Humans throughout history have decorated and altered their bodies for various reasons and what is considered beautiful or necessary varies with the dominant culture of the times. Cave drawings indicate that males may have removed facial hair with sharpened shells or animal teeth, assorted tweezers have been crafted from available materials and depilatories have been around much longer than you would imagine. Warriors and soldiers found that removal of head and facial hair made it significantly harder for their enemies to decapitate them. But abundant hair is also useful for hiding bad skin and this was apparently a strategy employed by Hadrian.
The ancient Greeks had specific ideas about hygiene and preferred hair removal or significant shortening as they believed it to be cleaner. The Romans and Egyptians had a similar attitude and pursued the hairless ideal so as not to be repulsive. The Greek poet Ovid, who was scandalously too sex obsessed for his peers, wrote advise to lovers that included careful hair removal for both sexes. For females in the times of the Roman Empire, hair removal devices included simple pumice stones, razors, tweezers and homemade depilatories. I wonder if they were as smelly as the modern ones.
The decline of the Roman Empire brought with it a return to hairiness as Barbarian was the new fashion look. Apparently Conan the Barbarian, as portrayed by the smooth skinned Arnold Swartzenneger, wasn't too accurate. As we time travel forward to the Middle Ages, most European women have no concept of removing any body hair, although facial hair was dealt with. Some very upper class elites are believed to have experimented somewhat and the soldiers who went off to the crusades were exposed to the hygiene practices of the heathens (turkish baths and hair removal) but Catherine de Medici, the Italian born Queen of France was having nothing to do with such behaviour. By the time we get to the idiotic and the power hungry who used belief in witches to suppress women, female hairiness was becoming suspect and associated with demonic practices. In 1600 France, suspected witches were shaved upon capture because their hairiness was evidence that they consorted unnaturally with beasts and the devil. I think this must be what led women to prefer sex with the lights out. That would have been the perfect opportunity for a less than loving husband, or a really stupid one, to observe any naturally occurring body hair an declare his wife a witch.
Obsession with hair has led to bizarre trends such as removing all trace of eyebrows
(popular in the 1700s but sometimes seen in modern times too although now they are drawn on) and even the shaving of heads in order to accommodate enormous powdered wigs. Victorians loved hair, especially pubic hair, and exchanging bits of it with a lover was common practice. Depicting body hair in art was too racy however, so nude females were goddesses or nymphs depicted without body hair.
Although we are all familiar with the stereotype of the unshaven European women in the 20th century, the practice seems to have varied depending on the country and the current fashion. An internet search led me to mostly American information and two theses in particular, with differing feminist views on the subject of female body hair. Both agree that it is natural and should not be seen as disgusting. But where one writer wanted to claim that women have had choice all along and are not fashion victims, the other claims that it is a cultural ideal dictated to us and to flout it is to risk great social pressure and perhaps rejection as an attractive female.
I am often irritated by the popular cultures pretense that women don't actually have body hair. Any television show or movie depicting a woman cut off from civilization for anywhere from a week to years never shows her sprouting leg, bikini line and armpit hair. She also never menstruates grows bushy eyebrows or gets calloused hands and broken nails. She does however, acquire strategically ripped clothing and sexily tousled hair. I'm in danger of digressing, but who the hell cares, no professor is marking this thesis.
Hop in that time machine again and travel with me to North America at the turn of the last century. Women of the upper classes, he social elite, had excesses of both time and money, so fashion was an interest they had the means to pursue. The middle class white women were less endowed with the time or the means to follow fashion, but both these groups of women were keen readers of the magazines that evolved to appeal to them. Harpers Bazaar and the Ladies' Home Journal are still around today, and were two of the six publications for women that become available to most women sometime around the first world war. Harpers was published with the elite in mind and catered to their desire to be fashionable. LHJ was aimed at the white middle class. Advertising was a significant source of revenue for publishers and a perfect opportunity for manufacturers to reach their desired market. Women's magazines carried ads for products meant to improve one's life and this included health and beauty. Small ads for hair removal in Harpers were evidence that the women with time and money were already familiar with hair removal. As fashion began to reveal more of the body, such as sleeveless dresses, and sheer fabrics did after the war and rising hemlines in the 20's, an opportunity arose for makers of beauty products to offer help in beautifying those newly exposed areas. The armpits were the first target.
For women of the elite, fashion and beauty secrets allowed them to be distinguished from "the great unwashed" and this was part of the allure, but eventually what the rich and famous are doing becomes coveted by the lesser human beings, and fashion and beauty were ways for the regular middle class white American woman to increase her status. Advertising for hair removal methods in magazines like LHJ were meant to inform the consumer of the existence of the product and how to use it. The products were made desirable by convincing women that they were undesirable themselves and must be altered. Female body hair was declared unsightly. Other words such as objectionable, unwanted, embarrassing and unwelcome helped to promote this idea. On the other hand, hair free women were attractive, womanly, sanitary, exquisite, modest, dainty, perfectly groomed, charming and exuding feminine loveliness.
