Life and Style’s Lydia Waller discusses the history of body hair removal and the deep rooted standards of hair grooming in society
Now the winter months are closing in, the worry of whether there is any visible stubble on your legs or anything creeping from the bikini line, will slowly cease. Yet, as women there is no denial that the normative ritual of keeping the pits in check and other intimate areas, will persist for the rest of the year and sadly, our lives. Hair removal is undoubtedly mainly a female concern, with it being for all regions where hair naturally grows. Men obviously do practice facial hair removal, and some choose to do other areas. However, the pressing societal or commercial standard for them to do so is not as great as it is for women, as a glance back into history proves. Male hair removal tends to be for practicality, whereas women today and even dating back to the Ancient Romans and Greeks, removed hair due to a fear of being called ‘unsanitary’ by men and the patriarchy.
Early history shows that hair removal practices began far earlier than anyone might have thought. The ‘Encyclopaedia of Hair’ notes that Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian copper razors have been found, and from periods such as this up to the 1500s, paintings and sculptures of women have always been hairless. To be celebrated visually, Cleo and Queen Lizzie had to be pristine and clean. It is prevalent in statues of historic figures and gods, that women are hairless, hence Venus now being used for a shaving advert in the 21st century, and Michelangelo’s David is entitled to strut his fluff. The standards for women to be hairless have existed for centuries, it is only with time that their purposes for that have become more explicitly sexualised.
Methods of hair removal have been so extreme to ensure the fulfilment of social standards, particularly to assert class markers, that it has been documented in studies by ‘Refinery29,’ that in Ancient Middle East women used sugar and lemon to cook and singe their hairs off, alongside the documentation of women in 30,000 BC using quicklime. It is not common knowledge how far back standards for personal grooming and hair removal go, particularly for women. Even without the sophisticated means we have today, the Ancient Greeks came up with ways to chisell away with seashells and blades in order not to appear ‘uncivilised.’
The concept of hair removal being a sign of civilisation and cleanliness should seem irrational now that we know bodily hair is there as a natural defence mechanism against bacteria and sweat. Yet, society throughout the ages continues to sustain hairlessness as a normative state and practice. Even now we can look back on Georgian history and see how men and women plucked the hair on their heads and removed their eyebrows to wear fashionable wigs and to show off more forehead to appear intelligent and stately. We may think that sounds ridiculous, yet we still normalise and justify removal of hair for women to appear cleaner, when these hairs are just as natural as eyebrow hair.
Twenty-first century hair removal however, moved further into the reproductive regions; it all went south. As fashion become more liberating for women, introducing sleeveless dresses in 1915, women focused on armpits and later legs in the nylon shortage in WW2. But as fashion and advertisement for women got skimpier and more exposing, such as the mini-skirts in the 60s-mod movement and the introduction of the Brazilian-style bikini, women were expected to remove more hair. Despite there being a brief revert back to the natural bush look in the hippy movement in the 70s, the first ‘pink shot’ in pornography was introduced in 1974 and the landing strip then took off to be a full blown ‘bare look,’ which has become totally normalised in female grooming to this date. It’s advocated by women such as Naomi Campbell and Gwyneth Paltrow as they openly talked about their bikini grooming in the 90s. The most functional system of biological self-cleaning through pubic hair has literally been removed, due to deeply rooted patriarchal standards in different societies histories and pornographic standards and sexualisation of women.
In today’s society, the growing accessibility of gender re-assignment treatment and hormones on the NHS also centres hair growth in certain regions, as definitive to gender identity, which may seem paradoxical when we shun hair that grows central to parts of the female and the male anatomical experience. Body hair should be celebrated as part of the human intelligence of our bodies, not labelled unsanitary when its purpose exists for the very opposite, to keep ourselves sanitary.
Sadly, even if there were to be a revolutionary turn in the history of body hair growing normally and naturally again, it would be received as radically alien due to the deeply rooted standards of hair grooming since ancient history, particularly for women. Those who choose not to shave their legs and armpits as a feminist motivated statement or practice, tend to receive glances and comments or assumptions of them being the typical hairy and braless feminist; when ultimately, they are admirably refusing to submit to societal standards of how their natural human state should be. It is just a sad realisation that history has sustained the standard of female body hair as unhygienic for so long that it would take a momentous revolution for body hair to be wholly accepted as a normal and visible part of the human experience. And it is for that very reason this standard has been maintained for centuries, that it is just easier to go with what has always been, than do what is healthier and more natural for our bodies. It’s a very hairy cycle.