Femininity’s War Against Body Hair

Many risky methods have been employed in Western societies to destroy body hair.

Posted Jul 06, 2020

Until puberty, our bodies look similar regardless of our sex, other than our genitals. When we hit puberty, a barrage of hormones—androgens like testosterone and estrogens like estradiol—reshapes our bodies. We all have both androgens and estrogens, but our relative amounts differ considerably, with much more androgens typically in males and estrogens in females. 

Androgens increase sex drive and the growth of genitals, body hair, sebaceous glands—which cause acne and body odor—and muscles in all of us, except those with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. Estrogens widen hips and increase fat deposition in breasts and buttocks.

In Western societies, many of us spend our lives trying to exaggerate either our femininity or our masculinity—often investing large amounts of time, effort, and money—and in some cases enduring pain and medical risks.

Regardless of sex, adults grow armpit, leg, and pubic hair, though more androgens usually means more body hair, as well as coarser and darker hair. Charles Darwin proposed that we evolved reduced body hair through sexual selection, as men chose mates with less body hair. In recent centuries in Western societies, an ideal of hairless female skin has been perpetuated. Essentially, what is thought of as the most feminine body is one with no androgens and thus no body hair.

Remarkable methods have been brought to bear against body hair. From at least the 16th century until the late 19th century in North America, “superfluous” hair on the face and neck was removed either by plucking one hair at a time, waxing, or applying homemade creams with ingredients that typically included lime (a strong base) and arsenic, as well as sometimes frog’s blood, burnt leeches, ant eggs, or cat feces. Manufactured creams came later and included thallium, a toxic substance that can be absorbed through the skin. Risks of these creams included permanent skin damage, vomiting, nerve damage, convulsions, blindness, coma, and death. 

In the late 19th century, electrolysis and X-rays were added to the armory. This use of X-rays continued into the 1930s, despite evidence that it caused scarring, ulceration, and cancer. Some women who could not adequately remove their “excessive” body hair or who suffered the consequences of failed remedies were led to suicide.

In 1915, Gillette introduced a safety razor for women, called the Milady Décolleté, to expand its market. Gillette advertised in women’s magazines like Harpers Bazaar, proclaiming the “necessity” to make skin “smooth,” in what Christine Hope called “The Great Underarm Campaign.” The word “shaving” was not used in advertising, because shaving was considered masculine. In the 1920s, as hemlines rose and sleeveless dresses became common, leg and armpit hair could readily be seen in public, increasing pressure to remove such hair. 

It has been argued that by removing most or all body hair, women are made to look prepubescent. This perhaps encouraged treatment of women as less than full adults, just as they began to have new opportunities, including voting. 

In the next two decades, stockings were often used to cover up leg hair, but they became scarce during World War II because silk and nylon were needed for the war. Leg shaving then shot up dramatically and has since become nearly ubiquitous among Western women. By 1964, about 98% of American women aged 15-55 shaved their legs.

Once hormones were discovered, some physicians went straight to the source of the “problem,” androgens themselves. For example, a pair of physicians surgically removed the adrenal glands of a “bearded lady” in 1946, because they suspected the glands were secreting too many androgens. The operation reduced facial hair growth but exacerbated psychiatric problems, perhaps due to loss of other key hormones that these glands secrete. Since the 1970s, physicians have sometimes prescribed androgen-suppressing chemicals to suppress body hair growth.

In the 1990s, it became popular to remove pubic hair as well, often through waxing, despite its painfulness. For centuries, a kind of waxing was sometimes used to remove hair, but modern waxing uses newer petroleum byproducts that the oil industry would otherwise dispose of. Products like Nair are a modern version of the homemade creams of past centuries, but they break down hair using bases less caustic than lime.

Beginning in 1995, laser hair removal was approved for use and in 2005 over 1.5 million such procedures were performed in the U.S. The laser heats pigmented cells that produce hair follicles, cooking them to death. This “charring” can be excruciatingly painful, so practitioners typically provide Lidocaine (a local anesthetic) or sometimes morphine, Valium, or Demerol. The procedure typically needs to be repeated several times to have a lasting effect. The heat often damages skin, sometimes permanently, especially if hairs are lighter or skin is darker. 

The century-long advertising campaign to make body hair unfeminine has been remarkably successful. Today, about 99% of U.S. women remove body hair. Across a lifetime, women who shave spend about $10,000 on hair removal and women who wax spend about $23,000, as of 2008. Women with visible body hair are often regarded as masculine, lesbian, radical, or mentally ill. Women typically say they remove body hair because it is disgusting and removing it makes them feel more feminine and attractive. 

Lack of body hair is part of an ideal of femininity that many strive for, influenced by movies, advertisements, and pornography, which sometimes manipulate images to digitally remove hair. These atypical images help shape our aspirations for our own body form. Trying to emulate them may be both unrealistic and unhealthy. These images show what a body might look like if it had no androgens. But androgens play important roles in our bodies regardless of our sex. Femininity should not require winning a war on androgens.

References

Basow, S.A. (1991) The hairless ideal: Women and their body hair. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15, 83-96.

Herzig, R.M. (2015) Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. NYU Press, New York.

Hope, C. (1982) Caucasian female body hair and American culture. The Journal of American Culture, 5, 93-99

Science News Letter (1946) Bearded lady's gland cures Addison's disease. Science News Letter, 50, 318.

Smelik, A. (2015) A close shave: The taboo on female body hair. Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, 6, 233-251.

Tiggemann, M. & Lewis, C. (2004) Attitudes toward women’s body hair: Relationship with disgust sensitivity. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 381-387.