Sorry, I'm a Mammal: A History of Women & Body Hair // RAZOR BURN: A Brief History of How We Got Tricked Into Shaving
By Shaina Joy Machlus
Sorry, I'm a Mammal is a new monthly series in which we explore the history of women and body hair.
"RAZOR BURN: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HOW WE GOT TRICKED INTO SHAVING"
Neon lights and expensive “women’s” razors caged inside plastic anti-theft boxes— a sight that has catapulted me into more than one grocery store existential meltdown. (To the tune of “Once In A Lifetime” by The Talking Heads.) There are more than a few metaphors here: the cost of being a “woman” and the price to be considered beautiful by an intensely limiting mainstream, heteronormative culture; something that is said to be necessary in order to be loved, accepted, admired is held just out of reach, unless and until one coughs up the dough designated by whom? Capitalist patriarchy of course. Someone get me to the cereal aisle, stat.
And you may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here?’
For me, it was in a bathtub at around 12 years old. My mom gifted me a pink, plastic razor that had a special guard on it to help keep me from cutting myself. It was the first weapon anyone ever entrusted me with; I had a razor even though I was still not old enough to use sharp knives. Oddly enough, I had been having my eyebrows and mustache waxed in the monthly gathering of the women in my family since I was around 6, but shaving was something reserved only after menstruation. As slowly and carefully as I shaved, my knobby knees were constantly decorated with tiny, stinging cuts. But oh the satisfaction of it all - I remember the sight of my newly shaven, gleaming legs: slick, smooth, and beautiful. I wore them proudly as a sign of my womanhood.
And I was not alone. According to Rebecca Herzig in her 2015 book Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, “more than 99% of American women voluntarily remove hair, and more than 85% do so regularly, even daily. The usual targets, for the moment, are legs, underarms, eyebrows, upper lips, and bikini lines. Those habits, furthermore, appear to transcend ethnic, racial and regional boundaries.” One might think with this abundance, the tradition of shaving would be prehistoric, but in fact it is quite the opposite. While it is true that Middle Eastern culture has a long history with hair removal using sugar wax, shaving legs and armpits is a relatively new trend that can be easily traced back to a few well-placed ad campaigns by none other than Gillette Razors.
Do you mean to say that the 43 billion-dollar company that stands to profit from women shaving had a hand in popularizing the concept!? Surprisingly, yes. Same as it ever was.
The height of western women’s fashion in 1915 is Greek- and Romanesque-inspired clothing like drapey, sleeveless dresses, a stark change from the previously conservative, high-necked frocks. Shedding a few sleeves and a few inches of hemline do not come for free in a puritan country. Newly exposed skin presented newly exposed hair that was immediately taxed. Magazines like Harper’s Bazaar wasted little time in selling advertising space to hair removal companies that claimed armpit hair to be unsightly and odorous.
By 1922 the flapper movement and its short dresses were in full swing and the hair removal epidemic had spread to leg hair. While it is difficult to know exactly how much consumers affect propaganda and how much propaganda affects consumers, hair removal advertisement numbers seemed to grow overnight. An astounding 66% of ads in Harper’s Bazaar mentioned the idea of leg hair removal, according to a survey done by Christine Hope in her essay "Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture.” There were creams and powders of all scents and colors that could cure women of their follicular woes. And then there was the razor.
Gillette Razors saw an opportunity for their product to be used not just by men, but to also profit off women. What was initially an item only marketable to men was now being sold to everyone. With a few decorative details, a 14K gold handle, and silk and velvet-lined ivory carrying box, Gillette had magically transformed the man’s razor into a women’s hygiene product. The Gillette's Milady Décolleté (it’s French, so it’s fancy) was born. The Milady promised a “safe and sanitary way to the smooth underarms demanded by both good grooming and good dressing.” This was no accessory, Gillette's advertisements made it clear that shaving was a necessity in order to be “sanitary” and a part of civilized society.
Gillette got an extra boost in the 1940’s with the nylon shortage during the second World War. War time prices meant many women could no longer afford stockings, and had to go bare-legged in skirts, dresses, and bathing suits (yes, apparently people wore stockings with bathing suits).
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down.
During this time, Hope’s research shows an increase of 56% of ads specifically about leg hair removal in Harper’s Bazaar. These ad’s drilled into the psyche of women that fuzzy legs were “gross,” and those who sported them, unlovable.
It is also worth noting that in its origins, this trend was geared to and perpetuated by white women. It makes sense; if you want to make a quick dollar, white women are an easy target. “More blacks than whites reported not removing their leg hair, and if they did, they reported fewer reasons related to social norms,” says Anneke Smelik in her paper, A close shave: The taboo on female body hair. Do you mean to say that white women’s culture ruined it for everyone else?! Surprisingly, yes. Same as it ever was.
Today, women in the United States spend a collective $1 billion dollars on razors per year. Adding insult to injury, women’s razor cartridges and razors cost an average of 11% more than those of men’s. As much as I would love to blame capitalism for the extra cash and time in the shower spent by many women, the truth of the matter is, as a society we readily took the bait. Which leads to an important question: why do people think armpit and leg hair is so “dirty”?
“What counts as dirt is contextual; each and every society or time signifies different elements as dirty or impure. In order to understand what is considered dirty and hence dangerous in a particular society... we need to understand society’s ‘deepest fears and desires’,” writes Smelik. Living in a fear-based culture, it is hard to point in just one direction. However, when it comes to connecting body hair to terror there is one glaringly obvious obsession in white, western culture: whatever you do, do not get old. As Smelik so keenly observes, “children are naturally hairless while body hair is a secondary sexual characteristic for mature humans. Removing body hair in general and pubic hair in particular makes the adult body look younger and more infantile. Together with the demand for fit and slim bodies, the hairless body plays into the contemporary beauty ideal of ‘forever young.’”
And you may say yourself, "My God! What have I done?"
That is correct y’all. Gillette and friends tricked us into being giant, hairless babies. I would be lying if I said I am not smirking a little at this revelation. I am a very hairy woman who gave up on shaving about ten years ago first out of pure exhaustion, then I realized I found body hair, my own and that of others, tremendously sexy. This is not to condemn or glorify the act of shaving (your body, your rules!) as much as shed a little light on a history that is anything but unique. How many times have women been convinced to alter their bodies to conform to standards that make no sense? Where exactly is the line that separates our ideas and those that have been sold to us? Whose mirror are we looking into when we view our own, precious bodies? The reflection is more than a little bit fuzzy and enough to make anyone shiver at the sight of a razor in a plastic box.
Same as it ever was.