Today’s guest post is from “Erin” who is a graduating student of Women’s and Gender Studies at a local university. She specializes in sexuality as it relates to gender and her main focus is reproductive rights history.
Body hair is an interesting phenomenon. Women are supposed to be free of any hair and men can have as much as they like, right? Wrong. Like other gender binary differences, body hair practices are culturally learned behaviors.
The norms of a hairless beauty ideal have changed over time and between cultures. According to “The Hairless Ideal: Women and Their Body Hair” by Susan A. Basow from the Psychology of Women Quarterly Journal, women did not start removing body hair until about 1915. Before this time the clothing styles did not publicly reveal legs or underarms, so hair removal wasn’t necessary. Around 1915 we started seeing advertisements targeting women to shave their underarms. The ads tended to be instructional and tried to persuade women to purchase the hair removal product, usually a razor, because hair not growing on the head was viewed as “superfluous,” “unwanted,” “ugly” and “unfashionable.”
This is a classic example of the media and advertising industries targeting women’s insecurities, or rather creating insecurities for women to have, in order to sell their products. We see this in modern advertising campaigns all the time. Jean Kilbourne does an awesome job of illustrating the dangers of advertising on women in her documentary Killing Us Softly 4.
The wording used in the ads for razors in the 1910s was very deliberate. While men “shaved,” women “smoothed.” Presenting women as delicate and fragile, while presenting men as burly and strong. Now, it is an important side note that these ads only targeted white women as the ideal beauty. Racism was alive and well and continues to be. Just check out this post about a modern ad and colorism.
As we move into the 1940s, advertisers started to target women’s leg hair for removal. This comes from changing styles of clothing that begin to show more of the leg. Also, before this time, even saying the word “leg” was pretty risqué. This time also coincided with nylon shortages due to WWII. All these factors contributed to the rise in a hairless leg ideal.
All this is to say that it is important to recognize the history of where our cultural practices come from. Body hair removal stems from an industry that aims to make a profit from the insecurities of women. There is a double standard between men and women, which brings this topic into the realm of sexism. The double standard is that men are encouraged to present hairier bodies, while women are socially punished for the same. On a more personal level, if you decide to shave your body hair because it makes you feel better, by all means do so. Just keep in mind why you are doing it. I personally decided to forgo body hair removal because I wanted to rebel against the traditional notions of beauty in our culture. And, quite frankly, it has been liberating! I am more confident about my body image than ever before in my life. Now, I still reach for the razor in my morning routine out of habit until I realize that I decided to stop. Old habits die hard, I guess.
This all goes for pubic hair, too. For more on that check out last week’s post To Shave or Not To Shave for tips on how to shave down there if you decide that’s your thing.