A Brief History of Female Hair Removal

Georgia Nelson
PERIOD
Published in
3 min readJul 18, 2018

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Let’s talk about hair, baby

Shaving your body hair might feel like part of your normal shower routine (or, maybe you shave your armpits over the sink fifteen minutes before work, like me!) but once upon a time hair removal was not necessarily the norm and the cultural evolution of hair removal, particularly in Western societies, is a history about which we should all be educated. The cultural fascination of women’s hairless bodies stems from a place of body-shaming, and if you thought shaving is “just what we do,” think again.

Hair removal is not a novel concept; in fact, women have been removing the hair on their bodies for centuries. Women in ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Indian cultures were subjected to hair removal practices similar to today’s. Dating back to 3,000 BCE (!), the first razors made from seashells were used by women to shave off head and pubic hairs. Egyptians also removed hair with sugar-based waxes like modern-day waxing practices. Fast forward to the sixth century BCE where evidence of hair removal among Romans points to a multitude of tools like tweezers, pumice stones, and depilatories (creams/lotions for hair removal). For the Romans, body hair was a sign of class: the more prestigious one’s place in society, the less hair they were expected to have. Fast forward again, to the Middle Ages where Elizabethan women took hair removal practices a step further and shaved their facial hair. Queen Elizabeth I initiated this trend in an effort to create a longer-looking forehead — women even removed their eyebrows! The development of the beauty industry only continues from here, and the encouragement, nay expectation, for women to remove their body hair to appear more attractive and cleaner begins amid these centuries. It is without a doubt fascinating to understand and know that hair removal has a place in world history, though it begs the question about today’s hair removal practices and expectations, assumptions about gender and cleanliness, and the dynamic between gender and body hair.

The beauty industry encourages women to remove nearly all their body hair in order to avoid being dirty, unsightly, or not feminine enough. Advertisements for hair removal products show women shaving their already-hairless, smooth legs — viewers never actually see hair being shaved! While these commercials advertise for their products, they also publicize and promote a narrow-minded view of beauty. Women in ads like this associate personal happiness with the length of one’s leg hair. And let’s not mention the heteronormative relationships that inundate hair removal ads reminding women they are desirable by men only when they are hairless.

Body hair is not something to be embarrassed of, nor is it a means of motivation to compel someone to remove theirs out of embarrassment. The beauty industry is filled to the brim with companies promising to make you feel sexier when you do not have body hair. While it may seem trivial or easy to ignore, the societal pressure to eliminate evidence of body hair can be extreme. What’s more, women are socialized to feel confident when they have shaved legs and to feel dirty when they have not shaved their bikini line in a few days. In June 2018, the razor company Billie debuted an ad of women actually shaving their hair! Their slogan reads “Hair: everyone has it — even women. The world pretends it doesn’t exist, but it does. We checked.” Billie is promoting and celebrating body hair, regardless of how one chooses to have it.

Throughout history, body hair has been used as a weapon of shame and conformity. No more! Body hair exists for a reason — an evolutionary reason, if we need to get into the nitty gritty. It’s unreasonable to think that the status quo of hair removal can be totally reversed, but we can begin to accept ours and others’ body hair and treat it with respect. Body hair is beautiful and purposeful, and it is here to stay.

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