T he California Girl. The one they sing about, the one in board shorts on billboards riding skateboards and horses. That California Girl, I assumed, had a totally hairless body. Besides the sheet of blonde on her head and a downy fuzz on her arms bleached by sun and saltwater, I was certain the rest of the archetypal California Girl was as smooth as her attitude was sunny. If not naturally then by her own hand — shaved, waxed, or otherwise maintained.
I was never that girl, though I was born and lived in California until I was 25.
The “California Girl” I related to most was the Humboldt Honey.
She was on a poster you could buy in the shops in Arcata, where I lived with my parents when I was a toddler. The Humboldt Honey wore socks with Birkenstocks, a “question authority” pin; she carried a doobie, a Co-op membership card, Mother Jones magazine and a copy of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and, according to the poster, she had “hairy legs under legwarmers.” She was obviously an environmentalist, a humanist, outspoken, and unyielding to patriarchal control.
It went without saying that she had a full bush.
Although they’re just caricatures of my home state, I’ve looked to them over the years as a representation of the conflicting aesthetic values of the world I inhabit and the choices I make. And, according to my scattershot polling, these two fictive women seem to be sitting on the shoulders of my feminine-identifying friends as they’ve made their own body hair grooming choices.
It’s these two ideals — conventional beauty and the freedom to redefine it — that produce the dueling feelings of satisfaction and shame we get when we shave our toes, bleach an upper lip or neck hair; when we pluck eyebrows and wax bikini lines. Why we feel pretty when hairless, but defensive when we’re asked why we have to be hairless to feel pretty. Why we inflict the pain even though we don’t know why or how exactly these beauty norms were established. Or whose rules we’re following.
It’s why we feel “put together” when we’re shaved but as though we’ve failed as feminists — failed as free thinkers, as soldiers of the revolution. A different kind of ugly.
This tangle of reasoning is why at a certain point in our twenty-plus years of hair removal a lot of us decided to say fuck it. We’re tired of feeling bad! We like the way the hairless leg looks and yeah, maybe we don’t really know why, we don’t know which man came up with the dumb idea in the first place, but we feel compelled to keep shaving anyway. And, ultimately, we’ve found that removing the hair and living with that guilt is better than not shaving and living with the discomfort of seeing it, justifying it; living with the associations placed on hairiness.
As one friend put it: “If this is internalized misogyny, anti-feminist, even self-hatred… so be it.”
But then, this year, the radicalized femme with her hairy legs and armpits was dusted off and brought to the ball. “We might as well call it: We are fully living in the era of body hair,” as one Glamour article put it.
I’ve read profiles of fashionable women talking about their choice to go “furry,” models saying it's sexy to be hairy, and celebrities bragging about their “‘70s vibe.” Billie, a women’s razor company, uses models with hair tufting around their bikini lines. Billie’s “body hair project,” a photo gallery of women showing their body hair, calls for user submissions insisting “the internet could use a little more fuzz.”
Well. I wondered. Could body hair removal really become a depoliticized style choice, like wearing pants or high heels? Or would this “era of body hair” fade slowly back to the misogynist — and some say biological — imperative of hairlessness?
And is hair removal internalized misogyny and self-hatred? Are we that willing to peel off our own skin, spending a lifetime average of two whole months and $10,000 on shaving in order to satisfy obtuse dictums of femininity? Or do we actually like the way it looks, and feels, as the majority of us say we do? And if so, why?
According to Rebecca Herzig, professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College and author of Plucked: A History of Hair Removal in the U.S., there are two prevailing causal stories for our obsession with smooth skin: evolution, and gendered social control.
In the evolution explanation, popularized in 1967 by Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, human hairlessness made them more immune to disease and insects than other hairier mammals, which helped them thrive through natural selection.
But, writes Herzig, it was really Charles Darwin’s theories that reframed body hair for the public. It was the idea that we evolved from hairy apes that was unsettling.
And there were some problems with the theory of how exactly we lost the hair in the first place. In actuality, hairlessness made humans more vulnerable to the elements.
So it had to be sex appeal. Sexual selection. But at what point did the first hairy ape look at the bald ape and think, “damn”…? Or did one ape just start plucking and then pass the habit to its kids? Unclear. This was, in fact, a major point of contention between Darwin and his co-theorist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who thought hairlessness had to do with divine purpose.
