A commenter asked me about the history of body hair on my about page and I was shocked to realise I didn’t know much. That is pretty poor showing for a woman billed as Hellonhairylegs. I resolved to research the history of body hair on the internet, and for the first few search terms all I found was a website that declared you were a manly man if you shaved and an expensive book on Amazon that looks rather fascinating. Unfortunately my local library is appalling (the Jane Austen collection consists of Emma and a battered version of Pride and Prejudice) and I’m trying to save up for Christmas presents. I gave up the research as a dead loss and decided to search for Doctor Who lolcats on livejournal instead.
Thankfully I have an assignment due soon and I needed a reason to procrastinate, thus some more pitiful attempts at research until I found this blog post which has lovely quotations and sources. It recounts the story of body hair in twentieth century American culture.
American female body hair shaving was triggered by a “sustained marketing assault” that began first against armpit hair in 1915, when sleeveless dresses came into fashion 5. An ad in the May 1915 issue of the upper-class women’s magazine Harper’s Bazaar features a woman with her sleeveless arms flung into the air, exhibiting her hairless armpits. The ad reads: “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.”6
Ads from the mid-20s typically put equal emphasis on underarm and leg hair removal. The World War II-era shortening of skirts further helped advertisers’ thrust for leg hair removal, and “[b]y the middle of the century, attention had been drawn to lower parts of the anatomy and a tanned, shapely, hairless leg was a thing of beauty,” Hope observes in her inventory of Harper’s and McCall’s magazines’ hair-removal ads. Body hair removal had become a norm, as well as a public discourse, as evidenced by the headline of one of the McCall’s ads in the early 1940s: “Let’s Look at Your Legs—Everyone Else Does.”10 Due to these marketing coups, female body hair removal has become a contemporary, largely unquestioned staple of fashion.
That quotation pretty much sums up this large PDF (Hair or Bare?: The History of American Hair Removal 1914-1934 by Kirsten Hansen). The PDF does go into a lot of detail, exploring the notion of gender roles and the consumer/producer relationship. It also includes a history of body hair removal. The PDF is really quite a fascinating read, revealing, among other things that:
Upon the invention of a more sophisticated flint razor, Egyptian males were known to have shaved both their faces and their heads. The reason was a practical one, according to Adams; in a combat situation a smooth head and face deprived the enemy of a handhold grip with which to behead his victim.
I know I’m not the only one who finds that intriguing.
The tired comparisons of Rome and Greece to modern Western countries (yes, we know the US is going to disintegrate and get pwned by China, get a new historical analogy already) gets a boost when this tidbit of information is revealed.
So distasteful was the presence of body hair on women in ancient Greece, that Greek artists molded their statues of women without pubic hair.
The links between beauty rituals and class privilege gets a mention.
Like men’s facial hair removal, women’s body hair removal often served as an indication of class. During the height of the Roman Empire, middle and upper-class Roman women engaged in hair removal with regularity, using pumice stones, razors, tweezers and depilatory creams.
And as always, they used tricksy language
Gillette did not to use the word “shaving” but the word “smoothing” instead. “Shaving,” according to Adams, was an activity men engaged in; “smoothing” was more feminine.
Our bodies are battlegrounds, and to win wars it can be helpful to study the battles of the past.