This fall, we’re turning to our Friends at TheLala, the blog written by and for bright, adventurous college women, to lend some tips on how to deal with life whether you live on- or off-campus. This article on the history of shaving was written by Brielle Saggese, a Lala contributor from Indiana University.
I remember sitting in PE class each morning the same way: knees tucked under, hands resting on the thighs, and those wretched baggy shorts stretched to cover as much of my leg as possible. I was only in sixth grade but had already mastered the Shaveless Squat.
Shaveless Squat (n.): A sitting position used to cover up that spot one forgot to shave.
You see I had missed a very important middle school ritual. Upon entering sixth grade, every one of my friends had received a pink rubber razor, and by extension, a pair of hairless legs. At least in my friend group, it was clear that middle school enacted the era of shaving in every girl’s trip to womanhood. Well, it was clear to everyone except for me. Being the sensible woman she was, my mother refused my shaving pleas. Instead, she gifted me a tin bottle of Nair, instructing it was to be used for five minutes once a week in a well ventilated bathroom. I praised that Nair like the gift it was from the heavens, but I never found it to work. Instead of the silky smooth legs shown on the bottle, I was left in my same hairy situation as before. The next day in PE when my friends laid out to admire their razors’ handiwork, I practiced my Shaveless Squat and waited for the bell to ring.
Now a good many years later I can say I am no stranger to razors anymore, but I still have the same question as I did in that gym class:
Why does femininity require a hairless body?
Of course in ancient times, body hair removal was expected, but it wasn’t an idea reserved for females. Because they thought body hair resembled an animal, both men and women chose to wax, pluck, or rub it off. Smooth skin wasn’t a representation of femininity, but of mankind, and so the story of shaving doesn’t start until much later.
The Marketing Ploy That Started It All
Fast forward to the year 1792 when hair removal was all but extinct. Fashion at that time covered almost every surface of the body, so no one really thought about where you had hair as long as it wasn’t showing. The hair removal industry needed to find a window if it wanted to become a part of female culture. 1792 was that window when Lady’s Magazine was published, the first female-centered publication in the world. On its glossy pages it tried to fulfill a woman’s every need with advertisements for beauty creams, medicines, and cleaning supplies. Among these products was a facial hair remover, targeted towards the only hair one could see on a woman’s body. But although this kind of product was popular, magazines never covered the actual act of hair removal, only the products that did the job. In this way they introduced the idea of a hairless femininity, but never told their readers it was mandated.
The Armpit Ambush
But finally in the year 1915, the hair removal industry took off. Fashion was evolving to show a bit more skin and for the first time, body hair was being questioned. To address the problem, Harper’s Bazaar ran an ad for X Bazin Depilatory Powder that pictured a woman with bare underarms and a block of text stating, “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.” With this small bit of print real estate, femininity set ground rules on underarm hair. Magazines were intent on making sure that bare skin wasn’t just a trend, but a part of womanhood. In every issue they published article after article in an attempt to convince women that the hair they once ignored was now “unwelcome,” “embarrassing,” or “objectionable.” Once their readers caught on, the underarm never saw hair again.
The Last Leg
Legs were next on the list. Fashion was incorporating shorter hems, so ads used these trends to their advantage. Now when hair removal products were sponsored, a picture of hairless legs was included until it became engrained in the unwritten female’s guide to femininity.
Now in 2015, body hair is just as much of a discussion topic today as it was in that first magazine. Feminism tells us that we have dominion over our bodies, yet still there are so many stigmas with what we do with our razors. Do we continue our shaving habits that started from a 1915 marketing ploy? Or do we pull a Miley Cyrus and dye our pits pink?
However you want to address body hair, only stick to where you feel comfortable. You should never feel pressured into changing your appearance based on what we are socially mandated to do. It’s okay if you still do the Shaveless Squat from time to time, but you should always define femininity in your own terms and with your own choices.