Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hair Free – The Only Way to Be?

Hair Free – The Only Way to Be?

Hair hair hair! What does your hair say about you? Cut it, shave it, prune it, curl it, dye it – who are you? Who does your hair say you are? Young? Old? Flaxen and silky, or black and coarse? Are you... bare? In a classic example of the hairy truth, Julia Roberts, the then epitome of sex, class and style, was treated to gasps of horror when she exposed a bushy armpit, waving to a previously adoring crowd at the Notting Hill premier in 1999. “Shock! Horror! Could that really be brown curly hair under her delicately toned arm? Men groaned in disgust. Women gawped in disbelief. And the media went wild” (Middleton 44). The 'incident' made waves, and is still written about today.

In an anonymous article, “The Bare Truth”, published in the Economist, a journalist writes about her experience in a London hairdresser's shop.

“An Irish beautician called Genevieve is explaining what a 'Brazilian' is a she practices the art on your correspondent. ... Between each excruciating rip, she explains that she is going to remove nearly all my pubic hair, except for a narrow vertical strip of hairs the width of a couple of fingers. This is known colloquially as the 'landing strip.' ... In only a few years, this form of waxing has gone from the esoteric to the everyday and is starting to rival the ordinary bikini wax in popularity. At the same time the bikini wax is becoming a normal procedure for women of all ages: the youngest person Genevieve has waxed is a 12-year-old girl” (111).

The removal of female body hair has become such a social norm and furthermore, social requirement that little 12 year old girls are being subjected to it. It is a lengthy, costly, painful process that has even been favored with it's very own name: depilation. On the flip side, it is socially accepted for men walk around with scratchy beards, dangling goatees, hairy backs, hairy chests; tt is an expression of their manliness. In fact, thick, full hair is so completely associated with masculinity that “many men go to great lengths in their efforts to keep the hair on their heads. ... The main reason a man will have cosmetic surgery ... is for the transplantation or restoration of his hair” (“The Bare Truth” 112). Femininity equals hairless. Masculinity equals brawny man fuzz! If a woman has hair she is not considered sexually attractive. If a man does not have hair he is not considered sexually attractive. What a catch twenty-two!

Susan Basow and Amie Braman two researchers at Lafayette College held a unique study to test the importance of the hair question. Viewers were shown one of two possible short films – each film showed the same attractive woman, doing the same exact thing. The only difference was that in one film, she had completely removed all her body hair, while in the second film, she had allowed it to grow for two months. The participants were then asked to rate the actress on certain qualities on a scale of one to five. So, did they notice? Oh, yes they did. 100 percent of the participants who viewed the second film noted the actress had bushy armpits, and 85 percent of them noticed her hairy legs. Not only did they notice these changes but the results showed that the participants, both men and women, found the hairy actress was less socially attractive, less sociable, less intelligent less happy and less positive. On the flip side, the version of the film in which the actress had shaved resulted in participants finding the actress less strong, less active, less aggressive. According to this same study, it appears that other women and people who identified themselves as feminists were much more tolerable and accepting of the second film's hairy actress.

For the vast majority of the population – hair is the norm. So why do we care about body hair? According to Susan Basow in her article, “The Hairless Ideal : Women and Their Body Hair”, there are two main reasons for women to shave: “feminine/attractiveness reasons and social/normative reasons” (83).

Although men and women have been selectively removing body hair since ancient Egypt, the mainstream idea of women shaving first exploded in 1915, when new dress styles suddenly exposed womens' armpits, and unsightly, excessive, disgusting armpit hair (Middleton 45). In order for society to continue rolling forward in the 1920s, middle class white men needed to settle down and have families with middle class white women. This movement towards the hairless female expanded to the idea that it was a woman's duty to be sexually attractive in order to catch and keep a man, to this end, which meant that she had to shave her armpits (Bower 84).

