The Origins Of Body Hair Removal
At some in our lives, each and every woman has probably got upset with the fact that we have to remove our body hair. But what brought on this ritualistic practice, lest any man should have to shudder at just one errant hair and go crying to Facebook, saying that he is now scarred for life? Pop culture? Beach wear? Ladies mags? Come on, own up!
The history of body hair removal on a small scale, at least, goes back as far as the ancient times. In Ancient Egypt, the women invested a lot of time in the art of hair removal, and they even removed the hair on their heads. A bald Cleopatra, anyone?
In Ancient Rome, body hair was also seen as uncivilised, and if you had it – meant that you were of a lower class. If you removed your body hair, you suddenly climbed a few classes.
In the Middle Ages, Queen Elizabeth was a leader in facial hair removal – but she let her body hair grow freely.
So, although we might like to blame lad culture or ladies mags for the need to wax almost our entire body in order to look “civilised”, it turns out that history has much more to answer for.
In 1848, the great thinker John Ruskin was ready to consummate his marriage with his new bride. It was a night he was looking forward to – naturally – and he was excited to see his woman in all her glory.
Alas, it transpired that she had a little too much glory for the civilised thinker, who was so disgusted by “her person” that he decided he couldn’t actually consummate the marriage. Indeed, the brilliant critic couldn’t forgive his wife when he found out that she had a lot of body hair. It turned out that even his beloved didn’t get away from his criticism lightly. Streuth, John!
Bizarrely, there has never been any proper explanation for what Ruskin found quite so revolting. Commentators have mused that perhaps she was menstruating, or that her hair was too “unruly” for human eyes, or that he just hadn’t a clue what a woman actually looked like.
The only real assumption to be made from the story is that Ruskin was probably being way too critical.
Italian Renaissance lecturer Jill Burke asks: “For an English male art historian of the nineteenth century, steeped in the classical tradition and Italian Renaissance art, the expected female body would surely have been completely hairless. But how did these pictures interact with the way women treated their own bodies? Did the reinvention of the female nude in renaissance Italy go hand in hand with a vogue for body hair removal?”
It’s a good question; did the high art of the Renaissance force women to remove their body hair? Were they constantly living in the shadow of idealism, created by a bunch of male artists who wouldn’t have understand the terribly complex process that body hair removal includes? Were their lovers subjecting them to unfair comparisons to masterful paintings, asking, “Dora, I would prefer it if you looked like that. See what I mean? Do you see how Aphrodite looks?”
But Burke’s question also poses a second question; were the Renaissance paintings accurate depictions of what women looked like at the time, or were they ideal representations?
Burke prefers the latter answer, and argues that body hair removal is actually a more recent phenomenon. She highlights a 2005 study of UK women that showed 90% of us shave our legs and underarms, while 80% mow our bikini area hair and brows. These figures are very similar to the ones released by the U.S. and Australia, and show a common link between western women from different countries.
Feminists argue that not only is mowing our body hair a modern trend, but it’s also a modern problem. Says Burke: “If you look more closely at the premodern period, however, these assumptions are hard to sustain. It is a commonplace in today’s psychological literature that body image and the desire for body modification of all kinds is profoundly affected by an unconscious assimilation of images taken from a variety of media sources.
“It is impossible to conduct psychological experiments, of course, on long-dead subjects, but my question is – can the proliferation of images of the female nude from the early sixteenth century onwards have affected women’s notions of their own bodies?”
Such an argument seems to fall flat in the face of the fact that ancient women, such as the Egyptians and the Greeks, did shave. Moreover, the first straight razor for men was invented in 1760 in France, and was also used by women. In 1844, the first depilatory cream was invented by Dr. Gouraud, which was in turn followed thirty years later by the same cream for women, sparking a shaving revolution.
And this is without mentioning the fact that a “Book of Secrets” from the 16th century contained a helpful set of tips and tricks on how to remove stains, control rashes and smooth over niggling blemishes. Furthermore, this Book of Secrets contain “recipes” on how to remove each hair from any part of your body. Wow.
Here is an excerpt, (but we don’t recommend doing it):
“How to Remove or Lose Hair from Anywhere on the Body:
Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.”
The truth of it all is probably, as always, somewhere in-between. No doubt the fashionable and upper-class women of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries engaged in body hair removal in order to stay classy and civilised. But it would appear that certainly not all women fussed around with waxes and razors. Indeed, many people would not have seen Italian Renaissance art – just like lots of people today wouldn’t be able to tell a Leonardo from a Michelangelo.
So, while some women have been removing body hair for centuries, body hair removal on such a mass scale is a modern trend. Italian Renaissance art may have convinced women in high places to shave, but it is ladies’ mags, celebrity worship, Brazilian women, the Internet, movies, and peer pressure that has led us all to indulge in a bit of self-mutilation. Hey ho.