Before I even understood the connotations that come with body hair, I understood the shame surrounding it. My mother never explained to me why I, as a woman, had to remove it. I just knew I must. Having body hair can often feel embarrassing and removing it must be kept a secret. There are so many methods to remove body hair: threading, shaving, waxing, depilatory cream, laser hair removal, and so on. What all of these methods have in common is the message that having body hair is undesirable, unhygienic, and dirty. But why on earth have we created so many methods to rid ourselves of something so natural?
While hairiness on men’s bodies has been equated with virility and strength, body hair on women is almost always seen as widely unfeminine and unclean. Darwin’s theory of natural selection associated body hair with “primitive ancestry”, and other scientific “experts” linked hairiness to “sexual inversion (in born reversal of gender traits), disease, lunacy, and criminal behaviour”. Western scientists falsely claimed that noticeable differences regarding body hair in women and men were indicative of a more “developed race”. These ideologies reaffirmed the colonial belief of white superiority, by claiming that women with thicker, darker, and more abundant body hair were evolutionarily inferior. Thus, having less body hair was a sign of being more “evolved” and sexually attractive. Interestingly enough, these connotations were only applied to women’s body hair, not men’s.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, there was an unprecedented effort to make body hair removal mandatory (or at least very socially unacceptable) for women in the West. Body hair is no longer a beauty practice, but a hygiene practice as well, part of what some would call “routine maintenance”. In 1915, Harper’s Bazaar was the first women’s magazine to describe the removal of underarm hair as “a necessity”. As shorter skirts came into fashion, so did shaving one’s legs. In 2017, it was reported that more than 99% of American women ‘voluntarily’ get rid of their hair. Today, women still engage in risky, time-consuming, and skin-damaging practices to rid their bodies of hair. When they do dare to appear with body hair, women are often chastised and shamed.
Julia Roberts’ appearance with unshaved armpits in 1999, led the media to focus on this choice rather than her performance in the movie. Tom Loxley, editor of the magazine Maxim, stated that “the only place men want to see hair is on a woman’s head… from hairy armpits it is only a small step to the Planet of the Apes”. Constructed as masculine, hair, when visible on a woman’s body, represents a symbolic threat to the patriarchy as it transgresses the boundary between the feminine and the masculine. To be hairy and a woman, according to this logic, requires an explanation.
Hair removal, at its core, is thus a form of social control. The hairlessness norm produces feelings of shame and inadequacy, making it feel as though women’s bodies are problematic the way they naturally are. Visible body hair on women tends to be treated as unclean, because of the connotation between hygiene and body hair removal. Hairy women are thus lazy, dirty, less sexually attractive, less intelligent, not to be married, masculine, witches, insane, possibly lesbian, or – perhaps at best, since blame is arguably removed – suffering from a medical disorder, such as hirsutism. Hairlessness and hair removal has long shaped gender dynamics and serves as a measure for femininity, according to cisgender heterosexual men. In this case, is it really a choice whether you remove your body hair?
The norm for feminine hairlessness may be understood as a requirement for women to conform to a view of themselves as less than an adult. Given that body hair may be understood as a signal of sexual maturity, the requirement for women to remove their hair may reflect the equalization of femininity with a child-like state, passivity, and dependence on men. The removal of this sign of sexual maturity thus reverts the body back to its child-like state. Removing your hair is another way in which patriarchal society controls your adult sexuality. This infantilization of women’s bodies is problematic at best. It is also a reflection of the pressure that women feel to remain “youthful” and the sense of shame they feel when any part of their bodies dares showing any signs of aging.
In recent years, conversations about body hair have been expanded. Hair-positivity feminist movements are pushing for people to embrace and grow out their body hair, whether under your armpits or your beard. For many queer people, body hair is a key part of gender expression. You can defy expectations regarding gender and body hair, whether that be choosing to grow it out or choosing to shave it all.
Instead of spending time working on waxing yourself in order to be acceptable, deserving of love, and sexually attractive, this time can be spent deprogramming the socially enforced oppression that rears its ugly head in the form of compulsory feminine hairlessness. In any case, it is your body and definitely your choice. Hair has no gender and body hair is a natural part of the human anatomy so you might as well embrace it!