As a kid, I watched with fascination as my beautiful olive-skinned mother spackled her upper lip with Jolen cream bleach and set a timer. Woozy from the fumes, I made a secret vow to prefer a mustache. But shaving my legs? I could not wait.
She tried to stall me. “Oh, honey, put it off as long as you can. You’ll be doing it forever,” said the woman with little caked bits of white stuff falling off her face. Her words barely registered. Why my friends and I were so eager, I cannot remember, except that it was a rite of passage, like going up a size from the “training bra.” Our fuzzy sunburned legs looked childish. And so, we raced to denude them. That first night, slick as a seal, I felt like I was going to slide right out of bed. It was like leaving a high-stress job or a bad boyfriend—in one swoop, all the friction was gone.
We shaved our underarms, too—probably before we even needed to, leaving little red dots and new-razor slashes. And yes, soon it was a chore, but the pleasant, girlie sort, like polishing your fingernails, because you could admire (and hope someone else would) the result. A few more years passed before anyone preached to us about the “bikini line,” and we never dreamt of shaving those proud new curls between our legs.
Now the rules have flip-flopped. Leaving one’s legs and underarms fuzzy is the new feminist statement. Yet the curious and disturbing appeal of prepubescence is still dictating the most private and uncomfortable shave of all. (How is that feminist?)
The fluctuating mix of exhortations goes back a long way: copper razors were used in Egypt in 3000 BCE by women who shaved their heads and considered pubic hair uncivilized. In the second century BCE, Ovid urged women to smooth themselves, so “that no rude goat find his way beneath your arms and that your legs be not rough with bristling hair.” Those poor women who lived before air-conditioning and Amazon used sharpened stones to shave their bodies. But the fashion did not last.
In Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, Rebecca Herzig writes that in the 1700s, “naturalists and explorers considered hair-free skin to be a strange obsession of indigenous peoples.” After Charles Darwin explained evolution to us, though, we began to associate hairiness “with ‘primitive’ ancestry and an atavistic return to earlier, ‘less developed’ forms,” Herzig continues. By the early 1900s, “body hair [had become] disgusting to middle-class American women, its removal a way to separate oneself from cruder people, lower class and immigrant.”
Just in time. Hemlines were rising. Flapper dresses were sleeveless. Women scrubbed at their underarms with pumice stones or used Koremlu, a depilatory that began life as rat poison and wound up causing muscular atrophy, blindness, even death. Safest were the razors, and they had the best ad campaigns. In 1915, Gilette came out with the first razor for women, the Milady Décolleté. “The fastidious woman to-day must have immaculate underarms if she is to be unembarrassed,” read one ad in Harper’s Bazaar. “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair,” insisted another. “To wear these charming new sleeves, armpits must be smooth as your cheek, sweet as your breath.” Underarm hair was referred to as “objectionable,” “unwelcome,” “embarrassing,” “unsightly,” and “unclean.” Women rushed to remove it.
Humans want to be naked apes, sociologists assured us. Hairlessness sets us apart from our beastly past, and from other mammals and their daily struggle with ticks, lice, and fleas. We only have hair in a few discreet spots, and the inconsistency leaves us ambivalent.
Poisoned by decades of societal norms, I still have an initial recoil when I see tufts of hair under a woman’s arms or fur on her legs. Then I talk myself down: we are mammals, for God’s sake. We have spent an inordinate amount of time and money pretending we are marble statues instead, and we have scraped and bloodied our skin for no good reason at all.
But surely it is smellier when there is hair under one’s arms? And solid deodorant might stick in the clumps, and it just looks prettier when you stretch languorously and nobody has to look at a soul-patch in your armpit….
No. It is not smellier. Science has corrected that myth. And after a few hours of poring over photos of famous unshaven armpits, they start to look a little better to me. Time can loosen any aesthetic’s grip. When Julia Roberts dared to leave her underarms unshaven for the 1999 Notting Hill premiere, headlines included “Fuzzy about Feminism,” “Fur Flies,” and “Pitty Woman.” But when Miley Cyrus followed suit six years later, her photo launched the #armpithairdontcare trend. Soon women were dyeing their underarm hair, and some added beads or glitter. Even Harper’s Bazaar came round, featuring model Emily Ratajkowski in lingerie and quoting her explanation: “Sometimes letting my body hair grow out is what makes me feel sexy.”
Here, though, is the confusing part: in parallel to #armpithairdontcare, the enthusiasm for eradicating pubic hair was rising. A study of heterosexual men ages nineteen to thirty-eight found an overwhelming preference for hairlessness in that area, and, the researchers note, “Males who were more disgust sensitive…showed a stronger preference for shaved genitalia.” So women’s natural bodies are disgusting all over again, but we feel bolder because we have hair under our arms now?
There is one salient difference, though: men have joined women in aspirational depilation. They are shaving their backs, their pecs, and their privates, convinced that this will show off their muscles and endowment to better advantage. This may, though I wince to admit it, be technically accurate. One study showed photos with varying amounts of body hair and found that “both men and women chose a relatively hairless male body as the most sexually attractive.”
Why? Is this self-loathing, or just some quirk of the instinctive disgust that has kept us safe from rot and poison for millennia? Because shaving is dangerous, too. You wind up with nicks in tender places, ingrown hair, stubble, chafing (hair is protective), bacterial infections, increased risk of HPV or MRSA or herpes or genital warts. But hey, what is all that compared to a sharper display?
What should be displayed is subjective and fickle, however. What if razor manufacturers, sensing a lost market, are conspiring again, this time more subtly, using influencers to bring us back? Because what capitalism tells us to loathe, we erase until capitalism tells us to love it, and we obey again.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.