According to a 2019 Vox study, 94 percent of female and 55 percent of all male respondents said they “felt ashamed of their body hair” in the past year. Luckily, for when we don’t want hair down there, there’s an entire industry based on hair removal, designed to turn a natural human function into a booming consumer market, altering our identity and culture in the process. By understanding and reclaiming our hair we have the power to not only educate, but empower each other and ourselves. As a society, we need to replace the stigma around body hair with productive conversations and celebrations. It is vital to explore the origins of body hair and its removal, examine issues around body hair, and discuss implications—because maybe we’re the product after all.
Humans originally had body hair for survival, but when our prehistoric ancestors removed their hair, it wasn’t because they were socially pressured into believing that it detracted from their beauty. Instead, it was to prevent frostbite and parasitic breeding. The real hotspot of hairlessness was ancient Egypt, where it was common for both women and men to remove all the hair from their heads and bodies using wax. In Rome, wealthy women used tweezers and stones to remove their hair. And, Queen Elizabeth I set the trend not only of grooming female facial hair, but of long foreheads. In fact, according to the Atlantic, hair growth was often prevented using ammonia obtained from pets’ feces.
Fast forward a few centuries to Charles Darwin for the next era of body hair. In his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that, “less hairy mates were more sexually attractive.” Thus, body hair became a measure of reproductive success for women everywhere, helped along in the early 1900s by the magazine, fashion, and razor companies, who were ready to exploit this trend for profits. The first-ever razor made for women, Gillette’s 1915 ‘Milady Décolletée, promised to make women just as perfect as the gold-plated beauty she was, while simultaneously condemning her body hair that was there in the first place. The magazines and fashion houses helped convey to women that it was a “necessity” to remove their “unsightly,” “objectionable,” and “humiliating” body hair. According to the Californian Women Museum, by 1964, 98 percent of American women were routinely shaving, a number that has only continued to rise. But as more and more people adopted this as a widely accepted practice, the stigma associated with removing body hair also became the norm.
It’s also important to talk about the physical purposes our body hair serves. According to a survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 59 percent of women remove their body hair because they think it’s unhygienic, but this might be counterproductive. According to Healthline, our body hair reduces friction, protects against infection, and helps regulate our temperature. On top of that, body hair releases pheromones, “scent-carrying chemical secretions that affect mood and behavior,” which play a role in the biology of sexual attraction. Our society’s stigma around body hair, however, has to do with the objectification of women for the male gaze, as well as equating women with immaturity through ads that promise to make your skin “baby soft.” As women are told to embody childlike features, they are limited, taught to be passive, small, and obedient. Companies reduce us all to consumers, so it’s only natural that we have learned to embody these problematic ideals. According to the Huffington Post, the average American woman will spend a total of over two months of her life just removing her hair and, anywhere from 10 to 23 thousand dollars. Simply put, body hair isn’t an inconvenience—it’s a manufactured insecurity. The idea that body hair is unhygienic is a misconception, a misconception that makes other people a lot of money.
Throughout history, body hair has been a form of expression. For example, “Free Your Pits,” is a website dedicated to celebrating, growing, and dying armpit hair, often colorful vibrant shades. As they state in their manifesto, body hair is a “demonstration of personal choice and expression.” However, as Paniz Khosroshahy from the HuffPost explains, not shaving isn’t always a viable option for women of color like herself. She remarks that “hairiness is now a symbol of emancipation while hairy bodies of color are still deemed, savage.” Personally, I’ve always been resistant to removing my body hair, but I can only know my own experiences as a young, cis, white girl living in a safe, supportive bubble. When I don’t shave, people generally think of me as “naive” or “quirky.” I have so much more privilege than most people are allowed. To this day, most of the research on body hair throughout the past century has been focused on, and for, middle-class white women. But the truth is, the issue of body hair intersects with race, gender, sexuality, and status, and it’s harmful not to recognize that.
Shave your hair if you want, or don’t; that’s the beautiful thing. Spend your money as you will, but hairy legs or an unshaven armpit shouldn’t determine your experiences or how you treat others. There’s something empowering about understanding that hair is just another part of the human body. We have the power to make the choice today to embrace ourselves and reject the norm to improve the future.
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