Editorial: When did body hair become unnatural?

by Naomi Grewan

A look into the pressure placed on women to remove their body hair.

Lockdown has been over four months long now. For me that’s meant four months of no shaving, no waxing and no hair removal creams – a blissful time, I might add.

I received an SMS a few weeks ago from SkinPHD telling me that they were reopening and that I could call to book my next appointment. My first thought was, “Yay, I can go wax!”, but it didn’t take long for that thought to change to, “Wait, why do I need to?”.

To be honest, because we’re still in winter I’m probably not going to go to beauticians for a while. Regardless, that moment reminded me that the only reason I shave, or wax, is because it’s expected of me. I don’t suffer through waxes or spend copious amounts of time shaving because I enjoy it. I do it because, somehow, society has made me believe my natural body hair is unnatural, unattractive, unhygienic, and unladylike.

How did something naturally occurring become something disgusting? In the western world, the short answer is this: sales. Prior to the First World War, almost no women were actively removing their body hair. When men were away at war, razor sales dropped and corporations decided to start marketing razors to women.

Advertisers ran various campaigns throughout western media stating that if women wanted to remain “unembarrassed” they needed to shave. As most media channels today are still dominated by western media, we can see how hair removal quickly became a social norm globally.

In the 1940s advertisers moved from merely suggesting hair removal to flat-out shaming women for having hair on their legs. The plan to construct a society that required women to shave in order to be respected went off without a hitch. Today, just over a century after women were first pressurised into shaving, the pressure persists.

By making women feel insecure about their body hair, a new market was created. Feeding off of an insecurity that wasn’t there before, profits increased. Women’s razors were (and are) sold at a higher price than men’s razors and the same is true for practically all products marketed specifically at women. This is what we now call the pink tax.

The relationship between capitalism and patriarchy is oh so sweet. Today the hair-removal industry alone is a multibillion-dollar industry.

For most women, removing body hair is a norm that has been imposed on us from the very first signs of puberty. Without even realising how detrimental it is, the pressure often starts with our mothers and teachers. Later, it is reinforced by our fathers, friends, colleagues, partners, and the media we consume. At some point, we internalise this and start to believe that our body hair is, in fact, unnatural.

[Image from @alokvmenon on Instagram]
[Image from @sheerahr on Instagram]

I can distinctly remember a moment in primary school when a Grade 6 boy was being made fun of for the amount of hair on his legs. Teachers comforted him and told him that growing leg hair was just a natural part of growing up. Fast-forward a few weeks and a Grade 6 girl was being made fun of for the amount of hair on her arms. Instead of being comforted and reminded that having hair on her arms is perfectly natural, teachers seemed to jump at the opportunity to tell her everything she could do to remove it.

At just 12 years old this girl was made to feel insecure about her appearance. Not too long after this, playground chatter turned to comparing body hair. From arm hair to leg hair, to monobrows, girls fed each other’s insecurities and boys fed each other’s egos. Without even realising it, we were filling the moulds set out for us decades ago.

10-year-old me tried to remove the peach fuzz on my face with sellotape. 13-year-old me was confused as to why my friends had suddenly all started shaving. 15-year-old me started waxing in the hopes that my hair would become thinner and fairer. 19-year-old me started googling the cost of laser hair removal. 21-year-old me is trying incredibly hard to remember that what I do with my body hair is my choice. There is no right or wrong, if I want to remove it I can and if I don’t want to, I shouldn’t have to.

[Image from @unapologeticblackgirl on Instagram]
[Image from @florencegiven on Instagram]

Maybe hair removal isn’t worth the time, money, and effort but the unfortunate reality is that no matter what I choose, there is a price to pay. Either the actual price of a wax/razor or being constantly asked, “Why don’t you shave?”. And my sanity pays the price.

Personally, I would like to have the option to choose without asking myself, “but at what cost?”. Ideally, society will reach a point where everybody is free to do whatever they want with their body hair without judgement, stares or pressure to adhere to the world’s unrealistic beauty standards and perceived views of “femininity”.

I have to admit that I’m not ready to step out of my bubble of social norms just yet, but this is a start. Acknowledging that it is my right to choose and reminding you that it is yours, too.

[Image from @queen_esie on Instagram]
[Image from @bodyhairmovement on Instagram]

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