Updated: May 7, 2020
As I was attending my routine laser hair removal session, I wondered if there was ever a time where we I had considered not removing my body hair. I am just one of millions of women (and men) that remove my face and body hair regularly through routine methods of waxing, threading, shaving, laser and epilation. Hair? We all have it. It regulates body temperature and protects our body from dirt. So why do, most of us, remove it? Surely this mainstream phenomena wasn’t simply just a result of marketing campaigns, mass social control, the porn industry and sexual selection? Scroll down to learn about this long-standing tradition and how ancient practices and judgements contributed to our own moral understanding of body and facial hair, today.
Contrary to common belief, hair removal methods first started taking place in human history over 12,000 years ago in the Neolithic era. Archaeologists have discovered that women had long, braided hair whilst the men did not.
Such experts have concluded that this was for safety reasons over vanity – during battle, by having no or little hair growth, you would have an advantage over your opponent as the enemy would have less to grab onto. Stones were sculpted with a sharp edge and then dragged down the skin to remove the hairs.
The Ancient Egyptians birthed a lot of the beauty passages we still follow today and hair removal was one of them. From what we know, the Egyptians were of one of the first colonies to associate facial and body hair with social class. Full body hair removal would be carried out amongst the wealthy, higher classes of men and women, whilst the poor would leave their hair to grow. The sugaring method was invented during this time, using beeswax, and tweezers were made from seashells; pumice stones were used like today’s epilating devices and razors were created from flint. The removal of hair during this ancient time, was also carried out to minimise louse infestation.
27BC – 476AD
The Roman Empire held similar views on hair removal methods, associating a hairless body with ultimate divinity and high social class. This theory is evident amongst the main ancient paintings and statues of gods and goddesses that frequently depicted clean-shaven figures.
The release of Charles Darwin’s work, Descent of Man influenced Western belief of the link between body hair and femininity and attraction. Darwin’s theory of natural selection suggested how mates with less body hair were considered more sexually attractive and how this factor, significantly contributed to human evolution. The popular publication deployed a powerful image that men were supposed to be hairy and women were not.
“It appears therefore at first sight, that man has retained his bear from a very early period, whilst woman lost her beard at the same time that her body became almost divested of hair… ….and it is possibly that only the later stages of development has been retained by man.”
Extracted from The Descent of Man, page 387 In 1762, Frenchman Jean Jacques Perret invented the first straight razor for men. It consisted of a wooden sleeve that fitted over the blade, causing only a small part of the sharp edge to protrude, minimising the risk of fatal injury. It was the first of it’s kind, but Perret didn’t patent it, leading to more advanced razor innovations in the 18th century.
It wasn’t until the 1915, that a razor was designed and marketed specifically for women. Gillette released the world’s first female razor and called it Milady Decollete.
Seven years later, the iconic Harpers Bazaar magazine published a feature displaying a woman with no underarm hair – the first marketing publication of its kind, which led to a stimulation of worldly awareness and shift of attitude towards female body hair removal.
From the 30s, hair removal advertisements, got a lot more serious and predatory-like. These campaigns were generally targeted towards the women in quest to escape loneliness, find a man, and settle down to start a family – arguably, this was most of the world’s female population. A strong ideology was re-created over and over again in such images and headlines, that no man would ever desire a women if their facial or body hair was visible. This clever but destructive approach is shockingly evident in the vintage ads you can find across the internet.
During this time, there was an advance in indoor plumbing and a soar in private bathrooms which results in stronger attitudes towards general hygiene. Suddenly, men and women everywhere could attend to such personal self-care tasks.
World War One brought a flood of hair removal campaigns that targeted men too. Gillette was a front-runner for this movement, to target soldiers in combat, to shave their hair to prevent lice and other infestation, and also ensure helmets and gas masks could be fitted more efficiently.
New hair removal methods were advancing during this time, from depilatory creams to X-ray hair removal. Looking back, these applications were extremely dangerous – the most popular hair removal cream at the time was Koremlu, a cream formulated from the rat poison Thallium acetate, and it caused thousands of deaths and disability from limb damage to blindness. The uncontrolled radiation from the X-ray hair removal devices often led to serious cases of cancer, scarring and ulcerations.
1940s – 1950s
If the campaigns from the 30s didn’t tempt the general public enough to remove their body and facial hair, the next decade certainly did. The second World War brought shortages of the most personal luxuries, included panty hose. Going bare-legged meant revealing pesky leg hair, so the majority of women adopted shaving methods during this time. Just like a few years before, the war also brought on a great deal of encouragement towards men fighting on the front line to shave regularly, to minimise the risk of disease and infestation.
The world’s first electrical razor was released in 1940 by Remington.
Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine was introduced in the 1950s, and paraded their own idealistic female beauty; which included only clean-shaven women. By this time, hair removal was widely accepted.
1960s – 1970s
The 60s showcased much more daring fashions in the female sector – mini skirts especially, became a thing. Bare legs, meant no hair. At-home wax strips were introduced and laser hair removal started to develop, and became popular amongst men and women.
The 70s came, and women were fighting for equality. Untouched body hair became a symbolism for their revolution. Perhaps this is where the phrase, the ’70’s bush’ was born?
For those that wanted to keep on top of their body hair growth, women and men certainly had more options. The trending ‘Hollywood’ treatment (full removal of the female pubic region) was born. Nair became popular and the brand’s ads were everywhere. Electroylsis, still the only method proven to have permanent results, became increasingly more advanced.
Meanwhile doctors were prescribing hormonal drugs like Aldactone and Androcur (the same therapies we use today during gender reassignment) to improve cases of ‘excessive’ hair growth in women. Results were inconsistent and dangerous.
80s – 90s
The next decade popularised at-home electrical shaving devices and epilators’. The Epilady Epilator was amongst the most favoured, which involved a coil or rotating head with multiple sets of tweezers. Ouch.
Trimming became common though as women, and men, were increasingly exposed to flawless fashions, airbrushed images, movies and pornography. Celebrities even began discussing the art and efficiency of regular waxing appointments and nightly tweezing.
And in the last 20 years, we have more variety than ever before, when it comes to choosing our hair removal journey, from laser hair removal, tweezing, removal creams and epilation to sugaring, shaving, at-home IPL devices and electroylsis.
There seems to be less pressure today to make a decision, of whether to remove our body and facial hair. Women in particular are urged to choose for themselves, what they feel is right, in this new age. Celebrities like Madonna, Miley Cyrus and Paris Jackson, amongst many others, have spoken out about embracing body hair.
Hair removal isn’t just about fashion statements and self-loathing. Athletes and swimmers remove their body hair for better performance, and better comfort during routine sports massage. Bicyclists remove their leg hair to reduce the risk of road rash. Some remove hair for religious practice. Body, facial and head hair must be removed before surgery and chemotherapy. It can also be a tool to help fight body odour. Even today, hair is removed to combat serious cases of lice and other infestations.
There are too many reasons to count as to why we remove our hair and this bizarre movement has been around for thousands of years – much longer than the time it has took for the media to influence our television screens and smartphones.
Did you learn anything new from reading this article? Comment below or find me on social media. If you loved this article, find out here why we are so obsessed with beauty.