“Stories about body hair reveal larger assumptions about suffering, choice, and what ultimately separates ‘man’ from other animals. Whether a ‘superior intelligence’ plucked the hair from savage man to drive them to tailor and brick-lay, or whether some early ape determined the course of this ‘sacrificial transformation,’ explications of humans’ relative hairlessness conveyed implicit social values.” — Herzig
The consensus was that if things were in order, men had body hair — manly beards that showed strength and virility — and women didn’t.
Social scientists and sexologists, piggybacking on evolutionary theory, developed theories about “true” feminine and masculine qualities. Body hair on women was not a “true” feminine quality, and, further, became associated with mental and sexual deviance.
Herzig quotes Havelock Ellis, prominent sexologist of the era, who asserted in 1893 that excess female body hair was linked to criminal behavior, violence, sexual appetite, and “animal vigour” : “The single ‘most characteristic feature’ of criminal women, particularly ‘women guilty of infanticide,’ was their remarkable abundance of hair.’”
It wasn’t just that we lost the body hair and then lost our appetite for it, but that we lost most of the hair and then learned how to make each other feel bad and less evolved; less a true ‘female’ type, when we had any of it at all. “Rooted in traditions of comparative racial anatomy, evolutionary thought solidified hair’s association with ‘primitive’ ancestry and an atavistic return to earlier, ‘less developed’ forms.”
Then, writes Herzig, there’s the social control explanation for contemporary hairlessness, popularized by feminist social scientists. Maintaining hairlessness, or beauty standards, became women’s work. It was their “third shift,” as author Naomi Wolf put it: “an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society’s impossible definition of ‘the flawless beauty.’”
As American women gained more social and political mobility — masculine things — maintaining the ephemeral qualities of femininity became more important. If women could do men’s jobs, and if men liked to do needlepoint, just what was a woman then? Well, not hairy.
“Several studies propose that ‘the hairlessness norm’ imposes distinct new psychological constraints on women and girls, even as other long-standing legal and social restrictions are eased. The overall effect of the norm, social scientists suggest, is to produce feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, the sense that women’s bodies are problematic ‘the way they naturally are.’” — Herzig
This causal story suffers its own gaps in logic, writes Herzig. Like, which male actually “orchestrated [this] plot against women.” Also unclear. And further, posits Herzig, why have we — the femmes — perpetuated it so effectively through the ages?
As long as we’ve been removing hair we’ve been making new products to do it. In 1880 the safety razor was patented, and in 1901 King Camp Gillette created a version with disposable blades, which was supplied to troops in World War I. In 1915 Gillette created one specifically for women. Electric razors for women hit the market in the ’40s (the nylon shortage during the second world war meant more hairy legs were showing), wax strips and laser removal came out in the ’60s, electrolysis was popular in the ‘70s.
All of it was dangerous and often brutal. Women got cancer from using radiation to burn hair off; they were scarred from razors and acid creams and hot wax.
And then came the feminists. An essay called “Body Hair: The Last Frontier” published in Ms. magazine in 1972 described female hairlessness as a “cultural preoccupation with keeping women in a kind of state of innocence.” It was the “orchestrated plot” of the patriarchy, it was the birth of the Humboldt Honey and her “radicalized” — fuck you — body.
Beauty could be hairy if we wanted it to be.
But that idea, which wasn’t mainstream even in the 1970s, didn’t exactly prevail.
By the time of Herzig’s writing in 2017, 99 percent of women in the U.S. removed their body hair, and 85 percent did it every day. “Those habits, furthermore, appear to transcend ethnic, racial, and regional boundaries.” And, she writes, as a group we recognize that we may be under the thumb of the patriarchy, but still insist, individually, that our choices are personal. “Put simply, Americans tend to describe other people as dupes of social pressure, while narrating their (our) own actions as self-directed and free.”
Personally? I have never exactly felt free. Gender, it was clear to me, had a set of rules that came with certain rewards, but only when followed closely.
I started shaving my legs when I was 12. As soon as I had anything to shave under my arms it was gone. Though my upbringing was decidedly Humboldt Honey, my mom was from L.A. and we lived in Sacramento. Central California is a cultural mix of both Nor- and So-Cal. That is to say, my mom and I understood aesthetic culture. Intrinsically we knew — like any femme knows — that “Politics is aesthetics,” as Natalie Wynn, the left-wing YouTube host, and transwoman whose channel ContraPoints deals primarily with gender, race, and politics, so succinctly put it.
