Picture the typical razor ad. A light skinned woman is meticulously shaving already hairless legs. She looks extremely happy in this process, and afterwards her quality of life reaches a new high as she spins around in a sundress on a city street. The absence of body hair being shown and the euphoria of having it gone creates a culture of unspoken sentiment: it’s disgusting.
The taboo around body hair is so heavily ingrained in our society that we’d all be hard pressed to find an advertisement or a piece of media that portrays a woman with hair anywhere but her head- and one that doesn’t use it as a punchline. That isn’t a reality, though. What is a reality is that human beings are mammals, and just like all others, grow body hair to keep us warm and protect us from infections.
So why are women being told to shave all of it off?
You can read all about the history of razor advertising starting to target women here, but the bottom line is that it’s all a marketing ploy. Razor companies realized that they could make profit off of women by shaming the presence of body hair. Armpit hair became unwanted in the 1910’s when flapper dresses with exposed arms came into style, and the disdain for leg hair followed in later decades as hemlines started rising. This was only exemplified during WWII when men were sent off to serve in the military. With half of their customer base gone, companies needed to drive more women to keep buying their products. Razors were no longer just for men and the upkeep of facial hair.
All of this comes with a price though, and I’m not talking about just the literal money that comes out of our wallets- although the thousands of dollars spent on creams, razors, waxes, and laser removals are also astounding.
Women learn to internalize their own oppression by not only feeling disgust with their own body hair, but also for others who sport it. From subtle jibes in a locker room to the outright freak-show treatment of ‘bearded ladies‘, women police their own bodies. This reinforces an unnatural and high-maintenance beauty standard wherein those who do not conform are made to feel ashamed. Women with naturally fast growing or thick, dark hair are expected to shave all parts of their body daily just to keep up their appearance.
Of course, there are even deeper consequences than the shame. When specifically talking about pubic hair, the bikini and Brazilian waxes are commonplace. However, there are a couple of major downfalls with this. The first of these is that aside from the itch and pain of the processes, pubic hair removal can actually increase the risk of STI’s. The small lesions and absence of a barrier can leave the individual more vulnerable to harmful bacteria. Secondly, and most disturbingly, is the influence of the pornography industry on body hair. While the absence of pubic hair is viewed as “clean” and “sexy,” it is reinforcing the infantilization of women. To reiterate, this is a subtle way of sexualizing children because the ‘women’ who do not have pubic hair are prepubescent girls. That is what is being shown as irresistible.
If you think about it, it’s actually really creepy.
Women who follow the social expectation of shaving have their own reasons for doing so. While some reasons may stem from the need to feel beautiful or avoid ridicule (things to unpack on their own), not all do. I’ve heard ‘liking the feeling of smooth legs’ or ‘feeling cleaner’ among many others. While empowerment of the self is a great reason for doing things, I have to point something out. Women did not just start shaving because they wanted to feel the complete nakedness of their legs, you know, for fun. There was a reason– a need for social acceptance, to conform, to feel pretty -that people started shaving. Whatever your motive has morphed into, always remember that.
In a sense, that’s kind of what wearing makeup is like too.
The good news is that there has been a lot of push back against these social norms. Critiquing ritualized body hair removal is becoming more commonplace, like this very post for example. People are starting to understand the gender inequality and difference in expectations that surround body hair and removing it which inherently makes it a feminist issue. From the pink tax to not expecting men to shave their legs and armpits in order to be taken seriously, the stigma surrounding body hair links it to a patriarchal structure of oppression.
The decision to not remove body hair, or only occasionally do so, is steadily becoming more and more frequent. People are speaking about their experiences and defying socially constructed beauty standards.
People may think these women, myself included, are trying too hard by growing their body hair out, but really, it’s the exact opposite. We are doing absolutely nothing.
We’ve just accepted that we’re woolly mammoths, and we’re okay with that.