“How did you get that hair under your arms?”

Welcome to your latest installment of thought-provoking questions kids ask me. When kids ask, it’s usually genuine surprise – they actually do not realize that most people grow hair all over their bodies. Why would they? If their only models of adolescent/adult cis-gender women are people who remove all the visible hair other than what’s on their scalp, how would they know? I was lucky to be raised by women who discussed body changes openly and honestly with me since I was very young, but I imagine it’s a surprise to many children when they begin to grow body hair, the way it is a surprise to some young people when they start menstruating. The interesting thing to me is that kids do not tend to see it as something bad, just sometimes interesting if it’s outside of their experience. “Why do you have hair,” a non-judgemental genuine question of curiosity, is related to but different from the question I get asked by older people. Why is the default to ask “Why don’t you shave,” when no one ever asks “Why do you?”

Around a year and a half ago, it was almost summer. Time to start shaving again, I figured. And I finally stopped to ask myself why. I realized that I couldn’t come up with a reason that didn’t have something to do with someone else’s expectations of a woman’s body. So I didn’t, that night. I figured I would again in a few days. I didn’t. I figured I would again in a week. I never found a reason. A while later, I went off to mentor teens at an activism summer camp, and the young women around me were all talking about how long they’d gone without shaving while we were in the wilderness, and how they had to shave ASAP – or did they? And as this teenage peer group debated amongst themselves about whether they really had to change their bodies and what made them feel that way, I wondered myself – what kind of role model would I be if I told them “of course you don’t have to shave, your bodies are all gorgeous exactly the way they are, and by the way we’re at activist camp and have plenty of more pressing things to be concerned with!” and then trotted off to shave myself? I haven’t shaved my legs since then, and have begun to be glad to be one counterexample to what kids see in magazines about what female skin is “supposed” to look like. 

Photo credits: @hairypitsclub Instagram

Female body shaving seems to still be less common in Europe and Asia than in North America, but getting more and more common. On the other hand, in the past few years, women around the world are becoming increasingly more comfortable with their underarm locks, many celebrating them with photo projects and neon hair dyes. The Instagram hashtags #freethepits, #NoShaveNoShame, #bodyhairisbeautiful, #pithairdontcare, and more promote cheerful and empowered armpit selfies. 16-year-old Adele Labo of France started the hashtag #LesPrincessesOntDesPoils (Princesses have hair) to fight body shaming and bullying she had been subjected to at school for her body hair. Women’s rights advocate Xio Meili started a photo project to normalize underarm hair in China, where shaving armpits became common as recently as the 1990s. 

“The pictures have proved that women can celebrate their bodies, desire and love, whether homosexual or heterosexual, whether their underarm hair is long or short and in spite of raised eyebrows from passers-by,” Ms. Wei wrote on Weibo.

After traveling back and forth between UK and her native China, Yuan Ren of The Telegraph reflects on the project and quotes varied perspectives from Chinese women as more and more Western impact pressures some women to shave. Although in her experience in big cities, it is still just as common to see unshaven pits as to see shaven ones,  

Tiffany Zhang, 32, who works in sales, tells me she shaves “all over”.

“I used to think the hair on my arms were kind of cute, but my friends pointed them out a couple of times and I decided it was best just to get rid of it”, she says.

Tiffany thinks that any woman who has had “some contact with the West” would chose to shave. Moreover, shaving is seen by many as a sign of ‘Western’ refinement, including by men.

In contrast,

Zhang Hong, 40, a cleaner, almost ridiculed the idea that she’d be preoccupied with body hair: “That’s for girls with money and influence; we’re in the cleaning business and barely get enough sleep to think about that.”

[source: The Telegraph]

In New Zealand, where I live now, my experience is that underarm shaving seems as common or more so than where I grew up on the East Coast of the USA. People still ask me why I’ve ditched the razor, which got me wondering about the history of female body shaving.

Photo credits: @FreeYourPits Instagram

Why do we have body hair in the first place? Compared to many other mammals, humans are relatively “bald.” We lost most of the body hair that our close primate relatives retained for warmth; but today “most adults have about 5 million hairs across their bodies . . . the hair’s short, fine structure facilitates our sweat-cooling response. That capability to withstand heat allowed humans to migrate around 1.7 million years ago from tree-covered areas to open savannas in Africa and onward.” Body hair also traps and releases scents from the apocrine glands, like pheromones in other animals – signals to attract potential partners. [source: HowStuffWorks]

Okay, so human body hair seems not to play an essential role in health today, but neither does the hair on our head. Why remove it if it isn’t hurting us? 

