The human body is naturally covered in hair and still we have a long history of going to great lengths to remove it. Contrary to some beliefs, body hair removal serves a purely aesthetic purpose. This makes the choice to leave it there or get rid of it up to you.
Men and women both shave but women face more social pressure to do so. The idea that women should have smooth, hairless skin became fashionable in Western cultures around the turn of the 20th century and has been marketed to us ever since.
There are two kinds of hair on the human body—head hair is known as terminal or androgenic hair, whereas all the softer, shorter, and usually finer hair everywhere else is called vellus hair. During puberty there is an increase in androgenic hormones in the body that cause the vellus hair covering the pubic area and underarms to develop into terminal hair. Terminal hair and vellus hair can differ in pigmentation.
Men are typically hairier than women due to the greater prevalence of androgens—steroid hormones responsible for hair growth and thickness—but this differs from person to person.
Social stigma around body hair makes us believe that people with visible or unkempt hair aren't as clean as their smoother-skinned peers. While it is true that underarm and pubic hair can retain molecules and create stronger odour over time, this does not happen instantly and with regular showers or bathing, the presence or absence of hair does not influence a person’s cleanliness. To the contrary. Just like our eyelashes, body hair acts as a natural protective barrier to pollution and bacteria. The hair covering a particular area of the body is adapted to protect just that area.
Shaving is in no way a sign of the times. There is evidence of shaving dating back to 30,000 BC. But why? Why did people feel the need to shave then, and why do we feel the need to shave now?
If we look into the history of different cultures, we find that appearance links a person to a certain group or class. The length of a person’s hair or beard signifies belonging and status. For example, the beards of the Egyptian pharaohs signified their status as living gods—and were completely fake. The beard was a symbol and didn't have to be real. In fact, some pharaohs were women and would also wear a beard. However, under that false beard was usually a clean-shaven ruler. It was difficult and time-consuming to achieve a smooth shave, so that became a symbol of class.
Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, believed a full beard was a sign of wisdom and masculinity. Their beards were a source of pride and would only be cut if they were in mourning or great emotional distress. Having your beard cut off by someone else was a great disgrace. However, beards lost their popularity in Ancient Greece when soldiers found them to be a handicap on the battlefield—if an enemy grabbed you by the beard they could control you.
Women have seen many fashions in shaving come and go in accordance with the aesthetic of the time. During Cleopatras’ rule, women used a sugar-based paste to remove body hair, similar to waxing today. During the Elizabethan era, women shaved their eyebrows to make their foreheads appear longer!
The modern era of shaving began in the early 1900s. People associated hairlessness with femininity and being desirable thanks to the efforts of three industries, which sought to profit—the women’s fashion industry, the men’s shaving industry, and the women’s magazine industry. The smooth-skinned look came into fashion with the emergence of more freeing outfits with short sleeves and a higher hem. Our perception of body hair has been largely shaped by advertising.
Comfort is one thing, but embarrassment is a social phenomenon—we can only be embarrassed when others directly or indirectly shame us for our behaviour. Today women are often told that we are free to choose whether or not we want to shave, but there is a long way to go before leaving our body hair be is widely accepted.
Why is a smooth-skinned woman thought to be more attractive? Is it because a heavily-marketed trend has become a cultural norm, or is there more to it?
Hairiness is seen as uncultured—even animalistic. This is ok for men but not for women. An important factor worth considering here is the perception of women as adults. Women have naturally hairy armpits —except when they are still girls. We know that the appearance of body hair is a natural part of puberty. Still, seeing an adult woman with body hair seems strange. Our culture has developed an aversion to the hair naturally present on an adult woman’s body. Favouring smooth skin encourages women to falsely retain pre-pubescent qualities.
If hairiness is animalistic, then hairlessness is childlike. These connotations form a dangerous narrative in which women are not seen as autonomous adults, capable of their own decisions. The obsession with female hairlessness allows younger girls to be sexualised, because physically there is not much difference between the body of a shaved adult woman and that of a prepubescent girl. It reinforces the narrative that women are naive, helpless, and easily manipulated—like children. It also promotes the idea that a girl is as responsible as a grown woman, subject to blame for her sexualisation.
Porn also reenforces the illusion that hairless women are the norm. As one of the main sources adolescents can see nudity, porn creates expectations that do not comply with reality. The male gaze that objectifies and sexualizes women is not a genetic phenomenon, but an outlook shaped by our culture. If porn depicts women in a certain way, we come to believe that this is the truth and try to imitate that false and unachievable truth. Young people grow up thinking that for a woman to be desirable she must be hairless.
Many women have realized that hairlessness is tied to systemic objectification and have made the choice not to shave in protest. However, this sometimes leads to shaming the women who do shave as being complicit in the oppression of women, which is another form of oppression. The goal isn’t for all women to stop shaving, but rather that each of us is truly free to choose.
If you do prefer to remove your body hair, there is more than one way to do it. These are the most common:
To achieve best results, start with clean and, preferably, exfoliated skin.
Shaving with a razor blade, preferably 4 blades or more, is an effective way to remove most body hair. Ironically, men’s razors tend to work better than women’s. Use shaving cream or gel to make the hairs softer and easier to cut and to keep the skin from drying. Electric razors are another option. It is important to keep your razor blades clean and to change them regularly, regardless of the kind of razor you use. After shaving, hair grows back quickly—within a couple of days.
Waxing is when warm wax is applied to the skin in strips and then pulled off taking the hair that catches in the wax with it. The wax warms and softens the hair follicles, making it easier to pull up the hair with root in larger patches. Brazilian waxing is extended waxing of the pubic area. This method is quick but can be quite painful and does not work as well on some areas of the body, such as the underarms, especially when doing it at home. Because the hair is pulled up together with the follicle, it takes more time for the hair to grow back so waxers can enjoy several weeks of smooth skin. However, for waxing to be effective the hair needs to be about ¼ inch (⅔ cm) long for it to catch in the wax. Sugaring uses the same technique but with warmed sugar instead of wax.
Depilation is the use of chemical creams to dissolve the hair at the follicle, leaving a residue that is easily wiped away. Depilatory creams can cause allergic reactions in sensitive skin and, just like with waxing, hair regrows slowly because the follicle must also reform. Depilation is pain-free, but it takes time—around 15 minutes—for the cream to do its work.
Laser hair removal. Professional laser treatments target the hair follicles and can, over several sessions, remove most of your body hair for up to a year. It is a safe and popular, but not cheap.
For smaller areas and finer hair, plucking and threading are good options. Plucking is the removal of individual hairs with tweezers, most commonly used for eyebrows and other small areas. Threading is the removal of individual hairs or groups of hair using crossed threads to catch and pull them. Shaping and limiting hair growth is referred to as grooming.
You may have heard that if you shave, the hair that grows back will be longer, darker, and thicker. Shaving can stimulate hair growth, and the hairs can appear darker for the first few days, but they won’t grow back longer and thicker. This is a myth.
Hairlessness has been part of the beauty standard for over a century and has become deeply embedded in social attitudes towards women. However, more and more women are choosing to let their body hair grow. Some do this as political protest, while others simply don’t want to shave.
On the other hand, hair removal is very common and poses few dangers beyond a clumsy cut or ingrown hair. There is little reason to argue against hair removal practices. However, the pressure women feel to be hairless can and should be tackled. Raising awareness of the history of shaving can help shelter future generations from unnecessary social pressure to be hairless.
Your personal preference remains just that—personal. Whether you choose to let your hair grow or to get rid of it, make sure that you are making the decision for yourself. There is no right answer.
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