Why Do We Shave? The History of Women & Hair Removal
Imagine if Mona Lisa was painted with a mustache. Imagine if when Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flew up in The Seven-Year Itch, she had hair on her legs. Imagine if when Pamela Anderson bounced down the beach in slow motion on Baywatch, you could see a few stray pubes.
It’d be weird, right?
Had they been hairy, the pictures would have taken on an entirely different meaning. It would have been about them not abiding by whatever body hair rules were in place at the time.
It seems like no matter where you are, women are shaving everything from the neck down. But it’s no modern phenomenon–some archaeologists believe that body hair removal was embraced by cavewomen. So how did we get from scraping our body hair off with a sharp rock in a cave to today’s pretty pink shavers and bubble baths?
Why Do We Even Have All This Hair?
Let’s start by emphasizing the fact that having body hair is completely natural, and there is nothing inherently ‘dirty’ about it. Most adult bodies have about 5 million hairs, so it stands to reason that body hair serves a purpose. Covering nearly every part of your body, hair plays a role in skin sensory abilities and the temperature-regulating process of sweating. These functions were of particular importance to our ancestors, whose very survival may have depended on being able to detect a bug crawling across their skin or being able to withstand heat. But as we have evolved, the need and desire for body hair has significantly declined.
Body Hair? How Barbaric! Historical Methods of Hair Removal
Contrary to how cavewomen and cavemen are often depicted — almost entirely covered with hair, looking like a bunch of hairy hippies — archaeologists have come to believe that they were the first ones to embrace shaving. Unlike now, though, shaving wasn’t for vanity’s sake, it was for safety.
According to History , both men and women during the Stone Age often shaved their heads and faces so their opponents in battle wouldn’t have the advantage of grabbing onto anything. It was also to prevent their chances of frostbite.
However, since this was thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago, before any modern civilization could really be established, shaving really sucked. Shaving meant taking a stone, whittling it down to a sharp angle, and sliding the stone down your face. To get the smaller stuff, they’d use shells like tweezers. No wonder they only lived to be 25 years old.
People in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia helped modernize hair removal. (Thank god.)
But starting in ancient Egypt, being hairless was less about survival and more a symbol of cleanliness and status. The wealthier you were, the more spare time you had to dedicate to tweezing out all your body hair–including your head–with a seashell. No wonder Cleopatra was a little on edge.
It only took a few more thousand years to understand that sharpening rocks just wasn’t going to cut it. In the ancient Egyptian era, men and women finally improved how to take care of their body hair.
Of course, people got creative. Among the most popular tactics to remove hair in Egypt were tweezers made from seashells, pumice stones and even beeswax and sugar-based waxes, which they’d apply and rip off with fabric just like we do today. According to the Encyclopedia of Hair, copper razors dating back to 3,000 B.C. were found among ruins in Egypt and Mesopotamia too. There’s also evidence that women in Turkey used homemade pastes to remove much of their body hair.
Women of the Roman Empire made body hair a class issue.
In the ancient Roman empire, hair removal was a signifier of cleanliness, just like in Egypt and Mesopotamia; it was also a signifier of class — but only for women.
Wealthy women during this era took to removing all their body hair with pumice stones, razors made from flint, very scary-looking tweezers called “volsellas” and depilatory creams, according to Elle. Men, on the other hand, were free to wear their body hair however they liked.
And similarly to Egyptian society, pubic hair was seen as uncivilized to people in the Roman empire and Greece, with young women being subjected to the volsella the second pubic hair appeared. So, now you know why many paintings and sculptures of women during this era were sans pubes.
Thanks to Queen Elizabeth I, women in Europe didn’t have to worry about shaving their legs.
Since she was the queen, she was capable of setting trends, and according to her, the hair on your face should be groomed. That meant eyebrows had to be shaped, and mustaches should be removed, much like today. Leg hair and pubic hair, though? Don’t worry about it.
There was also a trend to remove the hair from the top of your forehead, which would make your face appear longer. Mothers were said to have rubbed walnut oil and, in some cases, cat poo, to prevent hair growth on the forehead of their daughters.
Women finally get a break in the 1700s and 1800s.
At last, women could do what they wanted with their body hair — for a limited time, that is.
The 1700s ushered in the first real straight razor, which was created by Jean Jacques Perret. It was originally for men to use on their faces if they wanted to, but women would use it as well. This was one of the few times in history when there wasn’t one single beauty standard dictating how women groom their own body hair.
However it wasn’t until the 1880’s that a much safer razor came along. Meet King Camp Gillette. He wasn’t a king, that was just his name. He was an American businessman, and in case you didn’t recognize his last name, he was the inventor of the Gillette razor.