Is there any medical benefit to shaving? In my research, I have been unable to find one for underarm or leg hair. One study showed that rates of lice were lower among populations that shaved pubic hair; however, the health concerns/dangers re: hair removal seem to outweigh this finding. Besides, shaving can cause chafing, can be inflammatory, and can cause skin to become “papery and thin,” according to Anita Bhafwandas, beauty and health editor for Women’s Health (UK) magazine. Ouch! 

When did women start shaving and why? The earliest mention to shaving I could find was this, from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation:

Pubic shaving actually originated in ancient Egypt and Greece when prostitutes had to shave for both hygienic reasons and as a clear sign of their profession.

Besides that, female body hair in Europe may have been hidden and not discussed. Lecturer Jill Burke of the University of Edinburgh writes:

Notoriously, on the wedding night of the celebrated art critic, John Ruskin and Effie Gray in 1848, Ruskin was so repelled by the sight of his bride’s body that he was unable to consummate the marriage. Effie Gray explained in a letter of five years later “he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person”. Although we’ll never get to the bottom, so to speak, of the reasons for Ruskin’s reaction, it’s been widely assumed that he was traumatised by Effie’s pubic hair.

1915: Advertisement for Gillette’s first “female razor” proclaims “women everywhere” want to be “white and smooth.”

Some primary sources show that women were definitely finding creative ways to remove body hair as far back as the 16th century (see “How to remove body hair — renaissance style” in Burke’s article), but according to Emer O’Toole of The Guardian, female shaving in modern America pre-WWI was virtually unheard of. The parts of the body that women often shave today were generally covered up by clothing. As women’s fashions became more and more revealing, Gillette noticed an opportunity to double their customer base. The company began marketting razors to women in 1915, and in a slew of aggressive, misogynistic and often racist advertising, a new cultural norm flourishedBy 1964, 98% of women under the age of 44 were shaving their legs. Our inclination to remove a part of our bodies is thanks to a company’s lucrative idea to create and capitalize on a new body insecurity.

In conclusion, Burke reminds us that in the 1500s and today, body insecurity is too often the result of society telling us that our bodies are here for someone else’s consumption: 

Medicine, hygiene and beauty were closely intertwined in the Renaissance (as they are today). But certainly aesthetics were an element of hair removal. For example, Francisco Delicado’s La Lozana Andaluza, was published in Venice in 1528. It tells the tale of an Andalucian prostitute, Lozana, in Rome who gets up to all sorts of sexual misadventures and also offers beauty treatments to female clients. Lozana declares that in a certain Roman brothel “You’ll see more than ten whores, some who pluck their eyebrows and others who shave their private parts“, and later recounts a story of how “By mistake we burned off all the hair from the private parts of a lady from Bologna, but we put butter on it and made her believe she was right in style“. Later some women come to Lozana for some cosmetics and ointments, and also ask Lozana to “teach me and my cousin here how to shave off female hair, since that’s the way our husbands like it.” Male expectations of female bodies – or even as here women’s assumptions about male expectations of female bodies – can lead to highly effective self-policing [my emphasis].

So, to shave or not to shave? Of course, like most questions about how to treat one’s own body, that’s a personal choice only each individual can make for themself! Of course, I acknowledge what a privilege it is that I get to make this choice for myself. As a cis, white woman, the validity of my gender identity is generally not questioned by others. Even if I present gender-conforming, I have never had to fear violence for not conforming to gender stereotypes. I have never been terminated from or in danger of losing a job for lack of hair removal, though in my research for this post I was shocked to discover that this is legal in the USA under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (?!) Every once in awhile, I feel like having smooth legs, so I go for it because I feel like it, not because of someone else’s expectation. Most of the time, I feel comfortable au natural. I enjoy getting to have intelligent conversations with kids about why bodies develop the way they do, and setting an example of being comfortable in my own skin. What are your thoughts on hair removal? I’d love to continue the discussion with educators of all genders; please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below! I am also putting together a short survey to learn about women’s thoughts/feelings about shaving around the world for a follow-up blog post – please comment or email me madeleinebella [at] gmail [dot] com if you’re interested in partaking (can be completely anonymous).

References and further reading:

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