The Bizarre History of Hair Removal

When you’re next plucking up the courage to tear off that wax strip, spare a thought for women of the past. Some of the methods they resorted to, for the sake of beauty are enough to make your hair stand on end!

Hair removal for health and fashion

Back in the ice age, men removed facial hair because ice sticking to beards increased the risk of frostbite. In ancient Egypt, heat was the problem and shaving was regarded as essential for good hygiene. As so often happens, what started off as a practical measure became a fashion statement and status symbol. Across ancient Egypt and Greece only barbarians, criminals and the poor sported hair. In ancient Greece, having pubic hair was considered to be ‘uncivilized’.

History of hair removal — waxing

Whilst razors were popular with men, women often used other hair removal techniques. The earliest method probably involved removing individual hairs with tweezers.

The first recorded examples of depilatory creams go back to around 3000 BC. The arsenic and quicklime mix can’t have been good for the skin or the health of the women who used them. In eastern cultures, where body hair removal was more common than not, beeswax or sugar based waxes were utilised. Apart from being rather less toxic than arsenic, waxing has the advantage of being an epilatory rather than depilatory treatment. Removing hair from the root, rather than at the surface of the skin, results in slower and softer regrowth.

Twentieth century trends

From the nineteen-hundreds onward the general trend in the west has been towards less and less tolerance of body hair. Advertising campaigns urging women to rid themselves of ‘objectionable hair’ abounded in the nineteen-teens. As sleeveless dresses became more socially acceptable, the smooth armpit became regarded as an essential.

As the century progressed, the shortage of nylons in the second world war led to leg shaving becoming standard, and bikini line grooming seems to have arrived at around about the same time as the bikini. As one commentator put it, ‘the more clothes women were allowed to remove, the more hair they were also expected to remove’.

The arrival of the wax strip

These didn’t come along until the nineteen-sixties, but when they did they quickly became the method of choice for removing both underarm and leg hair. Finally, women of the west were able to eliminate all that itchy stubble and spiky regrowth without putting poisons on their skin.

Baring it all!

From the nineteen-seventies onward, the fashion has been to eliminate more and more intimate body hair. Lots of different influences have conspired to make this so, including more sharing on social media, the growth of the porn industry and maybe most famously, that episode of ‘Sex and the City’. Choices of epilatory methods have increased, wax strips for home use are still a popular choice for legs and arms. Hair removal is one of the most popular beauty salon treatments and while professional hard wax application is still offered this competes with electrolysis and laser treatments.

The backlash

Maybe it’s inevitable that whatever becomes the norm will be rejected by some. Feminists and some celebrities now praise the beauty of the natural look.

To wax or not to wax may be the ultimate example of a personal choice. The one thing that’s for certain is that the woman of the twenty-first century has more options to choose from than any of her predecessors have ever enjoyed. And that, surely, can only be a good thing.