Jessica, 32, was sick and tired of forking out for fortnightly waxes. ‘I decided to take my sprouting bikini line into my own hands – how hard could it be?!’ What ensued, you really couldn’t make up. ‘I’d done everything right, but when the time came to rip the cloth off, I panicked. I couldn’t put myself through the inevitable pain,’ she recalls. ‘I tried removing it slowly but that felt like someone plucking each hair one by one, so I raided the kitchen cupboard and doused my whole hoo-ha with a bottle of olive oil and eventually managed to get the bugger off.’
Not letting that disaster stop her, Jessica persevered and is now a self-confessed pro. But why go to all that trouble? In her own words, because of ‘the paranoia and disgust my body hair left me with’ – strong words for something that’s not a freaky mutation, but simply a natural feature we’re all born with. According to market researchers Mintel, she’s not alone in her quest for hair-free skin. There are very few women who don’t pluck, wax, thread, shave or laser an area of body hair, with more than eight in 10 women regularly removing hair from armpits and legs.
Fashion and marketing
Hair-removal dates back centuries, and although shaving, waxing and epilating have their drawbacks (I bet you’ve got a story to tell), we should count ourselves lucky we no longer have to resort to skin-burning pastes of arsenic boiled with quicklime – a common treatment in the 16th-century. We can blame the fashion industry and clever marketing for the development of hairlessness as a norm. By the 1920s, bare underarms were a focus but by the end of the Second World War, leg hair removal was en vogue, too. As well as fashion, the finger is often pointed at the influence of pornography. In the 1970s, porn promoted an au naturel look, but today’s porn either champions the barely-there aesthetic or fetishises the bush, often using merkins and other sorts of over- the-top ‘pubic wigs’ to grab attention. ‘Cheeky’ US store American Apparel unveiled merkin-donning mannequins in its Valentine’s windows last year claiming they were celebrating ‘natural beauty’ and wanting to ‘invite passers-by to explore the idea of what’s “sexy” and consider their comfort with the natural female form’ – the media reaction seems to merely prove how uncomfortable we truly are at the sight of a hairy bush.
The porn industry gets a lot of stick, so it’s only fair to point out other factors contributing to the development of this new normalising of hair removal, too. According to Susan A. Basow, professor of psychology at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, we should also take into account ‘the increasing value placed on women’s appearance (as opposed to wealth, family status, abilities, or internal qualities), the change in fashion (to display more of a woman’s body), the rise in advertising (the creation of body dissatisfaction), and the societal need to “control” women as their social role expanded into the public sphere.’
Notions of masculinity and femininity have a greater impact on our bodies than we care to admit. Influenced by cultural norms and bombarded with images of the ‘ideal body’ (damn you, Sports Illustrated), the removal of body hair has been marketed to women as ‘part and parcel of being attractive,’ says Basow. Although plastic surgery is an extreme, it illustrates perfectly how female bodies have become a construct – you walk in one way and leave looking utterly different. It’s no surprise, though, that through the years our value has been assigned according to how well we meet the beauty standards outlined by society. Has anyone else noticed that as we’ve become more socially liberated, our body hair has been deemed more unacceptable? ‘Body hair has had a long association throughout history with power,’ agrees Breanne Fahs, women and gender studies professor at Arizona State University. ‘Its removal is a symbolic and literal removal of some of our power. Until we have a culture that is interested in women as powerful, fully grown, adult beings, we will continue to see hairlessness as the norm,’ she says.
Thankfully, the tide may be turning. According to an online pharmacy poll carried out by UK Medix, we are now ‘growing ’ back some control over our bodies, as 51 per cent of the 1,870 women who took part in that survey neither style nor groom their pubic hair, with 45 per cent admitting they can ‘no longer be bothered to keep up the grooming’. Feminist author Caitlin Moran proudly declares herself the owner of a ‘retro’ vagina, and Gwyneth Paltrow has admitted to rocking a 1970s vibe down under, while pal Cameron Diaz titled a section of her book The Body Book (HarperCollins, £16.99), ‘In praise of pubes’. Urging us to think about ending the war on pubic hair (at least) by avoiding permanent methods of hair removal, she says, ‘forever is forever, and when we make those choices for our body, we have to live with them’.
Gone for good
The permanent treatments Diaz warns about are tempting for women tired of constantly shaving, waxing, and plucking. For as many women who are opting out of grooming down below there are still those who are eager to rid themselves of their hair, and studies show these women are younger and single – suggesting that what we think men like still holds weight as far as grooming methods are concerned.
This attitude has seen the rise in products and treatments that inhibit hair growth for good. Inhibitif, a relatively new brand, targets the hair follicle directly to slow down its growth rate. It offers options for the face, body and underarms. And in-salon treatments such as laser therapy and electrolysis often prove less pricey in the long run than regular waxing, and many believe the results outweigh the initial cost.
The body hair debate is a tough one. Even feminists who feel that our desire to rid our bodies of hair stems from the repression of the natural female form find it hard to reconcile facts with the common desire most of us have for shaven legs and underarms. I, for one, can hold up my slightly fuzzy underarms and attest that I often go weeks without shaving (don’t judge me!). I know if it wasn’t deemed socially unacceptable to be hairy and if I didn’t worry I’d be single for life if I stopped shaving, I wouldn’t be so quick to get rid of my body hair. Yet I couldn’t go too long without a brow shape – nothing frames the face better.
My strict rules when it comes to my brows but lax body hair regime makes me think that although many of us are conditioned to feel sexier, cleaner and more feminine without hair, we all have personal likes and dislikes. Maybe it’s not whether we get rid of our body hair that proves we’ve been ‘brainwashed’ but how far we take it (there is a growing trend for removing arm and neck hair). So perhaps before reaching for our razors we should take a moment to think about what we truly want our bodies to look like. If secretly, we’re not actually that bothered by our body hair, then maybe we could let a bit more of it hang around.