How Female Hairlessness Became a Beauty Norm

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: Pinterest
Courtesy: Pinterest

Every year as soon as winter weather gives way to springtime sun and women begin baring their legs and underarms yet again, the perennial question arises: what's up with women's body hair removal? Why all that shaving, threading and waxing ad nauseum?

A fascinating 2002 paper in the Journal of Communication Inquiry dug into the history of female hairlessness as a beauty norm and traces its early beginnings back to the 1870s when the American Dermatological Association began pathologizing hypertrichosis, or excessive body hair. And who was the primary target of the doctors' hirsute concerns? White women. The hair-scare stage was then set for the 1920s, when, in conjunction with changing fashions that revealed more underarm and calf than ever before, fashion magazines began urging ladies of the day to remove their unsightly fur or else risk sullying their feminine charm.

The study authors write:

While the first advertisements in women's magazines focused on teaching women how to remove body hair, the second wave promoted particular products and techniques, making use of celebrity endorsements. The first assault was on underarm hair; an attack on hair on the legs (then called "limbs") soon followed. "By 1938, one expert could declare without sarcasm that any hair not on a woman's scalp was rightly considered 'excessive' "

But what of the bikini wax? When did the attack on female hair expand its reach to our nether regions? Many look to changing pubic hair displays in pornography starting the 1990s, combined with the import of the Brazilian wax procedure, as the primary catalyst. In Playboy, for instance, nude centerfolds began appearing far more bare down there in the 90s, and by the time the 20th century came to a close, it had all but disappeared.

Meanwhile, Brazilian aestheticians known as the J. Sisters opened up shop in New York and got a major publicity boost when their signature waxing procedure was featured in an episode of "Sex and the City." Fast-forward to 2008 when a team of Australian researchers surveyed female college students on their body hair grooming practices, those who reported the most pubic hair removal were likelier to read women's magazines and watch TV shows including "Sex and the City."

So how did female hairlessness become a beauty norm? Because for over 100 years, women have been sold the idea body hair is unfeminine, unfashionable and unsexy. But the beauty norm tides may be turning slightly, as evidenced by a recent New York Times headline declaring "In a New Trend in Hair Removal, Women Prefer the Natural Look."