Body hair: shaving, yes, no or sometimes?

June 9, 2021

Collage concept by Grace with image from Kristine at flickr

Grace Egan reveals how advertising campaigns created the expectation that women should use razors

With a very limited social life during lockdown, I was getting excited about an invite to a Hawaiian party on the horizon. I dug out a colourful summer dress, which I hadn’t worn in a long while. The night finally arrived and I sorted my hair and make-up, put my dress on and feeling good I did my last checks in the mirror. I panicked as I saw my hairy legs reflected back at me.

I tried to stay calm and remembered my feminist idols embracing their body hair. Instead, I crumbled and grabbed for the razor.

I’m growing tired of being taught to hate my body and everything natural about it. The beauty standards held for women have always upset me but learning about the origins of shaving has pushed me to actively defy these expectations.

Up until the 1900s, body hair was considered completely normal for both women and men. After all, it is natural. Razors were advertised and used by men, soldiers specifically, or by actors and dancers.

Victorian fashion had women modestly draped head to toe, so removing leg or armpit hair was unheard of. This all changed in the early 20th century when King Camp Gillette, an American businessman who invented a best-selling version of the safety razor, spotted an opportunity to double his profits.

Gillette cleverly spread their razor ads in fashion magazines to ensure femininity and hairlessness became synonymous

With the turn of the century, changing values allowed women to start dressing with more skin on display and knee-high skirts and sleeveless dresses came into fashion. Gillette designed and marketed the first razor for women in 1915, ‘Milady Decollete’, specifically for armpits. Body hair was advertised as un-ladylike and embarrassing.

Gillette cleverly placed their razor ads in fashion magazines to ensure femininity and hairlessness became synonymous. This concept created a new insecurity for women, forced it upon them and then kindly offered Gillette products as a solution. It was a genius marketing ploy, all just to sell more razors.

In the 1920s, hair removal had become common but not necessarily an expectation. It was during the 40s, when Gillette lost many male customers to the war, that shaving both our armpits and legs became a phenomenon in western society.

This was the decade where pinup girls, who wore short skirts with shaved legs, became popular, and a sign of not only beauty but patriotism. These depictions of ‘desirable’ women further encouraged shaving to become the norm, and unfortunately, these expectations have stayed with us throughout the subsequent decades.

The beauty industry has always directly profited from our insecurities, and in many cases they also create them. Manipulation is the heart of marketing. The industry’s main priority is to sell their products, not meet their customer’s needs. A new study by Groupon reveals that the average British woman spends a stunning £70,294 on her appearance over her lifetime.

The anti-shaving movement aims to encourage women to feel beautiful, confident and feminine with or without body hair

It’s time for women to start embracing any features that have been historically depicted as un-feminine. Whether that’s body hair, broad shoulders, deep voices or anything in between. Even now, in the 21st century, the media depicts body hair as something to be ashamed of.

Feminism doesn’t aim to diminish everything that is seen as conventionally feminine. If you feel empowered by shaved legs then that’s what you should do. The current anti-shaving movement is not necessarily about ‘not shaving’. The movement aims to encourage women to feel beautiful, confident and feminine with or without body hair.

Almost one in four women under 25 no longer shave their armpits, compared with just one in 20 in 2013, according to research by market analyst Mintel.

Laura Jackson, student and co-founder of the Januhairy campaign, an initiative that encourages women to grow their body hair for the month of January, talks to the Guardian, “It’s not just about hair, it’s about building a conversation around the subject.”

We need to fight these oppressive beauty standards and ask ourselves whether we’re really shaving for our own pleasure, or to avoid the pain and backlash of our patriarchal society!

Funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, distributed by CommUNITY Barnet Giving has helped us with this work. Thanks to National Lottery players for making this possible.

Grace is studying English Literature, Psychology and Biology at A level. She is taking these subjects because she is passionate about both journalism and biopsychology. She is still unsure of what she will study after college, but she is a work in progress!

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