Millions of women spend hours a day shaving, trimming, plucking, waxing and lasering their hair to maintain a certain ‘acceptable’ level of body hair. But why and where did the pressure come from? Alice Webb-Liddall investigates.
In the years leading into puberty, my mum told me not to shave. I have light, fine hairs on my legs and arms and she thought her advice would be enough to discourage me against the inevitable tidal wave of teenage insecurity and peer pressure I would face at school.
I shaved my legs as soon as my friends started, despite my mother’s pleas to leave the razor alone. I shaved my armpits as soon as I started growing hair there and my pubic hair when I reached my late teens.
Hair removal has been a practice for thousands of years. The book Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History says that in ancient India Hindus shaved their faces and pubic area, and in ancient Egypt men and women would shave their heads as a practical way to keep cool and prevent lice.
Nowadays, it seems like the reasons for removing body hair are more cosmetic, and the pressures particularly on women to remove their hair came much more recently. Professor Virginia Braun of the University of Auckland specialises in gender and body hair, and says pressure on women to conform to an ideal is thought to have begun around World War One in western countries like New Zealand.
“The trend for body hair removal for women started really in the 1920s when we started to see concerted effort from companies like Gillette giving women these very clear messages about removing underarm hair, leg hair, in a way that we don’t tend to get so explicitly now.
“Whether it’s waxing or shaving or complete hair removal, which went from being something that wasn’t a thing at all, to being a complete thing in western countries.”
In the late 1910s when dresses were getting shorter and sleeves were coming off, some clever chaps in marketing teams decided there was a huge market in female hair removal if they could convince women that their lady hair, unlike man hair, was stinky and gross and ‘contemptible’ (according to the first-ever ad for women’s armpit hair removal).
The 1940s and World War II brought a shortage of nylon, so women were more likely to shave their legs because stockings were harder to come by. Bikinis became mainstream in the late 1940s, and coupled with the popularity of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine, encouraged the hairless pubic area. Hair removal was usually a job for a razor until Brazilian waxes arrived in western countries.
The first salon offering Brazilian waxes in the US was established in the ’90s, and the market boomed after pop culture icons started sporting the completely hairless look, like Carrie Bradshaw waxing her downstairs on an episode of Sex & the City.
Since the 1920s female body hair has largely been under attack, labelled as unnatural, and shaved or torn from the follicle by those of us just wanting to not be singled out as ‘unhygienic’. But recently the social media space has given platforms to women who are pushing against the hairless ideals.
“Certain social media spaces have become spaces of resistance and spaces of change,” says Braun. “You’re getting spaces on social media which interrupt the otherwise fairly singular message in a lot of mainstream media. These are spaces where women will display body hair and talk about body hair and resist the idea that body hair is disgusting or inherently un-feminine.”
The choice to grow out body hair is becoming easier for some women, but for others who may not fit into traditional standards of a ‘female’ body, it’s not so simple.
Robin Steel is a transgender student who transitioned when she was 26. She’s now 30 and despite supporting the movement to let women’s body hair grow, she says it’s not something she feels comfortable doing herself.
“I don’t feel like I can participate in the movement of having hairy armpits or hairy legs because I’m already perceived as different. There’s so much more scrutiny on me anyway that I don’t feel like I can be that brave.”
Body hair can be a source of immense stress for women who grow it in places not traditionally considered feminine. Braun thinks the conversation is too narrow.
“We don’t talk about the fact that as women age their bodies tend to get hairier in some places, we don’t talk about the fact that some women have lots of body hair, whether that’s naturally or through some kind of medical condition which means they produce a lot more body hair than is typical, we don’t talk about the variations in body hair around ethnicity.
“Women’s bodies come in all types of hairiness and that feels like a conversation we need to be having.”
Brands are starting to notice the wave of women pushing against the hairless norm – now it’s not uncommon to see a woman with underarm hair in a lingerie advert, or posing in sportswear. Advertisers catching on to the trend is a positive thing, presenting female body hair in ways that were previously considered ‘taboo’, but Braun says these ads still don’t show the whole picture.
“I think it’s really notable that we’ve seen a resurgence in underarm hair, and underarm hair that is displayed is often fairly minimal. Why underarms and not legs? Because we’re not seeing women with leg hair nearly as much as women with underarm hair.
“Businesses operate on having an edge, having a difference and a selling point, so it’s become a selling point and that’s good, but it’s also a selling point because it’s somehow different. Often these representations can work in multiple ways, it’s not just a black and white good and bad.”
Dealing with body hair takes both money and time, and is sometimes painful to carry out. Steel says she can’t remember going in public without shaving her face. She says the routine of hair removal can take hours out of her week, but it’s her only option if she has any chance of being correctly gendered by strangers.
“I was doing laser for a while on my face because I was having to shave twice a day to stay on top of regrowth. I didn’t end up finishing the laser because it costs a lot of money. As it stands I shave every morning, especially if I’m seeing other people.”
She hopes we can get to a point where trans women can be accepted as women even when they decide to grow out their body hair, but there is a long way to go.
“One end goal would be if I had infinite money I would just get it all permanently lasered off, but the even more ridiculous end goal is a world where people don’t assume your gender based on your hair.”
It’s clear that in most cases hair removal is driven by societal pressure. Less clear is how we start to address this pressure. Increased representation of all kinds of body hair is one place to start. Brands and online influencers embracing body hair teaches women and men that female body hair is not the disgusting, unnatural thing that it has been marketed as for years.
But it’s going to take more than a couple of brands to make a dent in the stigma of female body hair. Comments on this 2017 campaign by Adidas showing a female model with leg hair only highlighted why many women never consider putting down the razor. Model Arvida Byström receives comments every day on her instagram page calling her ‘disgusting’ and telling her to shave.
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That seems to be the final barrier: that the physical and emotional stress of removing hair is potentially less than the emotional stress of how other people might react. As Braun puts it, we need to start talking about the whole picture if we are to see a change in how female body hair is perceived.
“We don’t do people favours by not talking about this or just imagining a little thin amount of underarm hair as being wildly abnormal, women’s bodies come in all types of hairiness and that feels like a conversation we need to be having.”
This content was created in paid partnership with Women’s Health Action. Learn more about our partnerships here.
Women’s Health Action is a social change organisation, working to improve the health and well-being of women, their families and whānau, and communities. Since 1984, we have worked to draw attention to the social determinants of women’s health, promoted women’s human rights in health, and have provided women with high-quality information and education services.