Gillette had successfully taken the lead in North American and European sales of its safety razor. The problem was that only 50 percent of a potential market had been captured. Men needed to shave, well it was time that women knew they needed to shave too. In ads placed in magazines they told women that the stylish and the elite were shaving their armpits. They completely made it up, that's what advertisers do. Depilatory creams had been made in the kitchen by women for centuries as the European views on body hair changed and changed again, but for those North American women who knew nothing about that possibility, there were manufacturers of the product eager to provide them with a product and detailed information on how to use it. It was all there in the magazines. Eventually, advertisers of other products began to feature smooth skinned women (this was the euphemism for hairless) as the models. Of course many women would want to emulate the cultural feminine ideal, and if they didn't they had to worry that they were unclean, disgusting and unattractive, even manly because they did not remove body hair.
As fashion became increasingly revealing so the need to depilate increased. some would like to argue that women had a choice. Women, although in very small numbers, were even sometimes involved in the writing and selling of the magazines that spread fashion and we know that there were cosmetic company pioneers like Helena Rubenstein. I can't imagine any woman arguing that women shouldn't have the choice to alter and adorn themselves, but neither am I comfortable with the image that popular culture has imposed, an image that was created for the sole purpose of making money, an image that tells women that their natural state is hideous, uncouth, unacceptable and unfeminine. The very fact that throughout history women have been chastised and called wanton for both having body hair and for choosing to remove it, tells me that what is an acceptable female appearance is at the dictate of people who want power over women and to use them for whatever purpose may suit the time. The mixed messages sent to women are also proof of this. What is desirable in a female, a pre-pubescent look or a womanly appearance? No matter what the trend, those who profit from selling women methods of removing body hair will tell us that hairlessness represents either one. AND we believe it!
Here's irony: Girls begin shaving their legs as right of passage into womanhood and yet the shaved look is meant to resemble the pre-pubescent. We are told that men prefer us hairless but I would seriously like to take a poll. I know that my husband really doesn't care and I've heard other women report the same of their husbands. College women surveyed said that they did it for themselves, that they just felt more comfortable that way and they liked the feel of smooth skin. I would never want to deny them the right to choose, but I still question these statements. Given that all methods of hair removal are hell, is the smooth skin really worth it or are they not comfortable being different? Some of them said having hair was prickly. Well two days after shaving it might be but when it all grows in it is generally soft. Some didn't like the way the hairs stuck out of their stockings, they said it was ugly. They have been told it is ugly. Just as the reaction to this was shock and near outrage:
Is it just me or is it interesting that they are both wearing red? Here are the identity photos in case you have never seen them.
Tyra Banks has been criticized for hairy armpits too. What a bitch she must be!
We have been given a framework of what female looks like and are expected to make choices within in. Women choosing to ignore it are called anything from witches to lesbians to radical feminists to hippies and often by our own sisters! One study found that 55 per cent of lesbians remove body hair. I guess those are the wives. Sheesh! Apparently 72 per cent of feminists remove body hair.
Here are some things that are disgusting.
female body hair
Despite public understanding that female hairiness is unacceptable, we must still pretend that we don't have any hair and we don't remove that hair we don't have. Huh?
I remember an article in Mademoiselle magazine about twenty years ago. It listed the grooming details women should let their man see because it was sexy and the ones he should never see. He can see you shave your lower legs but you must never let him see you shave your thighs. Nobody should know if you shave your thighs.
Some people still believe that hairless bodies are more hygienic. The ancient Greeks believed this and they did know a lot of stuff, but they also believed that women were nature's failed attempts at making men. I might find that more offensive than the Judaeo Christian creation myth. It is not more hygienic and there are risks to all forms of hair removal mostly involving potential infection. No, I can't accept that personal choice supports the trend of hair removal, I think social ridicule is the more powerful motivator. Hairlessness in females has become the cultural norm and disgust at male body hair is on the rise. It is our fear of being judged as disgusting by others, and our own willingness to judge gives credence to this, that keeps us shaving, waxing, plucking, lasering and applying assorted bad smelling chemicals in the quest for smooth hair free skin. It is easy to laugh at the silly people of the past who removed all of their eyebrow hair and then pasted on stylish mouse fur eyebrows. We should not laugh. I am not laughing.
So you may be dying to know my personal habits, or you may be saying, NO Fiendess, don't go there! I am just as confused as any woman. I deplore having to do it, and resent the cultural norm that insists that I should. I am as brave as Julia Roberts but not as brave as my new hero Mo'Nique. Well, to qualify that I'm not that brave in the summer. In the winter when I wear pants or tights, sure. As I said, my husband doesn't care. At least that's what he says. I haven't tested that by accompanying him out in public with hairy legs on show. I envy women who have light coloured and textured leg hair.
These are the legs of my fellow Canadian, Celine Dion. She is featured on the website called Naomi's Hair Removal Blog. This, is considered a shocking lack of grooming on a woman who is fortunate enough to have leg hair that only shows up in a spotlight. It looks to me as if her lower legs are shaved and she dares to have lightly fuzzy thighs. I can only dream of being slightly fuzzy, of shocking the world in such a way. I am weak; I don't have the courage and I'm angry that popular culture has made me feel that way. I have artificial choices such as which product to use, but the choice to flaunt hairy legs in public takes a braver woman than I.
Be warned, I haven't yet dealt with the craze for pubic hair removal.