In the early 1900s, fashion pressured women into shaving their armpits.
The first safety razor specifically for women finally came into existence in the early 1900s, and sparked a movement.
In 1915, Gillette created the Milady Décolleté, which launched what’s known now as “The First Great Anti-Underarm Hair Campaign.” This campaign suggested to women that now that they have these razors, they should use them on their armpit hair.
In ads for hair removal, women were now urged to remove “objectionable hair” from their bodies — namely their underarms. That particular area first got attention because sleeveless dresses were becoming increasingly popular by the 1920s. In an ad that appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1915, which was uncovered byRefinery29, completely bare underarms were a “necessity.”
This stands as one of the first instances of fashion directly affecting how women shave their body hair.
Thus started the ritual we have today of shaving away the unwanted hair.
In any case, women were dying to be hairless—literally.
For whatever reason, in the early 20th century, body hair was suddenly undesirable, and women had no shortage of options for hair removal. Unfortunately, many of those options were dangerous.
As Nadine Ajaka wrote for The Atlantic:
In the 1920s and ’30s, women used pumice stones or sandpaper to depilate, which caused irritation and scabbing. Some tried modified shoemaker’s waxes. Thousands were killed or permanently disabled by Koremlu, a cream made from the rat poison thallium acetate. It was successful in eliminating hair, and also in causing muscular atrophy, blindness, limb damage, and death.
By 1931, researchers had identified thallium—the active ingredient in Koremlu and some other depilatory creams—as a dangerous substance.
“A warning should be broadcast in regard to the dangers of the use of depilatories containing thallium,” Thomas P. Waring in a case study from 1931.
But that wasn’t the only hazardous hair removal technology, nor was it the most troubling. In the 1920s, beauticians began offering X-ray hair removal, which, while effective, was exceedingly dangerous.
Unfortunately, the priority of hair removal was firmly in place. “Around the same time, X-ray hair removal emerged as another treatment option,” Ajaka writes. “Women would sit for three or four minutes in front of the invisible rays of a boxed X-ray machine, and the radiation would do its work.”
“Women would sit for three or four minutes in front of the invisible rays of a boxed X-ray machine, and the radiation would do its work,” Ajaka writes.
An enterprising doctor named Albert C. Geyser quickly founded the Tricho Institute, which leased X-ray machines to beauticians after they’d completed a two-week training course. Advertisements for the Tricho System claimed that the “harmless” X-rays helped patients free themselves from “futile, dangerous and injurious means of removing disfiguring superfluous hair.”
That was, of course, untrue. Thousands of women ended up severely injured or disfigured by the devices, and x-ray hair removal was eventually outlawed.
And then fashion and World War II forces women to shave their legs too.
Fashion of the the 1940s and 50s coupled with World War II meant that American women were more and more encouraged to start shaving their legs for the first time ever.
During the war, there was a shortage of nylon, so women couldn’t wear stockings every day. That meant having to go bare-legged and, to be deemed socially acceptable, women shaved their legs. Previously, some of the only women who shaved their legs weredancers, whose legs people were obviously paying a lot of attention to.
By the time the 1950s came along and skirts got higher and therefore more people were seeing more leg, shaving legs and shaving armpits and tweezing eyebrows (thanks to Hollywood starlets) grew more common.
Of course, amid this tremendous upheaval, men didn’t have to shave a goddamn thing.
Porn, fashion and pop culture made everyone think they shouldn’t have all their pubes in the ’80s and ’90s.
By the 1950s, women had already learned that they should start shaving their legs and their armpits, and tweezing their eyebrows to get a perfect arch. So, why, oh why, did we start caring about pubic hair? Had we not suffered enough?
Truth is, people have cared about pubic hair for a while. With the birth of the bikini in 1946, the stage was set for women to start trimming up down south. While the 1960s and 1970s encouraged a wilder bush, the 1980s and ’90s encouraged more of a trim — or, in some cases, a complete trim.
During this time, images or video of women’s shaved mons pubis were being widely distributed, either through pornography or fashion photography, and women started giving it more thought.
At this time, Brazilian wax hit the mainstream. The first salon offering a complete wax came stateside in 1987, and from then on, the practice traveled mostly through word of mouth. Soon, actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow were talking about it and, in a scene in Sex and the City circa 2000, even Carrie Bradshaw gets one.
You can blame it on the thousands of years women have been told what to do with their body hair, or on the internet, which has given women a platform to form their own narrative when it comes to body hair grooming. Men and rich leaders no longer have any power at all.
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