Fear of my bodily hair consumes me— and rudely interrupts my sexual fantasies: I slide off my panties, and the sexy, shirtless guy lounging on the bed says in Antonio Banderas’s husky accent: “That’s not a pussy, that’s a Persian cat!”
Most men will never know why their girlfriends aren’t up for sex: shaving. Yes, shaving— female shaving: a time-consuming ritual which includes scraping hair off the armpits, crotch, butt, and vaginal regions. Although some women enjoy shaving, just as some men enjoy plucking their eyebrows, most of us shave for one key reason: Fear. Specifically, fear of rejection… that we won’t land that job, that guy, or worse, the acceptance of our friends and family. Although fear of rejection is about as old as mankind, and fundamentally human, the fear which compels women to shave their bodies is a recent one, encroached in disturbing double-standards and prejudice that dehumanize us.
Where the hell did this custom come from?
Female shaving has roots in ancient Egypt and Greece, where prostitutes shaved their pubic regions due to genital lice. In Egypt, both men and women shaved their genitals. In male-dominated Greece, upper-class women eventually adopted shaving in order to please men. Genital lice also compelled Victorian prostitutes to hide bare genitals behind thick pubic wigs, designed to seduce and deceive. However, outside of prostitution circles, Western women did not shave their genitals, much less their legs and armpits— nor were they expected to¹. How did a practice limited to social outcasts become the ultimate civilizing influence?
The answer lies in American marketing, which boomed after World War I. As sleeveless dresses became fashionable in 1915, marketers designed new insecurities to sell women products no one knew they needed. Articles and ads popped up in mainstream publications, including Harper’s Bazaar (1915) and McCall’s (1917), exclaiming that armpit hair was both unsightly and unhygienic. By the time the Sears Roebuck catalog started selling sheer-sleeved dresses in 1922, they had already stocked up on razors. This gender-specific campaign continued after World War II, when hemlines rose along with sales for leg-waxing and razors. Then, in the 80s, the advent of the VCR brought porn to millions of households, and with it, opened a new opportunity for marketers: trimmed crotches! Marketing introduced women to a need they never knew they had… one which now feels as firmly entrenched as second nature.
Shaving standards work differently for men and for women— men are not held to the same standards and expectations that female shaving holds for women. For one, Western women are expected to shave their armpits, crotch, legs, and more, while men are primarily expected to shave their back and face. Even then, beards persist! Despite pressures men feel to conform to different trends, one trend remains in vogue: manly men. Unshaven men, proudly boasting stubble, armpit hair, and curly chest hair, still set hearts aflutter in movies (Pierce Brosnan in James Bond), fashion magazines (male model Andre Velencoso), and pornography (Colt Magazine.) They are favorably depicted as wild, free, practical, and uninhibited— X-men’s Wolverine doesn’t care about your fashion and social constraints! Hairy woman, on the other hand, are depicted as a criminals, shamefully “caught” looking too manly, too uncared-for, too uncivilized. Accordingly, no heat-of-the-moment lovemaking scene on mainstream film, porn, or in the cheap bodice-ripper romance books piled up on my desk features a fluffy woman.
Although some women claim that they choose to shave, their justifications often border on prejudices about hygiene; which negatively affect how they view themselves and interact with other women. For every woman who enjoys shaving as a past-time or a sexual kink, there are others who claim to do it for “hygienic reasons.” The Western hygiene myth originated as a marketing ploy during the golden age of American eugenics and sexism, in the early 20th Century. During this age, nurses trimmed hair along the outer labia for “health reasons”— a practice established in the 1900s (which met with a great deal of resistance.) For all the concern over genetics and healthy babies, sex remained a taboo and misunderstood topic: female orgasms were non-existent, homosexuality was a mental disease, rape was a “natural” male urge, biracial babies were incurably ill, and marital rape was unfathomable.
Although times are changing, the assumption that female shaving is “hygienic” remains despite basic medical knowledge. Cuts, nicks, and welts caused by metal blades routinely become infected. Waxing is not only painful, but also leads to infections, ingrown hairs, and life-threatening allergic reactions. Laser methods can cause permanent disfigurement, which is why in-home systems advise women of color not to use them. The shaving and after-shave creams we dollop on our most delicate areas contain skin-irritants and carcinogens, and are often tested on animals (along with cigarettes. Check out the Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database, Leaping Bunny.org, and PETA’s Caring Consumer for more information.)
The argument that pubic hair “traps bacteria” and leads to foul-smelling odor is not any more plausible for female armpit hair than for male chest hair… or the hair on our heads. It does not take a medical degree to conclude that body hair grows dirty and stinky without regular bathing— a luxury inaccessible to Victorian prostitutes, but accessible from the comfort of your home.
Despite this dosage of common sense, female shaving continues to encroach on us, depriving each of us of choice. Choice is a crucial part of empowerment, and being in control of our bodies and ourselves. That empowerment includes the choice to shave, but also the choice not to shave. What if a woman refuses to go along with this ritual? Will it cost her her love life? Her job? Her stand as a civilized human being? Her positive body image? To the “happy shavers” out there, take a moment to ask yourselves: What will it cost you to stop shaving?