If you’ve grown up as a woman, you probably have a plethora of stories about body hair.
It is a well-discussed topic in female circles and in many cases the preoccupation borders on anxiety.
Hair removal is big business, with the industry set to be valued at $1.35 billion by 2022. It’s forever expanding: From razors to electrolysis, epilators to waxing kits. While the tools may change the marketing is the same: female body hair is disgusting and you should remove all signs of it as soon as possible.
In fact, we hate women’s natural bodies so much that nearly all the advertisements for hair removal feature women with already hairless, smooth and retouched skin.
Like all women, I grew up around stories of body hair.
Friends who thought themselves hairier than they should be bleached and trimmed. We all shaved our arms. Once a friend pulled off a line of skin accidentally with hot wax. In her words, “It hurt like a bitch.”
The history of body hair removal goes way back.
Tools from the Stone Age reveal that men and women both used to shave off hair to prevent parasites and frostbite.
In ancient Egypt, shaving was done to avoid looking “uncivilized.” Upper-class women in ancient Rome also removed hair. In Queen Elizabeth’s England, women began removing facial hair. Because the rest of their bodies were covered, they didn’t seem to have bothered with other parts.
In the early twentieth century, women began exposing more of their bodies and capitalism saw giant dollar signs hanging off every short sleeve.
In 1915, Gillette ran a famous advertisement describing body hair as an “embarrassing social problem” that the modern woman couldn’t afford to have. A host of other companies followed, creating a wave that pulled the media along for the ride.
In 1941, Harper’s Bazaar said: “If we were dean of women, we’d levy a demerit on every hairy leg on campus.” On top of that, 66% of the magazine’s ads mentioned hair removal for women. The transformation was soon complete.
As Vox points out, in the 1920s it was surreal for women to shave their legs, but by the 1960s, 98% of women between the ages of 15 – 44 were doing so.
Pubic hair was the next battleground.
In the 1960s, as the bikini became more common, so did the bikini wax, electrolysis, and hair removal creams. Many feminists point out that the 1972 passage of the Equal Rights Amendment was very close to the 1974 release of Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal magazine, featuring nudes of 18-year-old women.
As women gained political rights, they were infantilized as prepubescent hairless children in entertainment.
Even today, the porn industry’s hairless beauty standards socially compel many women to fully shave.
Our world still punishes women who have body hair.
Studies show that women with hair on their legs are perceived as less intelligent, less friendly and more aggressive. Women still talk about the frustrations of being hairless at all times in the workplace – or risk being embarrassed or seen as unprofessional.
Body hair, then, is a big deal for women.
Analysis of the participant data of a 2006 British study found that the women on average spent 104 minutes a week managing facial hair. Two-thirds of the participants reported always monitoring it via mirrors and 70% reported clinical levels of anxiety around hairiness.
The stress is so much worse for women of color.
Female body hair has an undeniable racial component. A 2014 study found that hairiness differed across race and ethnic lines, with white women being the least hairy and Asian women the most. Racist scientists know this – a “study” from 1893 which studied white women posits that women with more body hair (like “inferior races”) have a greater chance of being insane.
Today, many brown girls report being bullied in school because of their hirsutism.
There is a movement to embrace female body hair and many celebrities have joined. In 1999, Julia Roberts sported unshaved armpits at a premier.
More recently, Miley Cyrus and Bella Thorne have spoken against body hair stigma. A burgeoning social media movement has also carved out spaces for hairy women where women with PCOS – like Harnam Kaur – have a voice too.
Many women choose to shave out of cultural or religious obligations.
Islam, for instance, asks both men and women to trim pubic and armpit hair. Some women, on the other hand, may just shave because they like their shaved bodies over unshaved ones – and that’s fine.
But women shouldn’t have to feel shame or social judgment if they leave the razor behind. Like men, women have bodies that naturally grow hair.
And it’s time for society to get over it.
Hair removal is expensive, time-consuming, and painful. Women should only do it if they want to.