In centuries to come, modern Western society’s predilection for hair removal may seem a little perplexing. After all, it is not a trend that has arisen out of either necessity or religious dogma; nor can it be dismissed as something as harmless as fashion. Instead, it will stand as testament to the insidious power of advertising; to the grey area between individual liberty and social coercion; to the market’s colonisation of the body.
Visible body hair, of course, is a part of the natural condition of adult Homo sapiens. Although it tends to grow much more sparsely on females than males, almost all post-pubescent women are biologically predisposed to have hair on their legs, under their arms and around their vulva. Similarly, it is also perfectly normal for finer hair to be present on a woman's face, back and forearms. This being so, why has female body hair become so reviled?
It was not always so. Up until about a century ago, female shaving was the exception rather than the norm in English-speaking countries. As far as we can tell, female leg hair and underarm hair were considered quite compatible with sexual attractiveness. The shift, as Kirsten Hansen details in her fascinating thesis ‘Hair or Bare? The History of American Women and Hair Removal, 1914-1934’, closely followed the development of women’s magazines as vessels for advertising.
If the phenomenon of advertising can be reduced to a single axiom, it is this: convince the consumer that they are in need of something. The logical corollary is that a successful advertisement must lead the reader to believe that their current state is somehow insufficient; inadequate. That may seem relatively innocuous when applied to an iPhone or a hamburger, but it takes on rather more sinister overtones when applied to bodily space – there, it becomes an aggressive assault on an individual’s self-perception; an exercise in exploitation of weakness.
This is hardly exaggeration. One need only glance at a typical advertisement of this sort from the first half of the 20th century to see how blatant such material was. Women – already socially allotted the role of being sexually attractive first and foremost – were informed that nearly every aspect of their bodies was something to be potentially ashamed of and something that could be duly remedied (for a price). This had always been the case, of course, for external appearances – hence corsets and makeup – but body hair was something rather more taboo. Hansen describes the process almost as a series of military coups: first came hair on the arms and face; then underarms; then legs; until finally, the rather more recent preoccupation, pubic hair. Once one ‘campaign’ had reached a point of critical mass, it moved on to the next level.
It would be simplistic, of course, to attribute this process solely to the power of advertising, but it certainly seems to have played a significant role. What these advertisements did was claim that the relatively unusual phenomenon of hair removal was not only normal, but expected; a necessary act in order to preserve sexual attractiveness. The irony is that, even in the context of the heavily patriarchal society of the time, this was not a state (then) demanded by men – indeed, there’s plenty of reason to think that the bemusement expressed by one of Henry Miller’s characters at the sight of a shaven vulva in Tropic of Cancer (1933) was far from an uncommon reaction (it is probably not too unreasonable to suggest the mainstream pornography industry of the 1980s as the point at which young male attitudes toward pubic hair took a sharp turn). Rather, this process was generated by the simple desire of manufacturers to sell things.
I can’t help but wonder if the success of that movement might be partially attributed to the wider silence enforced by the topic’s taboo status. Because the human body (and particularly female body) was considered an unacceptable topic of conversation, there would have been little rebuttal to the claims proposed in the women’s magazines. What public figure, after all, would champion underarm hair in the 1920s? Even in the more open modern era, these conversations are had predominantly in the pages of the very magazines that exist in order to sell ‘beauty’ products. Cosmopolitan and Cleo, needless to say, have a commercial agenda, not a philanthropic one.
Although I have framed this mostly as a feminist issue, it would be a mistake to see it solely through the prism of gender. While advertising will use any avenue of discrimination society allows it, oppression of women is not the end goal. We see that in the modern campaign against male body hair – one that, we are told, is proving quite successful. Where there is vulnerability, it seems, there is exploitation.
We should not accept this process so passively. While I would like to see a much greater emphasis placed on critical media studies in the education system one day, those of us who are not disgusted by the natural adult human state should be making our voices heard a little more clearly right now. So long as these topics remain a little taboo, a little not-for-polite-conversation, the silence will be filled by those who wish to promote shame and self-hatred in the service of commercial gain.