Who Wears Short Shorts?
The hairless phenomenon among American women
Widely known as the “fairer sex,” women have engaged in innumerable beautification rituals throughout history. Ranging from the Egyptians’ use of coal to intensify a woman’s gaze to the now antiquated Chinese practice of foot-binding, women have been subjected to the seemingly eternal importance of female beauty. Though men’s fashions and grooming rituals have surely evolved as well, it is clear that in many ways, women have long been held to significantly higher standards. One could easily argue that this phenomenon is still evident in modern American society, where females undertake an outrageous number of procedures in order to improve and maintain their appearances. Indeed, we live in a society which places an ever-growing importance on physical beauty, where the standards are increasingly unattainable. The intent of this paper lies in examining just one of the myriad tasks undertaken every day by American women seeking to enhance their outward appearances: body hair removal.
Hair removal among American women seems to have become irreversibly embedded in our culture. Whether by depilation, wax, a razorblade, or a laser, we are taught as young girls to regard hair removal as a necessary step in becoming a woman. A staggering majority of American women unquestioningly engage in this beauty ritual, in spite of the fact that most consider hair removal tedious, painful, and bothersome. However, even while fully acknowledging the burdensome nature of removing body hair, most women would undoubtedly agree that hair removal is a necessary evil. For most, the idea of exposing hairy legs or underarms in public is unthinkable, as the consequences for neglecting to groom properly are severe. Indeed, women engage in an increasingly diligent battle against body hair, facing contempt and denigration if they refuse.
Because hair removal has permeated Western culture so thoroughly, most people automatically include it in their schema of proper grooming and hygiene. It is rarely challenged or even deliberated on, as women have come to view it as a simple fact of life. However, body hair removal is not a longstanding tradition. Rather, it is a phenomenon of the early 1900’s, emerging in a time of considerable change in American culture. Interestingly (and perhaps not surprisingly), female hair removal practices have no foundation in physiological or medical necessity. Instead, the campaign against female body hair was the culmination of several factors, all of which led American women to believe that they needed to be hairless to be beautiful.
A History of Hair Removal
Although the current practices and outlooks on hair removal are relatively new, different methods of hair removal have been in use for thousands of years. A striking difference however, lies in the fact that ancient hair removal rituals had a practical basis. Ancient Egyptian males for example, utilized sharpened flint to remove facial hair. This proved helpful in combat, as a smooth face and head eliminated a handhold grip with which an enemy could behead them (Hansen, 2007). In a similar fashion, male hair has also played a significant role in mythology and legend. The general outlook on masculine hair has varied little throughout the course of history, with many cultures equating hairiness with manliness. When examining famous mythological heroes, it seems that such characters the world over share striking similarities, with heroes such as Hercules, Samson, and Gilgamesh possessing extraordinary strength and hairy bodies. These celebrated heroes are indeed represented in a similar fashion, each sporting a masculine beard (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2003). Though this may not seem a very insightful observation, it reinforces the idea that from an early age, we are taught to perceive hairiness as an exclusively masculine trait. Adolescent males grow up with images of these muscular, rugged figures and learn to idolize them for their inherent masculinity.
historically, men have received praise and admiration for their hairy
physiques, society condemns women with excess body hair. A famous example of
this discrepant outlook on body hair lies within the story of St. Wilgefortis,
a young noblewoman in medieval
With shifts in cultural norms and standards throughout the centuries, the attitudes on female body hair slowly began to become more culturally significant. In Victorian times, a more negative outlook on prominent body hair emerged among elite females. These women believed visible facial or arm hair to be unfeminine and mildly embarrassing. Consequently, a limited range of remedies began to circulate among this class of women to diminish or bleach this type of hair (Hansen, 2007). However, the desire to appear less hairy was limited not only to this aristocratic class of women, but to the only body parts exposed by current Victorian fashions: the forearms and facial region. Thus, the concept of hair removal did not reach the middle or lower classes and remained a marginal practice among a small group of women until the early 1900’s.
Though body hair has long been considered a masculine trait, and hirsuteness in women widely scorned, it was not until the turn of the century that our modern outlook on female body hair truly began to take shape. Momentous changes in American culture and lifestyle allowed for several independent factors to culminate in what is now seen as an ardent campaign against female body hair. Many identify the rise of consumerism as the most prominent and essential of these factors, as it was the driving force for industries who sought to gain profits from the newly established American consumer (Hansen, 2007). With consumer society as the general foundation for capitalist businesses, several derivatives of consumerism ultimately honed in on women as a new consumer group. Specifically, the advertising and beauty industries targeted women as a separate and vital market, utilizing strategic tactics in order to influence American females into buying certain products. Additionally, the rise in popularity of women’s magazines allowed for the messages of these industries to reach the general populace through clever and manipulative advertising.
