Why Are Women Expected to Shave Their Body?
I think it’s finally time for us to discuss my armpit hair: my name is Morgan, and I haven’t shaved my body since September. In the summer months, I tend to keep my legs and armpits shaved pretty closely and carefully, probably because I like to wear shorts and dresses in the summer. In the fall, when jeans and leggings are back, I tend to ditch the skirts in favor of something that hides my leg hair and gives me a chance to let my hair grow.
Well, now it’s May, and it’s getting warmer, and I’m past due for my annual weed-whacking, where I take a good few hours and mow the lawns of my body. A few razors, a few nicks, and a bathtub full of hair later, I’m ready for the summer—or, I guess I’m socially ready for summer, my façade that I’ve been upholding since I was twelve—that I am a woman who doesn’t grow leg hair, can live another year.
Usually, my annual mass-hair removal happens in early April because I’m always quick to go to shorts, but here I type in early May with my hairy legs out and about in all their glory! This year, I haven’t been so quick to shave my legs and armpits, and I’m really unsure why. Is it because of Covid? I’m not going anywhere, anyway. Have I just hit the point of indoor laziness where I can’t be bothered? Possibly. Or maybe have I finally achieved a new level of enlightenment where I’ve come to accept that leg hair is natural and doesn’t diminish my womanhood? Probably not.
Although I’d like to say it’s the third thing, it’s probably somewhat of a mix of all three. I think part of it is attributed to my own journey in body positivity and feminism, and I think part of it is just not caring enough to deal with leg-hair in the face of all the chaos that is our world right now.
Still, I’m not 100% comfortable in my shorts with my hairy legs out; I feel like everyone is staring at them and thinking that I’m unkempt and sloppy. This is when I had to do some introspection; why do I feel that way? Why are women expected to shave their body hair and men aren’t? Why do I care in the first place? If you’re wondering the same thing, here’s what I found when I started looking into it.
The History of the Shaved Leg
From what I’ve been able to gather, women’s hair removal has its roots (get it?) in almost every culture to some extent. We’ve been able to trace women’s body and facial hair removal to as far back as 3000 BCE. According to the Women’s Museum of California women’s hair removal from both face and body has been somewhat of an in-and-out beauty trend since the dawn of beauty trends.
Early Egyptian and Indian women shaved both their head and pubic hair with copper razors, Roman women used to pluck their body hair, and later Egyptian women would use sugar-like wax to remove hair. We also saw head hair and eyebrow hair plucking in the Victorian age because I guess big foreheads were all the rage.
It seems like (much like head hair) women’s body hair has gone in and out of a trend throughout the centuries, and there have always been new and specific ways to remove or sculpt the hair we grew. However, it seems that the discussion around women’s body hair is unsightly and unhygienic started around the late 19th, early 20th century, and it all went downhill from there.
The Women’s Museum of California suggests that Charles Darwin planted the first seeds of hairless supremacy. They say: “The modern era of hair removal may have been encouraged by Charles Darwin’s 1871 book, Descent of Man, through the popularization of his theories of natural selection. That is, homo sapiens have less body hair than his/her antecedents because less hairy mates were more sexually attractive.”
Although Darwin may have started the anti-leg hair propaganda, it wasn’t until almost five decades later that the 1920s that women’s body hair began to be seen as truly undesirable. The early twentieth century was pretty conservative, floor-length dresses that covered all of a woman’s body, hid leg and arm hair, and took it out of the conversation; however, when the roaring’ the 20s came along, with it was brought short hemlines and a huge emphasis on high-fashion and femininity.
In the early 20s, a young woman made national news when she cut herself by accident shaving her legs. The headline read Girl Cuts Self Shaving Leg for Open Stocking! And was widespread news because of the seemingly absurd nature of cutting one’s leg trying to shave the hair off. ‘Why was she shaving the hair off in the first place?’ Many readers asked. The public laughed at her then, but it was utterly commonplace by the end of the decade—and moreover, expected—for a woman to have hairless legs and underarms.
Women’s beauty industries and men’s razor industries quickly capitalized on the hairless woman bandwagon. Honestly, it’s a pretty evil genius plan of these companies: if you’re only selling to men, convince women they need the same product and double your margins! Ahead of the game, in 1915, Gillette released their first razor “for her” called Milady Décolleté Gillette. It was marketed as “a unique gift for women” that “solves an embarrassing personal problem.”
Alongside the razor and hair-removal industry, the fashion industry wanted a piece of the “women buying razors” pie. It started telling women that the height for femininity and fashion comes from completely hairless legs and underarms. For example, an advertisement running in Harper’s Bazaar Magazine from 1922 reads: “Without Embarrassment: An Intimate Talk to Women […] The fastidious woman to-day must have immaculate underarms if she is to be unembarrassed.”
Eventually, the anti-hair marketing and propaganda worked. Interestingly, during world war two efforts of the thirties and forties, women tended to shave their legs because there was a shortage of nylons available. Sometimes, women in the world war two era would shave their legs in order to make them smooth enough to paint a nylon seam with gravy down the back of their leg to make it look like they were wearing stockings! If that isn’t a commitment to fashion, I don’t know what is.
Basically, after the Second World War, the ads targeted women celebrating a hairless body and shaming a hairy one continued, and the rest of women’s hair removal is history. By 1964, it was gathered that 98% of American women shaved their legs regularly, which makes sense, especially considering that with the sixties came the mini skirt.
Women Shaving as a Feminist Issue
Shaving your legs and armpit hair isn’t inherently anti-feminist, just as having long hair or wearing pink isn’t an anti or counter-feminist move. Traditionally feminine things are not inherently anti-feminist. Though some feminist scholars would argue that it is, because these beauty standards and expectations have been put in place by the male gaze, and specific patriarchal beauty standards, I would argue that no personal grooming habit or beauty choice is anti-feminist, so long as you’re making those choices for yourself and not from certain societal expectations.
For the past one hundred years or so, women have been exposed to endless generational propaganda that labels their body hair as “unhygienic,” “embarrassing,” and “uncivilized,” which in turn has made the natural growth of leg and armpit hair something taboo and inappropriate. Some men feel they have the right to tell their partner to shave their body to appear sexually attractive to them; I’ve seen women shave their legs just because they fear what someone may say to them while they’re out in the world unshaved—and that’s where shaving becomes a serious feminist issue.
My point being, if you like having shaved legs, I encourage you to do it. Some people like the look, or they want the feel of their skin shaved; maybe they do it to tan in the summer more evenly or find their body hair to be itchy and uncomfortable. The point being, it’s an individual choice. No one should feel as though they must do anything purely cosmetic to benefit the world around them and not themselves.
So, while I sit here with my hairy legs, with summer rapidly approaching, I ask myself, “is it time for the annual shave?” and I don’t have an answer. I guess, for now, my leg hair isn’t bothering me, so I’m going to keep it…I might wake up tomorrow feeling differently, but the point is, I’m doing what I feel is right for my body.
I ask everyone, men, women, and non-binary people, what’s your leg hair plan this summer? How do you like your legs?
Maybe I could try shaving one leg and leaving the other hairy, or dying my leg hair purple! Let’s see what the summer brings us.