Where are we now?
Women’s depilation is now highly normative in Western culture, with hairiness being mainly described in negative terms – unhygienic, or uncivilised, and hairlessness being viewed as positive – feminine and clean. This unequal valuation indicates that hair removal is not a matter of personal choice but of conforming to the social norms. Fortunately, advances in laser technology and IPL are changing the tide. Women are no longer stigmatised for their choice of retaining or removing body hair. And for those who choose the latter, new and gentle semi-permanent hair removal methods are making depilation better for our health and environment.