The Rise of Consumer Society
byproduct of wartime propaganda during WWI, consumerism was born in
As previously mentioned, the rise of consumerism allowed for corporations to pursue massive profit increases. This meant that in order to succeed, companies had to become more innovative and find ways to reach and influence new customer bases. Gillette Company, a business which held a monopoly over the men’s shaving industry, did just that in the early 1900’s. Although originators of the modern safety blade, by the nineteen teens, the Gillette Company had seemed to hit a wall in regards to their customer base (Hansen, 2007). At this point, men had already engaged in facial shaving for many generations; society also held very established positive associations with male body hair. Thus, the profit-hungry owners of Gillette had virtually nothing left to offer this market, aside from periodical revisions on their existing product line. It follows then that the company, eager to increase revenue, turned its attention to an entirely new customer base: women. However, up until this point American women had probably never considered shaving as a viable or necessary practice. Gillette was the first to introduce this concept to women, hoping to control the market for both sexes (Hansen, 2007). To encourage women to start shaving, in 1915 the company introduced the first ever women’s razor blade, named “Milady Décolleté”. The instructional nature of the product’s advertisements reveals that at this time, most women would not have considered shaving a feminine practice, and needed to be persuaded of its necessity. However, the thinkers behind Gillette’s campaign seemed to anticipate this and employed clever tactics to sway the opinions of doubtful consumers. Furthermore, Gillette’s decision to advertise their new product in an influential women’s magazine allowed them to reach a vast number of American women, who considered these magazines reliable sources for information on fashion, beauty, and social practices (Hansen, 2007). Like many other corporations at this time, persuasive advertising and mass media outlets were used in tandem as the primary means of increasing profits.
With improvements in technology during this period, the effect of various mass media on the American public skyrocketed. Mass produced corporate messages reached an unprecedented number of Americans, who began to rely ever more on these messages as a source of information on cultural values (Cushman, 1990). It follows then, that women’s magazines sought to make use of their newly established platform as purveyors of social information, instructing women in issues ranging from fashion to motherhood. Articles in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Ladies’ Home Journal sought to inform women about crucial norms and standards, and keep them up to date on new trends (Hansen, 2007). However, as these magazines began to grow in popularity, the costs of mass circulation likewise increased. In order to make a profit, publishers established a relationship with the advertising industry, selling space in their magazines to corporate messages and ads. This profitable relationship between magazines and advertisers grew so close that in a speech delivered to his colleagues, the owner of a women’s magazine noted:
Do you know why we publish Ladies’ Home Journal? The editor thinks it is for the benefit of American women. That is an illusion?the real reason, the publisher’s reason, is to give you people who manufacture things that American women want to buy a chance to tell them about your products. (Hansen, 2007, p. 20)
Though readers of Ladies’ Home Journal undoubtedly considered its intentions to be benign and helpful, publishers and advertisers recognized the unique opportunity to manipulate an entire population of consumers. These industry leaders took advantage of the prospect of increasing consumerism through advertisements.
With companies such as Gillette seeking to include women in the hair removal industry, it was only a matter of time before advertisers launched their campaign urging women to engage in body hair removal. Advertising agencies saw magazines as the obvious choice for disseminating their messages, as ads had begun to occupy an increasing percentage of magazine pages. The first advertisement proposing female body hair removal appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1914 (Hansen, 2007). Much like advertising today, the image intended to inform women on important standards of beauty and grooming. The instructional nature of the advertisement told women that body hair was objectionable and unfeminine, and that in order to stay abreast with current trends, they ought to remove it. Messages such as this became much more common during this time, when the market for women’s grooming and beauty products expanded exponentially (Basow, 1991). By the 1920’s, the campaign against female body hair had become so exhaustive that every issue of Harper’s Bazaar contained advertisements promoting various hair removal products (Hansen, 2007).
The Role of Advertising
As previously mentioned, corporations seeking new consumer groups had to devise clever and convincing schemes to sell their products. To successfully achieve this however, these companies had to establish relationships with advertisers, who drew upon the psychology of propaganda to manipulate the masses (Cushman, 1990). Thus, advertisers gained significant power and influence in American culture as the navigators of changing customs and trends. Agencies undertaking the task of selling consumer products such as women’s razor blades had to devise a way of selling an image of ideal feminine beauty. This meant crafting a representation of the ideal woman as smooth-skinned and hairless.