Marika Tiggemann and Christine Lewis, two researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide Australia, delved deeper into this trend of body hair triggering a disgust response in their article, “Attitdues Toward Women's Body Hair: Relationship With Disgust Sensitivity”. Disgust has evolved from a primordial defense mechanism to a social construct. “...[D]isgust has evolved into a more abstract emotion, and the elicitors of disgust have expanded to include inappropriate sexual behaviors, poor hygiene, contact with death or corpses, body “envelope” violations (gore and deformity), as well as inter-personal and socio-moral elicitors, all of which are viewed as offensive and potentially contaminating” (Tiggemann 382). So why do many people experience a disgust response to female body hair?

The ancient Greeks were highly preoccupied with developing the ideal figure – first for men and then for women. One glance at the Spear Bearer or the Aphrodite will tell you they valued smooth, uninterrupted, unblemished skin. This seems to be some clue to the body hair disgust response. Body hair becomes a blemish on the skin – something that should not be there. Women should not have beards – hair that happens to grow on a woman's face must be either carefully shaped (in the case of eyebrows) or bleached or waxed (in the unfortunate case of darker hairs growing above the lip or along the jaw). If a woman has this hair and does not get rid of it in a timely, regular fashion, the hair is disgusting, and she, in turn is also disgusting (Menninghaus 53).

Dirty is disgusting. It is a generally accepted fact of life. Some women claim they shave because they like to feel clean – thus not disgusting. In the 1920s, when hair removal was new and all the rage, advertizing geared towards women proclaimed the need for “cleanliness and meticulous hygiene” and this equated shaving legs (Basow 85). In more modern times, “companies that advertise female shaving, waxing and depilatory products often play on the fear that hair is dirty. The message is clear: if you don't want to look like a dirty man in a hygiene-obsessed world, get rid of your body hair” (“The Bare Truth” 112). The majority of the population has a lots of hair growing on their heads. However, as Mark Pagel, an Evolutionary Biologist at the University of Reading, England, describes” 'It's like saying 'Look at this large area of my hair-free skin – look how unmarked and unblemished it is. I don't have any parasites living on me – mate with me'.'” (Middleton 45).

Susan Bower ventures to claim that body hair equals unbridled sexuality. Body hair generally develops during puberty, amongst the raging sexual hormones and developing breasts and feminine curves. “David Stoddart, an olfactory biologist with Australia's Antarctic programme, points out that armpit and pubic hair grows just where the major scent glands are to be found. Hair is a means of wafting this scent about. Thus a tuft of hair allows humans, life other animals, to advertise to mates that something of interest is happening on the skin below” (“The Bare Truth” 113).

If that is the case, then, why is hairless sexy? Bower quotes Ewen and Ewen 1982 237 “Amid an ideology of unsullied chastity, women were reduced to a primarily sexual identity, or to the identity of a child.” In shaving off their body hair – not just their legs and their armpits, but their genitals as well, womens' bodies become child-like, innocent and pure. Just the way women should be. Perhaps then, it's not that hairless is sexy – it's that hairless is safe. “Women's bathing suits increasingly reveal the pubic area; women are now encouraged to remove or bleach those hairs that show. Visible hair, not the pubic area, is considered too risque to reveal” (86). A woman's wild sexuality is carefully maintained, coiffed and hidden.

According to Merran Toerien, Sue Wilkinson and Precilla Choi in their article, “Body Hair Removal: The 'Mundane Production of Normative Femininity,” as time passes more and more women are removing body hair. “...[S]ignificantly fewer participants aged 51 years and older ... said that they had ever removed their leg hair than did those aged 20 years and younger” (Toerien 403).

However, despite the numbers, many women are asking, what's the harm? Compared to plastic surgery, sex changes, what is the big deal with waxing the hair from your body? The problem is, women are not just fighting the battle of the fuzz. A woman's body is a hunk of meat, and every company in the multi-million dollar cosmetic industry has sliced off its share (Tiggeman 381). Like makeup and anti-wrinkling products, removing body hair instills in women the belief that their natural bodies are wrong, bad and unattractive.

