A short history of body hair

We are cultural beings and we understand ourselves and each other culturally. When we look to history, we also see very clearly that the cultural ‘glasses’ we see through, changes through time and place. There is nothing inherently wrong or disgusting about female body hair. Historian Rebecca Herzig demonstrates this in the book Plucked (2015), a historical account of body hair practices in the United States. The removal of female body hair is a historically specific norm related to broader issues of gender, class and race.[1]

The first records of hair removal in the United States are from the European settlers of the 18th century, who wrote about the hairless native Indian body. These hairless bodies were mysterious to the Europeans – why did these people lack body hair? Were they born this way, or did they remove the hairs themselves? Both options seemed disturbing to the settles and were used politically to reaffirm the Europeans’ superior position. The logic goes like this: If the Indians simply fail to develop body hair in puberty, it will indicate that they are a different biological kind, and thus not children of God in the same way as the white Europeans. On the other hand, if the Indians pick out their hairs voluntarily, it will mean that their minds are indeed savage. The native Indians’ hairless bodies were read as a sign that they were different to the white, hairy, reasonable man from Europe.[2] Hairlessness was interpreted as an indication of cultural and biological inferiority.

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Visual fieldnote from a Brazilian wax

Herzig traces back the connection between femininity and hairlessness to three moments in the early 20th century. First, she discovers that visible female body hair was used in political campaigns against women’s voting rights. Hair on women was used to signify ‘excessive’ independence and exaggerated masculinity, and women who pushed for voting rights and access to the labor market were depicted as hairy to underline their sexual invertedness.[3] The campaign probably had some connection to existing social norms, but did also reinforce and distribute the norms. The images made clear that hairy independent females were undesirable for the male gaze. Second, the image of female body hair as a sign of exaggerated masculinity, got mixed together with the hygiene movement. The hygiene movement wanted to protect racial fitness by preaching hygienic standards of spotlessness for the not-so-white immigrants. Maintaining a high hygienic standard meant segregating oneself from the body’s organic life, including hair. And third, Herzig explains the condemnation of female body hair by shifting trends in fashion. Clothes started to reveal more of woman’s potentially hairy parts, and soon women’s magazines began to promote hairless limbs as a necessary requisite for female beauty.[4] Hairlessness became a prerequisite for femininity. And for a while, hair removal by x-ray became a popular means to stay beautiful amongst American women; much less complicated than the painful multiple-needle electrolysis or short-lived shaving efforts.[5]

With these historical examples, Herzig shows us that body hair removal changes and is related to several other issues of relative human positioning and justifications, as class, gender and race. Body hair removal is related to power in complicated ways, because the distribution of body hairs in the world is not democratic. Note how the dominating body hair ideal in the expanding Western world today is easier, cheaper and less painful to obtain when your genetics are disposed for blonde, light and soft body hairs. Gender issues intersect with class and race – to the disadvantage of those who are lowest in the distribution of privileges. It is more expensive, more time-demanding and more painful to replicate hairlessness, if you are born with more and darker hairs. Thus, you may not only be a woman, who needs to remove her body hairs in order to be legitimate female; you may be a darker skinned woman, with dark hairs all over your body; and still, you are expected to maintain the hairless ideal promoted by Western commercials and media.salon2

[1] The contingency of body hair removal is empirically documented in Rebecca Herzig’s Plucked (2015), a historical account of body hair practices in the United States // Herzig, Rebecca M. 2015. Plucked: a history of hair removal. New York University Press. New York and London

[2] Ibid., Pp. 19-27

[3] Ibid., Pp. 76-77

[4] Ibid., Pp. 78-79

[5] Ibid., Pp. 81-88