By Vrinda Garg
This article aims to map out the trajectory of the perception of body hair removal and how, over the years, a hairless woman has become the feminine ideal. This paper isn’t restricted to what has been but also brings to light the changing conversation around body hair, body freedom and femininity. One of the major goals of this paper is to unpack and analyse the implications of the word “choice”, a word often casually used in discussions on body hair removal.
In the myriad of Bollywood’s zero figures, clean-shaven arms and legs, everything that is supposed to be not the epitome but the bare minimum of feminine beauty, Kajol’s unibrow stuck out like a sore thumb to the 10-year-old me. With songs like “chikni chameli” (smooth, attractive girl) dominating cinema, sleepovers and birthday parties, my apprehension towards Kajol’s unibrow wasn’t remotely surprising. As I rooted for the heroine Simran in the Bollywood classic “DDLJ”, there was this looming inability to accept a conventional heroine that didn’t meet the conventional standards of beauty.
Ten years later, as a small scream escapes me every time I get waxed, I have begun to question whether the painful process I go through every so often is really a choice or a product of rigorous societal conditioning. For the longest time, the unrealistic standards of beauty set for women have been structurally normalised. For example, for over eight centuries, the Chinese had the convention of foot binding wherein women were made to wear exceptionally tiny “lotus shoes” that wouldn’t allow their feet to grow beyond three to four inches. In Europe, waistbands that restricted the growth of women’s waist to attain the ideal, petite, hourglass shape were a common sight. Naomi Woolf, in her book The Beauty Myth, has termed this as the “beauty work,” i.e. the extra work that women need to put into their looks just to be accepted.
As we look down upon these traditions as revolting and regressive, we continue to morph women’s bodies, simultaneously wrapping them in the label of “choice”. Through this paper, I will attempt to unpack and question this very label through the lens of body hair removal.
A history of body hair removal
The practice of body hair removal, often seen as a “modern luxury”, dates back to the Stone Age. It started out as a question of protection, practised unanimously among various social groups. It was done to prevent frostbites and parasites like lice and fleas. We can situate body hair removal becoming a question of class – hygiene, cleanliness and elitism – around 3000 BC, particularly in Ancient Egypt. It was around the 1500s that gender became relevant to the conversation about body hair removal. Removal of women’s facial hair – upper lip, foreheads and “excess” brow hair – became prevalent in Europe. Big foreheads were considered attractive, and women were encouraged to push back their hairlines.
However, it wasn’t until the 1900s that body hair removal became normalised in European nations. With the rise of hemlines and sleeveless dresses, razor manufacturers saw an
opportunity to make money.
Body hair and femininity
Gilette advertised its first women’s razor by using terms like “necessity”, “habit”, and “modern”.
Bringing the conversation to the 2000s, we see headlines of leading fashion and lifestyle blogs reading, “She got caught out with unshaven armpits at the London premiere of The Dark Knight Rises last night.” Pixie Lott was mocked and scrutinised when she was found having armpit hair. Even a person with privilege and capital cannot escape the harassment that women face when they don’t follow the norm.
In 1915, Gilette came up with an idea to make money during wartime when men weren’t buying razors and women were at home. It introduced the first razor for females advertised as a product that would help remove the “humiliating growth of hair on face, neck and arms”. It boasted of keeping the underarms from becoming dark, making them smooth and clean. Capitalism met with patriarchy to further the narrative that body hair removal is a necessity for an elite, modern woman who cares about her personal hygiene. “Beauty work” acts as a double-edged sword: trivialised if taken too seriously and treated as a feminine failure if not followed. It has become so inbuilt that it is seen as a mundane part of life. Thus, a woman isn’t acceptable unless she alters her body on a daily basis. What is worth noting is the fact that while body hair removal is talked about as a “personal” habit, it is simultaneously being policed and propagated in the public realm. This image of “choice” is being created by associating it with the person, the self, while that “choice” is dictated and scrutinised heavily.
Unpacking the word “choice”
In a survey I conducted of women above the age of 12, I found out that 96.3 % of them remove body hair. Now the question is- is this a “choice” that they make? In fact, almost 30% of the women who filled out the survey were influenced to start removing body hair by media such as advertisements, social media, movies and TV shows. Rest started indulging in this practice due to comments made by friends, family, acquaintances or just because it was heavily normalised and they saw everyone else doing it. Interestingly, as many as 33.3% of them have been bullied for having hair on their arms, legs or upper lips. A friend I interviewed shared her experience of how she was told by her mother to remove genital hair as soon as it started showing up as a mark of respect for her God, a mark of purity.
Within the scope of this survey, there were also women who were confident that shaving, waxing or hair removal of any form was a choice they made on their own, without any external factors influencing them. When we read the plethora of comments mentioning the bullying, teasing, offhand comments or normalisation by various media platforms, it becomes evident that the choice to remove body hair is placed on two very unequal pedestals that are neither accessible nor acceptable. We see hair removal being a question of ethics, values and religious norms for some and mere social acceptance for others. Then, it becomes difficult to call it a “choice” devoid of its social, cultural and religious context.
The feminist movement and body hair removal
There are mainly two schools of feminist thinking. One, claims that removing body hair is an anti-feminist choice as it normalises and internalises the notion of body hair removal, thus conforming to the norms set by patriarchy. The other school of thought emphasises “choice” thus arguing that removing or not removing body hair is a personal decision that women make and the sole principle of feminism is to accept women and the choices they make.
Both these ideas are hard to completely agree with. Having unpacked the notion of choice, seeing it in the context of gender, class and how it manifests itself (or fails to do so) in the various social structures, the latter becomes too utopian an idea. On the other hand, shifting the onus to make a “feminist” choice on women, to stop removing body hair despite the bullying, teasing, and shaming – both internal and external – seems unfair. Questioning individual decisions rather than systemic structures shifts the entire burden on these individuals, pitting them against each other rather than collectively driving towards systemic change. Moreover, when it comes to embracing body hair, the stakes, safety, the extent of harassment and bullying etc., are different for everyone.. Thus, saying every woman should make the “feminist” choice of not removing body hair is, in turn,, exclusionary and elitist.
While these shackles continue to influence women’s relationship with the self, the other and the world around them, there’s definitely a rise of women who choose to deviate and defy. With movements like “Januhairy” that encourage women to let their body hair grow in the month of January and post pictures on social media, the conversation around women’s body freedom and acceptance is beginning to gain pace. Keeping in mind the intense politicisation that surrounds women’s bodies, every small act becomes an act of defiance.
Tracing the journey of body hair removal makes it abundantly clear that bodies, especially female bodies, have been historically disciplined. They have been and continue to be a key tool in exerting social control. In the myriad of Bollywood’s zero figures, clean-shaven arms and legs, everything that was supposed to be the epitome of beauty to the 10-year-old me, Kajol’s unibrow stood out like a sore thumb. If centuries of conditioning can condense themselves into 10 years, making me resistant to hair in a place it isn’t “supposed” to be, then it will only be a gradual process till we can call hair removal a ‘choice’ in the true sense of the word.
About the Author
Vrinda Garg is a second-year student of Economics and International Relations at Ashoka University. Through her writing, she attempts to rethink and challenge commonplace notions that permeate our everyday life, our institutions and the way we see the world.
Image Source: VELA