Women And The History of Hair Removal
Guest Post By: Catherine
Do you think women have an obligation to keep their legs shaved?" It's one of the more controversial questions posed by popular dating website OK Cupid, which determines potential mates based on compatible answers.
One dating blogger identifies the catch-22 of this particular question: like many men, he prefers the look and feel of a clean-shaven leg - but he finds the implications of a depilatory "obligation" unsettling. For men and women alike, the problems of female body hair and its removal are implicitly intertwined with gender equality. As Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman discusses, many women are uncomfortable baring body hair, but they too are equally unwilling to condemn it.
So how did we arrive at this conflict of social and aesthetic values? There's nothing new about hair removal. The custom dates back to ancient and classical civilisations, including Egypt and the Roman Empire. Evidence suggests that these societies were already practising early (and often much more painful) forms of waxing, sugaring, shaving, tweezing and threading. For the most part, hair removal was an elite practise confined to wealthy or upper class women, though tweezing was also part of Native American culture. This leads us to understand that hairlessness was a highly prized state of appearance, but by no means an obligation.
Perhaps our discomfort stems from the purely aesthetic nature of female hair removal. Throughout history, men have been encouraged or obliged to shave their facial hair for more practical reasons, including military service. Aesthetically, male facial hair has been subject to a wide array of trends, from the legally-enforced clean-shaven faces of Petrine Russia to the current "styled" moustache preferred by the hipsters of Shoreditch. Female body hair, on the other hand, has experienced no such fluctuation in fashionability. From the moment sleeveless dresses and shorter hemlines came into style, women were expected to remove hair from any area on display.
We might therefore consider hair removal as a suggestion from the fashion world rather than a societal obligation, which makes the debate surrounding hairlessness similar to those regarding thinness on the runway. Haute couture does not explicitly endeavour to tell women what their bodies should look like; it simply presents clothing as favourably as possible, in accordance with the aesthetic ideals of the time.
Just as a dress might fall better on a slim model, ladies' beachwear will look more flattering against a hairless backdrop. Women who find this hairlessness attractive may seek to emulate it, but others will not prioritise hair removal despite choosing garments that expose their legs or armpits.
So why do we flag hairlessness as a gender equality issue? Perhaps because we are so rarely presented with alternative images, to the point that female hair removal has become something of a social norm. Whereas men can choose not to shave, women often feel that they have no other option than to engage in costly, painful and time-consuming hair removal processes before exposing their legs or armpits. The negative aspects of hair removal are easily resented, which fuels the female sentiment that it is an unfair obligation.
At the end of the day, body hair is a natural occurrence, even if it is rarely seen in western media. Shaving should be a choice, not an obligation, and either decision should be equally respected.