Before I started shaving I was what we used to call a Tomboy. I wore taupe and wide blue-striped GAP shirts, shopped in the boy’s section of department stores, begged for a bowl cut (didn’t happen), and took a lot of shit for my habits until I was old enough to see the deleterious effect of my aesthetic on my mounting libido, i.e. dating life. Preteen girls attracted to heterosexual men, I noticed, had to look like older girls, not like little boys. If you want to peacock like a woman, you have to look like a feminine one.
The “cultural language of feminine signifiers,” as Wynn says, is not womanhood. Femininity is a construct, it’s performative. Even if we don’t all identify with American feminine signifiers, we know what the trappings and presentation of it are. Early in her transition, Wynn says some of her “worst” dysphoria was around body hair. So she had full-body laser hair removal.
“I’m aware that conventional beauty standards are racist, sexist, ableist, fat-phobic, trans-phobic social constructs designed to preserve power relations and sell products. But does that awareness mean I desire any less to be conventionally beautiful? Well no. I want it more than ever.”
I was always hairy. My relatives aren’t technically from the region described by Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex as the “Hair Belt” — that area of the world where ladies are burdened by unwanted hair; “Sing, Muse, of Greek ladies and their battle against unsightly hair!” but they were Slavic Jews and Scottish highlanders. We removed a lot of “unwanted” hair.
The first time I shaved my legs my mom’s boyfriend at the time said, “Do you have any idea why you’re doing that? It’s so men can objectify you. Do you really want to give away your power?”
I stopped shaving my legs for a few years after that. Incidentally, it wasn’t because of what my mom’s boyfriend had said (I thought he was a hypocrite), but because his values were mirrored by a lot of people I was around.
The first guy I had sex with told me my pubic hair was too long. I went into the bathroom and cut it all off with the scissors on my pocket knife. “That’s better,” he said. I assumed I had no choice because men didn’t like body hair and frankly they spent more time with it than I did.
For a while, I experimented with different levels of depilation. But looking like a prepubescent was never something I was comfortable with. “When men like that I take it as a warning sign,” said one woman I know.
The majority of women I talked to about their grooming habits — most in their thirties; identities, preferences, and backgrounds varied — felt similarly. “I just leave a solid triangle ‘down there,’” I heard a lot. But not from all of them. Plenty wanted absolutely no hair, and those who came from California, especially Southern California, remembered seeing mostly blank triangles in the locker rooms.
What I found most interesting was my friends’ eagerness to hear what others do. And almost everyone did something that someone else thought was odd or extreme. Bleaching, Brazilian waxing, lasering, arm, and toe shaving. And though they were universally ashamed of their practices they were unwilling to give them up. “I stopped for a while,” said one. “But I couldn’t stand the way it looked.”
This was true even for those who grew out armpit hair or shaved their legs. There was always something that was a “problem” and thus “taken care of.”
A few of my younger friends are going “fuzzy.” I’ve seen a lot of hairy pits and legs in the last few years. I like leg hair on a woman. When I was reading about this “era of body hair” I wondered if I’d just gotten old or had my head down as times changed. Was I suddenly alone, perpetuating the ‘hairlessness norm’? I wondered. Well, it depends on the crowd.
According to my own crowd, the preference for hairlessness runs deep. Not one man I spoke to felt comfortable with the idea of femme and female partners growing out all of their body hair. The women I talked to by and large preferred reciprocity in a partner, both male and female, and a groomed groin. In fact, most of the straight women I talked to wanted their male partner’s pubic hair maintained.
One friend of mine whose daughter was heading off to college admitted that she was sort of mortified that her daughter was choosing not to shave her legs. This woman, a card-carrying bohemian her entire life, wasn’t sure if she was more upset about being upset than she was about the choice not to shave.
Making a real choice, one devoid of neurological underpinnings or societal pressures — if that’s even possible — is hard work for everyone.
I do feel slightly relieved now that I’ve spent so much time thinking about my own body hair removal and how it relates to the history of the practice. Not because I feel justified, but because I understand my limitations a little bit better. Body hair and hairlessness is a privilege to navigate, it’s another manifestation of the shame and suffering and racial delineation imposed and perpetuated by my culture.
And while Herzig’s words ring true — “In the contemporary United States, few practices are as taken for granted as the deliberate removal of body hair” — I feel a little freer to forget about it and do whatever I want. As the saying goes: we all have bigger fish to fry.