The Casualties of Women's War on Body Hair

Hair removal, at its core, is a form of gendered social control.

Katie Martin / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

I’m sure there was a time when I was not hairy, but I can’t remember it. I have an early memory from middle school where a doctor examined my sideburns, which stretched almost down to my jawline, and suggested some pills to slow the growth. She told me they were for people with a lot of facial hair, like me. I recall inspecting the black hairs on my legs with serious fascination; my mother would use sticky sugar to rip them out from their stubborn roots. “Beauty requires strength,” she would say, deploying an Arabic take on the more common proverb: Beauty is pain.

The regular removal of body hair is ubiquitous: More than 99 percent of American women voluntarily get rid of their hair. It’s also expensive. The American woman who shaves will spend more than $10,000 over the course of her life, and the woman who waxes will shell out more than $23,000. These habits cut across race, ethnicity, and region. They are also relatively recent.

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that non-native (mostly white) American women became concerned with body hair. In fact, as Rebecca Herzig explains in Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, “18th-century naturalists and explorers considered hair-free skin to be a strange obsession of indigenous peoples.” English colonists were surprised and disturbed by beardless Native Americans when they first landed.

How then, in the span of less than a century, did the unnatural state of hairlessness become the standard for American women?

The campaign against body hair on women originates in Darwin’s 1871 book Descent of Man, explains Herzig. Men of science obsessed over racial differences in hair type and growth (among other aspects of physical appearance), and as the press popularized these findings, the broader American public latched on. Darwin’s evolutionary theory transformed body hair into a question of competitive selection—so much so that hairiness was deeply pathologized. “Rooted in traditions of comparative racial anatomy, evolutionary thought solidified hair’s associations with ‘primitive’ ancestry and an atavistic return to earlier, ‘less developed’ forms,” Herzig writes. Post-Descent, hairiness became an issue of fitness.

An important distinction in this evolutionary framework was that men were supposed to be hairy, and women were not. Scientists surmised that a clear distinction between the masculine and the feminine indicated “higher anthropological development” in a race. So, hairiness in women became indicative of deviance, and researchers set out to prove it. Herzig tells the story of an 1893 study of 271 cases of insanity in white women, which found that insane women had excessive facial hair more frequently than the sane. Their hairs were also “thicker and stiffer,” more closely resembling those of the “inferior races.” Havelock Ellis, the scholar of human sexuality, claimed that this type of hair growth in women was “linked to criminal violence, strong sexual instincts … [and] exceptional ‘animal vigor.’”

By the early 1900s, unwanted hair was a significant source of discomfort for American women. They desired smooth, sanitized, white skin. They wanted to be feminine. “In a remarkably short time, body hair became disgusting to middle-class American women, its removal a way to separate oneself from cruder people, lower class and immigrant,” writes Herzig.

As hemlines rose, threatening to reveal hairy limbs, women took extreme measures to remove hair.

In the 1920s and ’30s, women used pumice stones or sandpaper to depilate, which caused irritation and scabbing. Some tried modified shoemaker’s waxes. Thousands were killed or permanently disabled by Koremlu, a cream made from the rat poison thallium acetate. It was successful in eliminating hair, and also in causing muscular atrophy, blindness, limb damage, and death. Around the same time, X-ray hair removal emerged as another treatment option. Women would sit for three or four minutes in front of the invisible rays of a boxed X-ray machine, and the radiation would do its work. So great was the appeal of each hair withering away in its sheath that for nearly two decades, women underwent dangerous radiation that led to scarring, ulceration, and cancer.

Disfigured and dying, but undeterred, women continued the war on body hair. Concurrently, Gillette had slowly been mastering its marketing of razors. During World War II, there was a shortage of the thick stockings that women wore to cover their hairy legs, and shaving—something that had previously been associated with men’s routines—became a common practice for women. By 1964, 98 percent of American women were routinely shaving their legs, embracing the repetitive swiping that defines modern hair removal. But alternate methods still proliferated in laboratories and physicians’ offices. In the 1960s and ’70s, doctors began prescribing hormonal drugs, like Aldactone and Androcur (which are now often used in male-to-female transitions), to combat hirsutism—the slippery and subjective condition of excessive hair growth in women. The side effects of this hormone therapy can include cancer, stroke, and heart attack, and its effectiveness in reducing hair growth is inconsistent.

Today, women still engage in risky, time-consuming, and skin-damaging practices to rid our bodies of hair. Laser hair removal can cause severe burns, blistering, and scarring. Waxing is painful and unsanitary. Bleaching can irritate and discolor your skin. And there’s a whole Reddit thread for what to do if you burn your vagina with Nair. These products are largely unregulated, as most cosmetics tend to be.

Hair removal, at its core, is a form of gendered social control. It’s not a coincidence that the pressure for women to modify their body hair has risen in tandem with their liberties, Herzig argues. She writes that the effect of this hairlessness norm is to “produce feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, the sense that women’s bodies are problematic the way they naturally are.”

And yet, if you ask many women why they voluntarily shave or wax, they might say that it’s a method of self-enhancement. That they want to, it’s a personal choice, and they just feel better when everything is smooth. Hair removal as self-care might be one of the biggest lies women have bought into. It keeps us in an impossible loop, one in which we are constantly in pursuit of velvety limbs and the moral virtue of cleanliness.

A few years ago, I got my sideburns lasered, along with the rest of my face, my armpits, my back, my stomach, the back of my neck, and the soft expanse underneath my chin. I zapped the hair right at the follicle, before it even had the chance to break through my skin. It hurt, but the good kind, the kind of pain women are taught is worth it.