Shave It or Let It Grow? Collecting stories on women’s body hair

My name is Melody, I’m a volunteer at GWL and I’m hairy.

A bright shocking pink background with a black drawing and black writing over it. The drawing is of a brick wall that has a giant movie poster on it. the poster has a woman with shoulder length dark hair and fluffy pom-poms on either side of her head. The poster reads: 'Malestream Cinema presents The Perfect Woman. As soon as she looked at him she knew...Starring Angelica Immac and Butch Macho Hormone. Directed by John Wilkinson-Sword.' There is a woman with short blonde hair off to the side, vandalizing the poster by drawing a beard on the movie stars face and she has written 'hairy women are ANGRY' at the bottom of the poster. 'Revolutionary and Radical Feminist Newsletter is written at the very top of the image, and at the very bottom it says it is issue No. 14. It is dated Summer '84, it says 'women only' and it cost 50p.
Cover of the ‘Revolutionary & Radical Feminist Newsletter Issue No.14 1984

I still remember the first time I was made aware of my body hair. I was twelve. A friend of mine was explaining her newly adopted, multi-step beauty routine, attempting to rope me into it. One of the steps was shaving her armpit, leg and arm hair. I was intrigued. I had never heard of this before. She told me how nice her skin felt afterwards and let me touch her arm. It was so smooth and silky. I immediately looked at my own arms and, as if for the first time, I saw the thick, long, brown fuzz that seemed to cover my entire arm – all the way down to my wrist.

I was horrified!

My friend twisted up her nose.

I hastily shoved on a jumper, mortified that I had been out in public with these hairy arms for the whole world to see!

I went home that day and asked my mom for my first razor. I never looked back. Until now.

 

We all have it. Yet, for some reason, body hair is still quite a controversial subject. It is associated with bad hygiene, masculinity, and if you’re anything like me, it’s a source of embarrassment and ridicule. It was thirteen years after the hairy arms incident that I finally found myself wondering why. Why was I ashamed? Why did I remove my hair? Why did I endure years of razor burn, waxing, blisters and rashes from creams and depilatories? I wanted to know where this all began. But I also wanted to hear from other women to understand their thoughts and feelings on the matter. That is what I am hoping to do today.

 

The image has a lime green background with a black and white drawing of a young girl sitting down and painting her toe nails. It is accompanied by a white post it note that is titled 'June' and reads: 'Now that the really warm weather's here, you'll not want to be bothered with lots of make-up, fussy hairstyles etc. So now's the time to have your hair cut short, and practice going without make-up. If you're a confirmed make-up addict, try cutting down just a little each day - eyeliner here, blusher there - before you know it, you'll be down to moisturiser (don't leave that off!) and loving the feel of the sun on your skin so much you might never go back to make-up again! This is also the time for getting ready for holidays, so remember to "do" your hair (if you're not a natural blonde!) and get rid of all unwanted hair on legs and underarms. Don't forget your feet, either - start looking after them now - creaming them, manicuring them, etc - so you won't be ashamed to show them on the beach!'
Beauty advice from a 1977 ‘Jackie’ Annual

I want to collect women’s stories on if and why they remove their body hair. A 2016 YouGov study found that the majority of women in the UK remove all of their leg (74%) and armpit (83%) hair. In fact, the practice of body hair removal has become a cultural expectation in the West, and indeed in many other countries around the world. Historian Rebecca Herzig argues that attitudes toward body hair first started to change around the 1870s, when Charles Darwin published his seminal research in Decent of Man. According to him, body hair was not only a regression to our ‘ape’ like ancestors, but a hinderance to women in sexual selection. Although this type of thinking might elicit an eye roll now, back then it was pounced upon. Soon after the publication of Decent, medical experts began equating the quantity of body hair with ‘evolutionary fitness’. They even went so far as to classify ‘abnormal’ hair growth as a disease. As Darwin had targeted women in his research, hairiness became associated with men, so hairy women were treated as ‘abnormal’. One man went so far as to describe menopausal women who experience more hair growth as ‘feral’. Herzig and other historians studying body hair have argued that this is what gave rise to the shaming language we see in hair removal adverts.

A black and white image of a woman's crossed legs and feet, with her hand reaching down to stroke her skin. There are two circular graphics on top of this image depicting a cartoon recreation of hair growth. Above these, in bold black text it reads: 'If you use a razor, you could use a change'. Under that, the first graphic is titled 'You're leg 4 days after shaving' and shows hair poking out. The other says 'Your leg 4 days after Immac' and shows no hair growth. The text of the advert reads: 'Before you use a razor again, just look at what it does to you. It can coursen your skin. It can cause nasty cuts and scrathces. And after all that, you face unsightly stubble a few days later! Your skin deserves the soft touch of Immac Hair Remover. You just smooth it on...wait five minutes...and rinse off. Immac is so gentle, it can be used under arms and on the sensitive skin of the face. And visible hair regrowth is slower - most women use Immac only once a fortnight. In Cream, Lotion, and Spray, at chemists and beauty counters everywhere.' At the bottom of the ad is the slogan, 'The Feminine way to remove unwanted hair.'
An Immac Hair Removal Ad in a 1977 ‘Cosmopolitan’ Magazine

Body hair is often referred to as ‘unsightly’, ‘embarrassing’, and a ‘problem’. More recently, adverts have suggested that hairy legs and body parts will prevent you from completing normal tasks. One of my favourite ads (watch it here) depicts a row of singing women belting out, ‘like a cactus I got thorny thighs, can barely dance!’ However, adverts will also have you believe that there are ‘feminine’ and ‘unfeminine’ ways of removing your body hair, like the controversial Veet adverts (watch them here) that suggest if you shave, you are ‘risking dudeness’. Moreover, women’s body hair is seen as so unsightly that most hair removal ads don’t even show women removing hair. Instead we see actors ‘shaving’ hairless skin. Billie became the first company to show women’s body hair in an advert that launched in 2018 (watch it here).

 

It’s easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. However, the practice of hair removal, and the shaming language that surrounds it, can have a huge and lasting impact on women’s physical and mental health. In a Channel 4 documentary Hairy Woman (2003) participants detailed how their body hair seriously impacted their self-esteem. One woman admitted that she had considered using corrosive liquid over her skin in order to permanently remove her hair, while another said she often broke out in blisters and bruising from removing her body hair. Even academics researching body hair have received ridicule for simply investigating the topic. As such, there is very little research on the history of women’s body hair removal, and the little that has been done has focused mainly on white, American women. That’s where you come in.

 

I want to centre women’s voices in this conversation. All women, trans women and non-binary folk. As such, I want to collect your stories on your relationship to body hair and share these (anonymously if you would prefer) via this blog. What are your thoughts on body hair? How does it make you feel? Do you shave? Do you grow it out? No matter where you are in the world, let me know by emailing volunteers@womenslibrary.org.uk and share as much or as little detail as you feel comfortable with. Please let me know if you are happy for your words to be directly quoted in the blog and shared online via Glasgow Women’s Library website and social media channels. If you are happy for your first name to be used and for us to share your country of residence, please let us know. Otherwise we will share your comments anonymously. I will also be holding a Zoom event later this year presenting some materials held in GWL’s archive and museum collections relating to body hair and use these as starting point to discuss the history of body hair and our experiences of it, so keep an eye out for that!

 

I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

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