Human beings naturally grow hair all over their bodies, and some of us are hairier than others – mostly males, it has to be said. But while modern Western convention deems that men need only shave their faces, women are encouraged to shave all of their body hair clean away. We just wonder why this naked ambition came about – and ask when the bid to bare all began.
For most women these days, hair removal is a key part of any beauty regimen. As a result, there’s now a multi-million-dollar industry that produces an enormous array of cosmetic products for this very purpose. But the methods employed to become a smooth operator are the subject of much debate and no little experimentation.
Of course, one tried-and-tested way is simply shaving, but this only removes the hair to skin level without removing its roots or follicles. This partial paring down is known as depilation, and it can also be achieved by the use of friction or dissolving creams or powders.
This is in contrast with epilation, which is the act of removing the hair and its roots. Plucky people can accomplish this through somewhat painful methods, such as tweezing and waxing. A hand-held electrical device called an epilator can also get to grips with the issue by pulling the hair out completely and with eye-watering rapidity.
However, some more scientifically minded souls even go so far as to use hair-inhibiting chemicals to ensure that their bodies are as smooth as can be. These formulas include eflornithine hydrochloride, which stymies essential enzymes for hair growth, and antiandrogens, which are basically testosterone blockers. Incidentally, such is the strength of some antiandrogens on the market that they cannot be used by men due to the risk of the chemical compounds causing infertility.
Yet although many of these methods are modern innovations, the practice of removing hair for both males and females actually stretches back millennia. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that cavemen and women would primitively cut away at their hair. This may have been related to fighting – so that an aggressor could not pull at it for advantage – or perhaps to prevent lice and other little nasties.
Unfortunately, of course, prehistoric human beings had no access to razor blades. They therefore had to make do with using naturally sharp things to literally scuff the hair away from their bodies. This meant using found and improvised objects, such as pieces of flint or sea shells, to achieve their look.
Clearly, then, primitive men and women removed their hair for practical reasons rather than vanity. Early civilizations such as Ancient Egypt, however, saw hair removal as a social phenomena. Apparently, women in the land of the pharaohs who did not remove their pubic growth were considered uncivilized.
Rules about hair also applied to Ancient Egyptian males, specifically their faces. So, as it was common for slaves and servants to have facial hair, hirsuteness became a marker that a man was of a lower class. For this reason, wealthier men would shave their faces using razors crafted from bronze.
The modern conventions of hair removal for females, however, may well have come from Ancient Rome. And much like in Ancient Egypt, the practice probably had something to do with social class. So Roman women would remove hair as a way of signifying their wealth and status. They would even use pumice stones to depilate and tweezers to epilate undesirable hair.
Yet despite the habit’s ancient origins, women shaving their hair did not really become widespread until the Elizabethan era. But 16th- and 17th-century European women were not actually concerned with hairy legs or armpits. Rather, they were shaving their eyebrows and pushing their hairline back to present as big a forehead as possible.
Historians relay how Elizabethan mothers would even rub walnut oil into their offsprings’ foreheads to prevent hair growth in that socially revered region. And what’s more, they would sometimes resort to bandages soaked in vinegar or cat excrement to achieve the same ends.
Fortunately, this practice started to come to an end with the invention of the first modern razor in the 18th century. The Perret Razor – a French innovation – actually possessed a guard made of wood and folded out into a lethal L-shape. They can still be seen nowadays, although they are often called cut-throat or straight razors.
The straight razor lost favor when its supremacy was challenged by the delightfully named American entrepreneur King Camp Gillette. This sharp operator invented the safety razor, with disposable blades, in the late 19th century. Gillette’s cutting-edge product was actually the precursor to the razors people still use today. And, of course, the businessman’s name remains a fixture on male-grooming shelves.
However, the most important year for women’s shaving may well have come a little while later in 1915. This was when the first female razor went to market. And in a famous advert from fashion magazine Harpers Bazaar, a woman was depicted with depilated underarms thanks to the razor. This arguably kickstarted the lasting trend for shaved armpits.
Part of the reason for the boom in women’s shaving was also a change in clothing fashions to less-modest modes. Prior to the 1920s, most females dressed very conservatively, so any hairy problem areas were covered up. But when fashion dictated that on-trend Greco-Roman-style dresses exposed more flesh, the keen minds of the shaving industry saw an opportunity.
By the end of the 1950s, then, a revolution had taken place. Advertisements and editorials in contemporary women’s magazines would now focus on females shaving their legs. And in 1964, one survey showed that 98 percent of American women between 15 and 44 had removed “unsightly” hair.
There is some speculation, however, over whether such ads were catering to female self-consciousness over body hair or creating it. After all, women clearly indulged in hair removal before the Roaring ’20s – but not as much as later on in the century. From the 1950s on, in fact, the cosmetics industry made a serial killing from keeping the West’s female population smooth.
Then, in the 1980s, pornography began to infiltrate the mainstream, thanks largely to the home-video phenomenon. Many women therefore became arguably influenced by the female performers’ practice of removing their pubic hair entirely. Yet some people allegedly kept things smooth as a convoluted response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This misguided move may also have come about as an attempt to help prevent the spread of other STIs.
More recently, however, there has been a push back against perceived sexist attitudes towards women’s shaving – at least in how the practice is portrayed in advertising. In 2018, for instance, the taboo-busting campaign for Billie – a “female-first shave and body brand” – showed a woman with actual body hair! Before she swiftly shaves it off, that is. But will this more honest approach to an age-old hairy issue be a case of hair today, gone tomorrow? Only time will tell…