Because underarm hair had not been considered necessary for removal, advertisements sought to embed this new idea in the minds of consumers. This was done by labeling body hair “unwelcome” and “embarrassing” (Hansen, 2007, p. 31). Through the suggestion that body hair made women less feminine and attractive, advertisers hoped to compel them to purchase their products. In a society where a woman’s beauty precedes her self-worth, advertisers knew that threatening women with potential unattractiveness would surely convince them to buy more of their goods. Indeed, advertisers effectively created an environment in which females were kept in a perpetual state of insecurity and self-loathing, thus feeling the need to improve themselves with various grooming products (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2003). Advertising at this time set the standard for current advertising, which often reaches consumers through subtle threats. Undoubtedly, many women then and now concluded that it was better to participate in hair removal rituals than risk being ostracized by the rest of society.
The deliberate use of linguistic tactics as a tool for persuasion inexorably linked female hairiness to social death. Advertisements made it clear that female hair removal was not only favorable, but socially mandated and ruthlessly enforced (Basow & Braman, 1998). Because few women dared to gamble with such heavy consequences, advertisers ultimately prevailed and body hair removal became irreversibly entrenched in American society. Even in light of the rise of feminism, hair removal practices persisted, with magazines, newspapers, and other media sources continuing to encourage women to value hairlessness. Indeed, as time progressed and women’s fashions evolved, hair removal was promoted as ever more essential in conforming to what advertisers insisted was a longstanding standard of beauty (The Ledger, 1976).
As it has virtually fully absorbed into American mainstream culture, the practice of hair removal is often unquestioningly practiced; many women assume that it is simply a fact of life. Rather than cast doubt on the status quo, a vast majority of women learn to perceive hair removal as a rite of passage, and necessary to becoming an adult (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2003). For exactly this reason, it seems essential to examine the cultural implications of such a pervasive custom.
The most obvious of the repercussions of hair removal is the suggestion that the unaltered female body is not attractive. Hair removal advertisements indicate that only through exerting significant effort can a woman achieve her full potential (Basow, 1991). Unlike the makeup industry however, which arguably fails to reach such a high percentile of American women, the hair removal industry has successfully established a social custom impervious to abolition. While a woman who opts for a more “natural” look might comfortably avoid wearing makeup, she absolutely cannot avoid removing her body hair without facing shame and condemnation. Interestingly, even if a woman found clean-shaven men more attractive, a man with facial hair could certainly still find her favor (Basow & Braman, 1998). This disparate outlook on adult body hair makes it impossible for women to see themselves as naturally beautiful or appealing.
To examine the phenomenon of hair removal, many researchers have conducted studies in which they consider participants’ reactions to visible female body hair. In a study by Basow and Braman (1998), research participants responded to images of white women with and without visible leg and underarm hair. Ultimately, the data revealed that women with visible body hair were perceived as “less sexually and interpersonally attractive” and “less intelligent” (p. 1). This clearly demonstrates how embedded this ideology has become in American society, as nearly all participants were hesitant to find any positive qualities in the women shown with body hair.
Similarly, within the written accounts of many American women, one can find a theme of shame and humiliation associated with excessive, visible body hair. Sufferers of actual or perceived hirsutism share common woes, in which they are subjected to embarrassment, name calling, and a general lack of positive encounters with others (Webster, 1994). These women, compelled to strive towards hair elimination at any cost, sometimes turn to extreme and costly measures to feel normal. They dedicate countless hours to painful and expensive techniques such as laser treatments and electrolysis, only to sometimes remain insecure about their flawed appearances (Mapes, 2008). Furthermore, hairy women often feel rejected and overlooked by potential romantic partners, as they do not coincide with society’s standards of beauty. A famous example of our society’s lack of tolerance for female body hair occurred in 1999, at the premiere of the motion picture Notting Hill. The film’s leading lady, Julia Roberts, appeared at the event with unshaved underarms, causing a media uproar. Rather than draw public attention to her performance in the movie, commentators bashed Roberts for her lack of attention to grooming, going so far as to liken her to “The Planet of the Apes” (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2008, p. 2). Female body hair removal has become such a normative practice among American women that not conforming results in immediate and malicious backlash. Most shockingly however, is our willingness to accept this backlash as acceptable and justifiable. Without question, referring to unshaved women as apes merely intensifies the undercurrent of inadequacy and self-hatred among women, who are expected to strive for perfection.
One could argue that such demeaning comments about the female body go to show how thoroughly the concept of hair removal permeated our society. Indeed, female hair removal seems to be one of the advertising industry’s greatest successes. Not only do a vast majority of American women unquestioningly adhere to its practices, American culture at large has come to share one stubborn and resounding outlook on female hair: that it is simply intolerable.
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