Back in its heyday, I performed in a local production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. I performed the monologue called “Hair,” in which a woman tells her story of being pressured by her husband to shave her pubic hair. After shaving, she feels “puffy and exposed and like a little girl.” Her husband is turned on. After she refuses to keep shaving, he is unfaithful, they attend couples’ therapy and ultimately, they divorce.
Back in its heyday, I performed in a local production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. I performed the monologue called “Hair,” in which a woman tells her story of being pressured by her husband to shave her pubic hair. After shaving, she feels “puffy and exposed and like a little girl.” Her husband is turned on. After she refuses to keep shaving, he is unfaithful, they attend couples’ therapy and ultimately, they divorce. In the end, she concludes that “hair is there for a reason—it’s the leaf around the flower, the lawn around the house. You have to love hair in order to love the vagina. You can’t pick the parts you want.”
Standing on that stage, I felt bold and empowered. I felt that I was challenging women, young and old alike, to reconsider erroneous perceptions of their bodies and to reject the pressure society places on them to comply with arbitrary standards of beauty. And I felt a bit like a fraud. There I stood, in full black leotard, hiding my satiny smooth legs, clean-shaven underarms and, even more hypocritically, my closely cropped pubic hair and neatly manicured bikini line.
Of course, I had my rationalizations in order: I’m a third wave feminist who sets herself apart from the stereotype of the hairy-legged, androgynous feminist of generations past. Today’s struggles are so much bigger than debates over appearance and style, I like to tell myself. I like to look good for me, not to comply with some socially imposed standard of femininity.
Looking back, these explanations seem thin. Today, hair removal is a multibillion-dollar industry and the pressure on women, and even men, to shave, pluck, wax, laser and otherwise eradicate their body hair is more intense than ever. It’s also more extreme. Not so long ago, it was sufficient for a woman to conform to mainstream standards and shave her legs and underarms. She might even wax her bikini line in the summer. But today, many women (and yes, dear reader, that includes many feminists and lesbians) take it all off—Brazilian-style!
What is going on? How do women across North America really feel about their body hair and the social pressure to be virtually hairless? Why is it not okay to toss that little pink razor and go au naturel ? Is body hair an aesthetic issue, a political one or both? In an age where many women and men aspire to a hairless body, what drives the hair-free trend? And what are its connections to mainstream sexual ideals and gender?
Historians and anthropologists tell us that humans have long been tending to their body hair. The ancient Egyptians, for example, associated hairlessness with cleanliness and incorporated hair removal into the bathing and grooming regimens of both men and women. Yet it was centuries later, in 20th-century North America, that removal of body hair came to be seen as the norm for women and was deemed a fundamental marker of femininity. Europe, by comparison, has always tended to be more accepting of women’s body hair, while many different practices continue throughout Africa and Asia.
Fashion magazines advertised depilatories in the early decades of the last century, but it was in the 1920s, as footloose flappers stepped out in shorter, sleeveless frocks and women’s legs and underarms made their public debut, that shaving was actively promoted. Women’s periodicals and cosmetics companies of the era advertised an ideal of beauty that incorporated shaving, and this was quickly absorbed into the North American zeitgeist. As decades passed, women’s clothing became increasingly revealing and apparel once restricted to private spaces, such as lingerie and bathing suits, became the stuff of public display. Accordingly, women were persuaded to render all exposed skin smooth, clean and hair free. Not only the legs and the underarms, but the bikini line was deemed in need of manicure. In short, women were pressured towards having a hairless, childlike body.
For most adult men in North America, to be clean-shaven involves the daily removal of all or some of their facial hair. Hair on the male body, however, is seen as an indicator of physical and sexual maturity, and hence strength and virility— traits typically viewed with negativity when applied to women. In view of this, a clean-shaven woman is one who has removed all visible traces of her body hair. Hair removal is not merely a matter of fashion then, but a defining characteristic of femininity.
Scholars like American historian Christine Hope have argued that it is no accident that demands on women to eradicate their body hair increased over the last century, at the same time as women progressively gained rights and privileges. In their newfound status as voters, professionals and public figures, women rivalled men’s exclusive hold on social and economic power. They were also subject to increased pressure to comply with a standard of beauty that incorporated hairlessness. In other words, they were encouraged to make their bodies appear childlike, rendering them seemingly less than adult and less powerful, at least in appearance.
The various guises under which social pressure has been exerted on women to shave, wax, pluck or otherwise eradicate their body hair are not limited to fashion, hygiene, morality and gender politics, but they certainly helped shape and define an explanation for a hairless ideal of beauty for 20th-century women. And in the 21st century women are under more pressure than ever to achieve extremes of hairlessness.
So, what’s new in recent years that has furthered fashion dictates for increased hair removal? On the technology front, the laser has revolutionized hair removal for women who can afford such treatments. These new technologies drive consumer marketing to ever-greater lengths, and the ability to afford fancy spa services and laser treatments is a measure of status among some women.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian has skyrocketed in popularity. This procedure typically involves the use of hot wax to remove all of a woman’s pubic hair, or else all but an aptly named “landing strip” (a narrow swath of pubic hair along the labia majora). The result is a pubescent or pre-pubescent look, one that’s idealized in contemporary pornography. This trend is, at least in part, a consequence of the widespread acceptance of pornography. Where women in previous generations had few opportunities to compare their external genitalia and the grooming thereof to that of other women, today pornography and erotic entertainment are more accessible. Pornography that presents women with radically trimmed or absent pubic hair abounds on adult cable stations and the Internet, affording the youth of today an up-close-and-personal, if distorted, view of the adult female body. While many young women say they feel pressure from sexual partners to ‘clean up down there,’ others claim that they go Brazilian to enhance their own sexual pleasure. On a memorable episode of Sex and the City, Carrie has her first Brazilian wax. Later in the day, she confides to her girlfriend, “I feel like walking sex!” A hairless vulva, at least for some women, is sexually stimulating, particularly when they’re wearing silky lingerie.
