Summer heat means short shorts, sleeveless dresses, bikinis, and, oftentimes, hair removal. Body hair trends may vary by culture or change from year to year, but every body part is subject to hair removal somewhere in the world. For American women, hair removal usually centers on underarm hair, leg hair, and pubic hair. Accordingly, in mainstream American culture, hairlessness is often associated with greater femininity, but adhering to these beauty standards is nothing new and has been the norm for women since ancient times.
According to Victoria Sherrow’s Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, women in ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire all removed their body hair. Egyptian women removed leg hair with beeswax, creams, or used shells and sugar in place of razors and shaving cream. Then, as now, there were trends that dictated what was acceptable and what wasn’t. In approximately 8 AD, the Roman poet Ovid objected to women with leg hair, and he wrote that women’s legs should not be “rough with bristling hair.” The women of ancient Egypt and Greece took on the additional job of removing pubic hair to meet aesthetic cultural standards. In Greece, sculptors often depicted women as clean shaven. In Egypt, ruling figures like Cleopatra set the standard for hairlessness. Similarly, brides in Turkey, Palestine, and Lebanon were only ready for their wedding days if they had removed all their body hair except their eyebrows and the hair on their heads.
Hair removal had always been common among the upper classes, but became much more common for all classes in the Middle Ages. Still, it wasn’t until the late 18th century when a Frenchman named Jean Jacques Perret developed the first straight razor. Shaving became more efficient and therefore more prevalent. It was still mostly men who used the razor at this point in time, but women did occasionally join them in shaving and plucking the hair on their foreheads for a cleaner and smoother look. Up until the early 1900s, hair removal by American women lagged and did not adhere to any particular standard; however, that changed with World War I.
Prior to World War I, according to Beauty Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia, “Hair removal was thought to be a vain practice that dealt with body parts that should best remain hidden.” Women who shaved would have been considered “bad girls,” for instance women who were chorus girls, dancers, and entertainers who, at the time, were viewed as sexualizing their womanhood. Then in 1901, King Camp Gillette introduced the first safety razor, the kind you probably have in your shower right now. This new development increased ease of shaving and fundamentally changed the American relationship with smooth skin.
Around this time, men’s shaving norms were also changing. Men on the battlefront in World War I were indoctrinated into staying clean shaven every day, and the keen marketing sense of companies like Gillette kept them shaving when they returned home. Gillette soon saw a way to get women shaving, as well. Sleeveless dresses had become part of the wardrobe of trend-conscious women in the 1910s, so post-World War I, Gillette launched its first-ever ad campaign for a razor small enough to fit under their arms. In advertisements for Milady Décolleté, Gillette called underarm hair “objectionable” and said its razor was the “safest and most sanitary method of acquiring a smooth underarm.” In Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, Rebecca Herzig writes that many women initially continued to use other forms of hair removal like depilatories to avoid “the masculine connotation of razors.”
The 1920s only increased the newfound devotion to shaving in what became, according to The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, “a massive ‘unveiling’ of the female body” when “certain body parts were bared and displayed in ways that they had never been before.”
It was World War II that set an even higher standard for women’s grooming. War rationing meant women could no longer get the nylon stockings they had grown to love to accompany their shorter mid-century hemlines. Soldiers needed parachutes more than ladies needed nylons. Plus, silk was no longer being imported from Allied enemy, Japan. Women’s legs were more exposed and razor companies had just the thing to help.
Now, in the last twenty years the “uncivilized” pubic hair of ancient cultures has also had its modern moment. A season 3 episode of the iconic single ladies show Sex and the City helped bring Brazilian bikini waxes into popular culture. Waxing, shaving, and greater grooming of the bikini line has only increased since then. One 2013 study from the Journal of American Medicine & Dermatology found that 85% of women had done some modification in their pubic hair at some point in their life and 62% had shaved entirely at least once.
Having body hair is often seen as unclean or dirty, but getting rid of hair is now what it always was: a choice of aesthetics driven by cultural standards. Whether you choose to go hairless or not, you’ll be making a choice women have grappled with for ages.