It’s natural for us to have hair as living organisms classified as mammals. However, despite this characteristic of our species, we all learn through social pressure that some “particular” areas must be kept smooth and hairless.
It’s certainly worth it for us to debate this issue in regards to biology and sociology.
Is our desire to remove hair “natural” just like our characteristics to grow hair? Since when have we started grooming our body hair? Who is it that decided where on our body it is okay for us to have hair? What's the outcome of everyone accepting these standards without questioning them?
Let’s take a few minutes to think about this issue. Think about the 5 million hair follicles on your skin, and the you that grows them.
Is it destiny? Or a choice?
✔️ Trend of the Ancient Times
In 3,000 BCE, the pharaohs and the royals in Ancient Egypt boasted of their long hair and beards. But with the rise of a new dynasty came a new trend. Other than the “decorative hair” for a special occasion, all hair was to be removed. Egyptians considered shaved hair and smooth skin to be a virtue of the “civilized”.
However, the time when humans were obsessed with hair removal is not as long gone as you may think. For a very long time, humanity peacefully lived with their hair except for very specific moments in history. From the middle age to the late 18th century, the western world did not have much interest in women’s body hair. There was only a trend of plucking the hairline at the front to make the forehead wider. There was no culture that considered body hair to be humiliating or it’s removal to be a woman’s basic duty.
Women’s hair received better treatment in Korea and the Eastern cultures. Generations before regarded women's body hair, particularly pubic hair, as precious and saw it as a “symbol of reproductivity”.
✔️ Revealing the Suspect
We know that human hair was not disliked from “the beginning” or even “consistently”. Modern civilization is much stricter on women’s hair than any ancient civilization that detested hair regardless of gender, which indicates that the hair removal culture of our generation is new. Then who brought about the disgrace of women's hair and when?
- The First Suspect: “The fools who misused evolutionary theory”
Professor Rebecca Herzig of Sexuality Studies at Bates College in the U.S. points out that the birth of the notion that “women's hair is shameful” was in the late 1880s. This was when a scholar shocked our world by claiming that the ancestors of humans were identical to that of monkeys.
Charles Darwin explained through the theory of natural selection that all living organisms on earth share a single common ancestor and that the current “species” have developed over time by adjusting to their environment. As Darwin’s theory became popular, this led to an erroneous notion that there could be “less developed,” and thus “more primitive” individuals among humankind.
Since then, people with a lot of body hair began to face attack. Scholars and doctors linked human body hair to “diseases, madness, and delinquency.” This also led to the suggestion that body hair is a “measurement of sexual attractiveness”.
The odd thing is that men’s hair and women’s hair received completely different treatment. The notion that “hair is shameful” restricted many women. Women who did not manage their hair received far more criticism than men. Now women's hair has become a cause of humiliation and hair removal has became a “responsibility” for appropriate members of society.
- The Second Suspect: “Razor Companies”
Hair removal became more popular as women's clothing that showed more skin became popular in the 20th century. Gillette made the first razor for women in 1915 and introduced it as a new trending product that could “solve embarrassing personal problems.” The women’s fashion magazine, “Harper’s Bazaar” became an accomplice in 1922. They were the first to publish razor ads in a women's magazine using the phrase, “the fastidious woman of today must have immaculate underarms to not be embarrassed.”
Since then hair removal became an “essential problem” that women “need to solve.” It started an era of shaving legs in addition to bathing, showering, and washing hair. According to a survey conducted in 1964, 98% of women in the U.S. Aged 15 to 44 years regularly shaved their legs.
- The Third Suspect: “Pornography”
The social standard for women’s hair is becoming stricter. Women did deny the “hairless body” during the second wave of feminism and the spread of the hippie movement in the 1960s but it was not enough to re-establish the world’s standard. Another trend soon followed more intensely.
The revival of the provocative pop culture along with the pornography industry began a new legacy. People were now able to peek into the sex lives of others. Porn stars showed off their hairless vulvas to attract the eyes of the audience and as a result gained fame and wealth. Soon many celebrities started to follow porn stars and as mainstream media introduced it as a trend, “pubic hair” was added to women’s list for removal. What’s next? The wider public, the common people, started to be affected. This was the moment a stricter standard was established.
✔️ Is there a Choice?
In this historical context, women believed “hair removal” was the only way to manage their hair. Areas needing hair removal quickly expanded and more duties were assigned to women.
Even in South Korea where women’s pubic hair had been praised for a long time, the “Brazilian wax” started to be a trend among young people. While not yet comparable to the U.S. or Europe many people have started to wonder whether they should be removing more hair. This is due to popular media and celebrities spreading the idea that keeping the pubic hair natural is “not sexy”, “unsanitary”, or “falling behind the trend”.
- Is Hair Removal Really a Matter of “Choice”?
Women remove their hair for various reasons. But we cannot but point out that the most influential factor in hair removal is “sociocultural norms”. Professor Breanne Fahs at Arizona State University gave female students an assignment of “living without hair removal” and wrote a paper based on their experiences. She stated that most students doing the assignment shared issues such as deep humiliation, combativeness, and exclusion.
- Comparative Scales
There are definitely pros to hair removal. It can be very useful in managing certain conditions such as vaginitis or dermatitis. Also, women in our current social culture tend to gain self-esteem from hair removal and feel more comfortable. But the risks of “enduring” hair removal are often easily overlooked.
The cons of hair removal are clearer and sometimes even fatal. It's also time-consuming and costly. According to research conducted in 2014 with 3,000 women in the UK, women spend four months of their lifetime removing hair and paid about £8,000 GBP (about ₩12.5 million KRW or $9,140 USD). There are also many side effects that can negatively affect your health. Generally, 60% of women who remove pubic hair have experienced side effects and are exposed to various risks such as abrasions, cuts, burns, and bacterial infection.
Place the pros and cons on a scale and figure out what you really want to do. It’s easy to recognize the unusual weight that messes up your calculations. The social culture that detests women's body hair is too heavy.
- The Future of Hair Removal: Hope
A new change has begun with young and powerful women at the center of attention. In 2020, “Harper’s Bazaar” published a photoshoot of Actress Emily Ratajkowski that showed off her underarm hair. The women’s magazine that published the first women’s razor advertisement about 100 years ago corrected the mistake they made in the past (“the fastidious woman of today must have immaculate underarms to not be embarrassed”). Singer Halsey also showed off her underarm hair on the cover of “Rolling Stone” Magazine. Amber Rose revealed her pubic hair on Instagram and many women followed her steps. Now women’s hair is starting to become a symbol of confidence rather than a source of humiliation.
The industry is also quickly adopting this trend. “Billie,” a startup established in 2017 that sells razors explains that “hair removal is a personal choice”. They affirm that “not shaving” is also a choice by using a photo of a model showing her thick pubic hair through a bikini. There are also products that grow and care for pubic hair rather than removing them. The “Fur Oil”, which became famous for being used by Emma Watson, is a product that can be used broadly from underarm hair to pubic hair.
For the past two centuries, the forces regulating women's body hair were not women themselves. But what will the future look like? What can we pass down to future generations aside from polluted air?
- Women who feel humiliated by their body hair are not born but created.
- Women’s hair growth and removal should be a “personal choice.”