Humans have been trying to deal with body hair removal since Ancient Egypt. Whether it be a way to demonstrate your social status or keep your body clean, the methods used to remove body hair have varied over the years, with some methods being more questionable than others. And while body hair growth and removal did shape gender roles, some believe that it wasn’t until 1871 when Charles Darwin published his book ”The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” that removal of body hair was a necessity for women who wanted to be seen as feminine and attractive.
Although humans do not have a need to have as much hair on our bodies compared to our hairy primate ancestors, body hair still serves a purpose. Human body hair no longer has any survival value, but it still retains importance when it comes to epidermal homeostasis (the maintenance of skin tissue integrity), wound healing, and skin tumorigenesis (the generation of tumors in the skin). On the other hand, the removal of body hair does have its benefits — shaving off hair has helped prevent infestations of lice and other parasites, which is certainly not ideal for those living in close quarters and who do not have access to regular showers or baths. Additionally, having a lot of hair traps perspiration, which leads to a breeding ground for bacteria that produce unpleasant odor. However, with more people having access to water on a daily basis and being able to clean themselves, this is not as big of an issue as it may have once been.
The term “clean-shaven” started to become synonymous with “hygienic,” and marketing for men’s personal shaving products emphasized the idea that a man who has a clean-shaven face is a man who is hygienic, modern, and civilized. This idea has roots in racist and classist ideology, wanting to separate white middle- and upper-class Americans from lower-class immigrants from other countries. Additionally, body hair was starting to be linked — with the help of many 19th century medical and scientific experts — to “sexual inversion, disease pathology, lunacy, and criminal violence.” Unsurprisingly, these connotations were largely being applied to women who chose not to shave, rather than males. All of this leads to 1915, when Harper’s Bazaar became the first women’s magazine to run a campaign that portrayed the removal of underarm hair as a “necessity.” Until this point, the removal of body hair — while definitely setting the standards for beauty ideals — was not considered absolutely necessary for women. By 1964, 98% of American women aged 15 to 44 were regularly shaving their legs. Despite these numbers, shaving was not as common as it is today, and many different hair removal methods for different parts of the body exist.
Many young girls and women, being exposed to ads in magazines, social media, TV commercials, and even just peer pressure, feel that there is an expectation to remove their body hair. Some say that the increased emphasis on body hair removal for females after the 1960’s and 70’s came with the rise of explicit pop culture, the increasing popularity of waxing, and more and more pornography that featured individuals who had completely removed all of their hair in the genital region. After over a hundred years of pushing the idea that body hair was not natural and being hairless meant being clean and attractive, hairlessness for the female body has become the norm, and body hair removal methods have only gotten more and more precise over the years.
As someone who identifies as a female, I’m no stranger to feeling the pressure to shave and remove my body hair. I remember begging my mother in fourth or fifth grade, shortly after starting puberty, to buy me a razor so I could shave my arms and legs, after seeing multiple magazine ads that featured these razors designed “specially for tweens and teens.” My parents did not buy me a razor like I wanted, and I was told that I didn’t even have any hair to shave. Despite their efforts, I couldn’t stop feeling like there was a part of me that I needed to hide or remove, especially as I got older and started to grow hair in multiple places.
In the past decade or so, there has been increasing pushback against this norm that pushes girls and women to shave and remove their body hair. Our culture has begun to shift, with people encouraging positive conversation around female body hair and pushing for individual empowerment. We are starting to see more ads that feature women with natural body hair on their armpits, legs, face, and other areas. The companies that produce razors and other hair removal products, such as Billie, are starting to change their narrative, from one that essentially pushes the idea that women have no choice in their decision to shave, to one that encourages the right to choose what to do with one’s body hair.
Shaving. Waxing. Creams. There are many different ways to remove hair permanently or temporarily, and all of them have their pros and cons. Ultimately, no one should ever feel the need to remove their body hair, especially when it is something that is natural and has its own purpose of keeping us warm and even protecting our skin in certain instances. The body positivity movement encourages people to practice self-love, whether or not their body matches beauty and other norms we place on ourselves, and it’s important to present ourselves the way that makes us feel the most confident and empowered.