“Thus with the help of Maddison Avenue, hair removal behavior had become normative. This pattern of convincing women that the are inadequate without a particular product has been the hallmark of advertizing at least since the 1950s... The primary message in most of these ads is that women need to change their looks and their bodies in order to be socially acceptable, especially to men” (Basow 85).

When women value things which are unnatural to their own bodies, such as the perfect fat-to-muscle ratio, the perfect breast shape, the smoothest skin, and non-existent body hair, women disassociate themselves from their own bodies. “Everything disgusting solicits an ethical reaction: this thing here - ... anticipating our presence as stinking, rotting bodies- should not be, at least not for us and in our presence. It should go away. The theoretical equivalent of practically avoiding the disgusting is defining it “away” either as “unnatural excrescence” or simply as a disease” (Menninghaus 53). A woman battling undesirable body hair views her own body as unappealing, disgusting, raunchy.

In a society where studies have shown anywhere from 80-92 percent of women remove body hair, a large part of the problem is women ignoring this vital fact (Tiggeman 381). Many women have a tendency to feel they do it because it makes them feel attractive, not because of social norms. “Women were able to recognize the normative pressures on them to shave their legs and underarms, but only when looking back in time” (Tiggemann 382).

Women who chose to fight the man, (literally and metaphorically) and allow their underarm and leg hair to grow face a great deal of social pressure and contempt. Ashley Hawkins wrote about her experiences as a hairy lady in “Reflections on Body Hair”.

“The first thing other women usually say about my underarm or leg hair is, 'How do you get a boyfriend looking like that?' All at once, I am embarrassed, enraged and disappointed. ... I feel enraged because I feel that all women should be confident with how their bodies look unaltered. ... Her comment makes me wonder, what direction are we going in as women? The woman that has just said this to me claims to believe in the right of a woman not to be governed by a man, yet sees no contradiction in asking me why I don't alter my body for a man?” (40-41)

Just as “The Personal is Political” served as a rallying cry for feminists in the past, it must serve as a reminder in the present. Women are not on their own, slipping in the shower as they struggle to shave their legs, soothing red, angry skin after a wax treatment, spending far too much money on depilatory supplies. Women must make an effort to understand why they feel they must go to such lengths to remove their natural body hair, and why other women refuse to remove any body hair at all. The personal is still political.

Works Cited

“The Bare Truth.” Economist 20 Dec 2003: 111-113. Print.

Basow, Susan, and Amie Braman. “Women And Body Hair.” Psychology of Women Quarterly. 22.4 (1998): 637-646. Print.

Basow, Susan. “The Hairless Ideal: Women and Their Body Hair.” Psychology of Women Quarterly. 15.1. (1991):83-96. Print.

Hawkins, Ashley. “Reflections on Body Hair.” Off Our Backs. 34.11. (2004): 44-41. Print.

Menninghaus, Winfried . Disgust: the theory and history of a strong sensation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Middleton, Lucy. “Smooth Operators.” New Scientist. 184.2471. (2004):44-45. Print.

Toerien, Merran, and Precilla Y.L. Choi, and Sue Wilkinson. “Body Hair Removal: The 'Mundane' Production of Normative Femininity” Sex Roles. 52. (2005): 399-406. Print

Tiggemann, Marika and Christine Lewis. “Attitudes Toward Women's Body Hair: Relationship With Disgust Sensitivity.” Psychology of Women Quarterly. 28.4. (2004):381-387. Print.


  1. I was recently insulted by a man because of my choice not to shave my body hair, to which I received the response, "I feel sorry for your boyfriend." And that came from someone who I thought held more progressive ideals.

    This is a beautifully written article that expresses my own view of female body hair. There is so much garbage on the internet, posted by ignorant people, people blind to truth, blind to their own manipulation by society and media.

    Thank you for taking the time to write and post such a thoughtful and well-researched article.

  2. I love this whole, hairy women rulz movement!We need more Feminists in SriLanka! Personally, I shave my legs, and I occasionally pluck my eyebrows...but I made a vow to myself that I will never, shave or wax my arms! And they're hairy hon, anyone gotta problem? Fuck off! I love the way they look! ;)