Personally, I have never made the trip as far as Brazil, mostly because of the pain factor. And I know several women who have gone once, never to return. In The Locker Room Diaries, journalist Leslie Goldman’s take on women and body image, Goldman visits the aesthetician at her gym for her first wax session. She describes the aesthetician as “sadowaxochistic,” but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a bit of “masowaxochism” involved on the part of the clients. Whatever the motivation, Goldman’s description of “having your public hair ripped from the follicles with hot wax” is an extreme feat, to say the least.
Still, its popularity is on the rise. Dr. Adelaide Nardone, medical advisor to the Vagisil Women’s Health Centre, reports on a survey that found that more than half of American women shave or wax below the belt. “Approximately one fourth of women 18 and older say they closely trim their pubic hair with scissors or clippers, and almost a third of women say they shave either part or all of their pubic hair,” says Nardone.
And what about men? Not so long ago, only niche athletes like swimmers and cyclists, and some gay men, removed their body hair. In the 21st century, manscaping is a hot trend, and with the increased visibility of gay and so-called metrosexual men, trimming, shaving and waxing are in—and no areas are off limits. In fact, increasing numbers of men are getting on the Brazilian bandwagon. The hairless ideal in men seems to be strongly driven by such factors as fashion, pornography culture and the desire to show tattoos and muscle definition to best advantage. Some men believe that removing their pubic hair gives the illusion of increased penis length.
Still, men who opt to keep their body hair as it is are not faced with the same stigma as women who refuse to succumb to societal pressures to shave. Of course, there are some women who make the decision not to shave or wax. In the 1960s and ’70s, many feminists rejected hair removal as a political act. For example, Anne, a university professor in her early 50s, doesn’t shave her body hair and rejects the convention of female hairlessness as a political act. “If all women stopped shaving, the revolution would be over in a matter of a few weeks,” she says. She has a point. Yet the reality is that, in 2010, the pressure on women to meet the hairless ideal is so great that harnessing the political power of the hirsute woman is an extremely remote, unlikely possibility. When my mother, a former ’60s hippie, let her underarm hair grow, back in the day, she did so at a time when at least some of her friends also challenged the pressure to shave. Today, the hairy woman often stands alone. This I know first hand.
In preparation for writing this article, I stopped shaving and grew my body hair. It was an eye-opening experience. I started shaving my legs and underarms at about age 12, so I had no idea what it would feel like to have hair on those parts of my body. I have thick, dark hair and, in no time at all, I was very hairy. Not only was I utterly conspicuous among my peers, but I was oddly self-conscious. No matter where I went—to the gym, work, shopping, or my favourite coffee pub—the dark growth on my legs and the tufts of silky hair peeking out of the sleeves of my T-shirt attracted curious, and often critical, glances. Mostly, the looks of disapproval belonged to women who, I imagine, could not fathom why an average-looking, conventionally dressed and groomed woman would not engage in hair removal.
At first, this was disconcerting. But, over time, I grew to enjoy not only the spectacle, but also the hair itself. It softened; it glistened in the sunlight; and the furriness on my legs even quivered in the breeze, producing an oddly stimulating sensation. It’s hard to explain, but with hair on my body I felt stronger, bolder and bigger—like I took up a bit more space.
Some months later, putting the finishing touches on my research, I started shaving again. Although my comfort with my body hair grew over time, I’m not sure that going au naturel is for me. My long shins, complete with their many scars and little brown moles, are most recognizable to me without hair. And, after not having shaved for a time, I enjoy that familiar feeling of smooth skin. As an internalized aesthete, hairlessness is more pleasing for me.
I learned a few things from my experience as a hairy gal, though. First and foremost, I learned to be less of critical myself and of other women. I have a newfound respect for underarm and leg hair, and I know I’ll devote far less time to policing my bikini line. I also learned that it doesn’t take much to get women talking about their hang-ups about body hair, from obsessive-compulsive grooming regimens to extreme waxing sessions gone wrong. I also heard positive stories about hair removal: One 20-something woman described how she and her girlfriend get together and, with a home waxing kit, remove each other’s leg hair. Who knew that hair removal could be an occasion for female bonding?
As a feminist, I believe that starting these conversations has been a good thing. Riding the third wave into the 21st century, body-image issues have been at the forefront of feminist dialogue. In Body Outlaws, American feminist Amy Richards argues that dialogue is the key to navigating this sometimes bristly terrain. Richards feels that “we must create a dialogue that extends … into our daily lives, a dialogue that leads to less shame, less denial and more room for individuality.”
The factors that convince women to remove increasing amounts of their body hair are overlapping and complex. The personal is political and, as always, it’s not easy to get at the underlying source of women’s individual motivations and decisions. Maybe it all comes down to personal preference, as many of my friends and colleagues told me when I spoke to them. However, we would be remiss as feminists if we failed to examine shaving trends without also looking at the big, hairy elephant in the room: patriarchy. The growing trend towards women shaving or waxing their pubic hair is, in large part, a result of the influence of pornography on mainstream culture. Throughout history, women have succumbed to social pressure to alter their bodies in an effort to appear sexually appealing, and shaving, arguably, is no different in that respect. It’s one more thing that is wrong with us that we have to fix in order to be desirable.
The question of whether to shave or not to shave, as well as where and how much, is a debate that is therefore emotionally charged. I also found that, overwhelmingly, it is third-wave women who shave the most body hair. While no one can predict what fashion or grooming trend will affect the next generation, one thing is for sure: Widely divergent arguments for and against hair removal will undoubtedly continue to change with every generation of women—and men—to come.