Hair removal is ubiquitous today; we’re surrounded by images of razors, waxing, and laser hair removal. As of 2018, the global market for hair removal products was valued at 2.2 billion dollars. More than 99 percent of American women voluntarily remove their body hair, and those who shave will spend more than 10,000 dollars on average over their lifetimes. Waxing is even more expensive as more than 23,000 dollars will be spent by someone who waxes once or twice a month.
The prevalence of body hair removal today, especially among women, raises important questions: how did we get here, and why is body hair removal such a ubiquitous social standard?
The practice of hair removal can be traced back to 30,000 BC, when people would use shark teeth and sharp shells to remove hair. Although the exact reason behind body hair removal at that time is unknown, some potential theories are that it could have been safety and hygiene-related. Hair was disadvantageous in battle as people could grab it to injure their opponents. It could also foster mites and parasites, which could cause infections. Body hair was especially dangerous during the winter because it could hold freezing water and cause frostbite.
Ancient Egyptians specifically were very particular about cleanliness and would remove all of their body hair. They used pumice stones, depilatory creams, and razors made of bronze. Although this practice was started to prevent parasites from living in the hair, it also had cultural and social significance: people who didn’t remove their body hair were looked down on and considered inferior.
The Romans were influenced by the Ancient Egyptians to adopt the practice of body hair removal. In Roman society, hairlessness became an indication of socioeconomic status for women as upper class women would remove all their body hair. As a consequence of this, sculptures and paintings of women from this era depict them as hairless.
Next, we fast forward to the 1800s and 1900s. Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man, from 1871, changed how female body hair was perceived. His ideas of evolution linked the presence of body hair with “primitiveness” and advanced scientific racism. He postulated the idea that having less body hair made women more “evolved” and sexually attractive.
Darwin’s ideas led advertisers in the 1920s to market razors by promoting the notion that body hair on women was “masculine” and unhygienic. Furthermore, advertisements would not use the word “shaving” due to its masculine connotations; instead they encouraged women to buy razors to keep their legs and armpits “smooth.” King Camp Gillette made the first razor for women and focused on advertising for body hair removal in order to sell more razors (it all comes back to capitalism).
Women’s hair removal is continuously used as a means of social control. Rebecca Herzig’s book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, examines this emphasis on body hair removal in the context of gendered social control. This social pressure for women to work toward an ideal of hairlessness has been shown to cause feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, and constantly forces the narrative that women’s bodies need to be changed for them to be considered socially acceptable.
Scientific, social, and cultural ideas have combined across time and history to explain why female body hair removal is so widespread. However, there is hope that this gendered social standard will eventually become a thing of the past; people are becoming more accepting of body hair as something natural that doesn’t need to be removed. It’s time society realized the idea of “smooth,” hairless women is a social construct, and body hair should solely be a matter of personal preference.