It is an ideal so universally adhered to that it has become unquestionable: men are hairy, and women are not. Other than the superficial but widespread claim that female body hair is ‘disgusting’ and ‘unfeminine’, explanations are never given as to why women are expected to be hairless, even though few of them are naturally so. Neither are explanations ever sought. But whatever else might be behind it, our aversion to female body hair certainly has no basis in logic.
Hair in the right places on a woman’s body is a source of pride, envy and lust. A head of plentiful hair is a benchmark in traditional feminine beauty; it might be preceded by such adjectives as ‘luscious’ or ‘glossy’, or praised for having a ‘sheen’. Countless products, each with the aim of maximising its seductive potential, are available to buy anywhere and everywhere. A lack of it can be cause for shame and stigma, and a woman who has lost her hair through chemotherapy or alopecia is likely to hide this fact as best she can under a wig or bandanna.
But hair in the wrong places evokes disgust and revulsion. It is its presence, not its lack, that is cause for shame and stigma, and the overwhelming majority of women devote significant amounts of time to ridding themselves of it. Too much leg, underarm or pubic hair is likely to be denounced as ‘wild’ or ‘unkempt’, and a hairy woman is considered eccentric, lazy, dirty, ugly or – horror of horrors – masculine. The hair that grows between a woman’s legs or under her arms is the same biological substance as the hair that she lovingly washes, brushes and styles, but its meaning could not be more different.
The average woman is well-versed in the relative merits of this or that method of hair removal. Shaving is easiest, but the hair grows back quicker; waxing lasts longer, but is painful and expensive; hair removal creams and bleaches are effective but might irritate the skin; laser surgery solves the problem forever but costs a small fortune. And while she might complain about the inconvenience, commiserating with her female friends about it ‘not being fair’ and chastising her male ones for ‘having it easy’, the chances of her actually questioning the practice of hair removal, of asking herself why she is doing it, who she is doing for, and what would happen if she didn’t, are slim. Although it is often costly, painful and time-consuming, removing our body hair is not something we ever think about. It is just what we do.
Whether or not this is a relatively recent phenomenon is unclear. According to Dr. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, editor of The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, the historical evidence for women’s hair removal practices is ‘rather mixed’.
‘There’s a lot of assumption that historically, this is something that women have always done,’ she says. ‘A lot of people assume that even in Egyptian days, women were already shaving their legs, and you can find evidence of that. But on the other hand, there is also evidence which argues that women until quite recently didn’t shave their legs, and that this is something that only came to the fore when they actually started showing their legs.’
Representations of women in art and literature do not help us draw any concrete conclusions about the changing perceptions of women’s body hair. If hair removal is a recent development, as has been suggested, why is it that in hundreds of paintings from countless art movements, the nudes are so hairless as to appear childlike? In Madame Bovary, the down on Emma’s upper lip is given as an example of her beauty, but as Daniela Caselli points out in her chapter in The Last Taboo, Marian’s ‘moustache’ in The Woman in White is described as ugly and inappropriately masculine.
Female body hair, Lesnik-Oberstein suggests, is far more likely to be considered attractive if it is light and soft. If it is coarse and dark, a boundary is crossed – a woman becomes troubling because she looks too much like a man. The distaste with which a woman with an uncommon amount of hair may regard her own body is compounded and confirmed by the hostile reactions of those around her. In the past, ‘bearded ladies’ were put on display in travelling freak shows; today, a woman with hair on her chest, face, stomach, back or hands is diagnosed with ‘hirsutism’ and offered medical help.
Our discomfort with the issue manifests itself in a widespread reticence to talk about it. As Lesnik-Oberstein points out in her own contribution to The Last Taboo, we rarely hear or read anything about women’s body hair ‘other than brief and repetitive instructions on how to remove it’. Even feminist scholars have neglected the subject – The Last Taboo is so far the only academic book to discuss it in any detail. Lesnik-Oberstein initially had difficulty getting the book published, she says, because the subject matter was considered either too marginal or too revolting to be of interest to readers.
‘The idea was that to talk about this, you’re either talking about something totally irrelevant, or you’re talking about something which is so aggressively feminist that no one wants to know about it,’ she says. ‘Either body hair is seen to be trivial […] or else so monstrous, so threatening, so extreme, that it’s actually dangerous even to raise it, because then you just threaten all of the progress feminism has made.’
But many of those who are prepared to take the issue seriously are nonetheless influenced by the social constructs they criticise. Questioning cultural norms is not the same thing as rejecting them. Even after researching the issue in some depth, I have neither the inclination nor the courage to stop removing my own body hair. Even if I am unsure why, exactly, I am doing it, I will continue to shave my legs.
‘Being aware of these issues, even being very theoretically informed about them,’ says Lesnik-Oberstein, ‘doesn’t equate with what people actually feel about being attractive, being feminine, feeling good about themselves.’
It is this that lies at the heart of the issue. However illogical our obsession with hairlessness, it is so deeply embedded in the collective psyche that it goes unnoticed, unquestioned and unchallenged. But whether or not it will always be so remains to be seen, because what is perceived as beautiful or ugly has always been subject to change – perhaps shaving or waxing will seem as bizarre a practice to future generations as whitening the face or wearing corsets seem to us today. Before we can stop feeling ashamed of our body hair, however, we must first stop pretending it does not exist.
The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, edited by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, is now out in paperback, published by Manchester University Press.