The History of Removing Women's Body Hair

In case you couldn't have guessed, the practice of removing female body hair in Western culture and especially North America started with advertising.

When sleeveless dresses became popular shortly after the invention of the razor with disposable blades (planned obsolescence anyone?), it was an obvious step for advertisers to try to sell the razors to women. What better way than making them think their armpit hair was unsanitary and needed to be removed?

The above image from 1915 was the first in a widespread campaign which increasingly suggested to women that their hair was dirty and distasteful. Now, this particular advertising trend had to do specifically with underarm hair. The disgust for leg hair and need for razors to shave it off was encouraged later, after hemlines began to rise. Women had to be self-conscious about their newly visible body parts in order to convince them to pay to alter them.

It's a little harder to pinpoint exactly when women started shaving their legs. There seems to be a consensus that it happened in the 1940s when skirts got shorter and sheer pantyhose became available. Some speculate that it had something to do with pinup model Betty Grable showing off her hairless legs and inspiring others to do the same.

Complete removal of pubic hair is a different story, actually. This was less driven by the advertising industry than by the porn industry. If you're a pornie, you've probably seen some of those old 1970s pornos where the women still sported the full bush. Pubic hair got shorter and shorter as porn became more and more accessible via VHS, DVD, and then finally the internet. As it became viable for more people to get into porn, it also became useful to remove their hair, the only visual obstacle to intense closeups of pink vulvas.

So, ladies, the fact that you're socially pressured in a huge way to remove all the hair on your body (except the long locks on your head) comes almost exclusively from industry and advertising. It has nothing really to do with hygiene or femininity, it's just about profits and products. I mean, that's no different than other staples of beauty standards like makeup and anti-aging products, etc. It's just equally depressing.


Mari said...

It's is interesting how women (and some men) have become obsessed with removing unwanted body hair. Personally, I don't feel clean unless my underarms and legs are shaved.

Amongst my group of friends, we are disgusted that Oscar-nominated actress Mo'Nique doesn't shave her legs.

At any rate, interesting post.

Unknown said...

I absolutely LOVE that Mo'Nique didn't shave her legs for the Oscars. That's actually most of why I pulled this old post out of my drafts and finished it.

This is partly because I hate shaving my own legs. I have very coarse, dark hair and I inevitably get nicks, razor burn, and all kinds of unpleasantness every time I do it. I get to enjoy maybe a day of smoothness, which I do like, but the rest is such a literal pain that I usually don't bother.

I think that any beauty ritual should be optional for any person of any gender. I think women should no more have to shave their body hair than men should be prohibited from getting rid of theirs. I think that there are sexy things about both hairless skin and a covering of fur, and I'd love to see our culture embrace it all. It doesn't seem likely, but it'd sure make me a happy panda.

On living, loving, learning, and fucking with the materials I've got at hand.

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