Owning our bodies one hair at a time: body sovereignty relating to hair removal

By Meg Wilson and Alexis Canfield

At STAR, we are in constant conversation with each other, clients, and community members about bodies and the concept of body sovereignty and ownership. Sovereignty refers to being in control. In a political sense it might refer to the governing structure, such as a monarch or ruler. Body sovereignty is the idea of having complete control over your own body, so you are its ruler. Simply put, our bodies belong to ourselves. They are ours to protect and nourish. They are ours to dress and clean. 

Different factors–including the media, other people we encounter, and cultural norms–also affect our relationship with our bodies, as well as what may happen to them or what we do to them. One aspect of our bodies that is often up for debate is the presence (or absence) of our body hair, whether it’s the removal of it, the grooming of it, or leaving it au natural.  

Removing body hair is not a recent phenomenon. Human beings have participated in the practice of removing body hair for thousands of years. Barbers in ancient Mesopotamia followed prescribed shaving methods to style the beards of priests and other religious leaders. In Egypt, barbers were employed by the wealthiest individuals to use their specialized flint and oyster shell tools to remove all body hair, sometimes as often as every three days. Shaving wasn’t limited to only the wealthy in Egypt, for traveling barbers would set up outside to shave poorer people, helping limit the transmission of lice and other parasites (Sherrow, 2006, p.50). In ancient Turkey, people threaded their body hair, and in ancient Rome, Julius Caesar’s servants plucked out his facial hair. In Ancient Greece, women removed their leg hair through a variety of methods (“Hygiene Through History”, 2019). 

The removal of body hair in the Americas began long before the arrival of European settlers. When Europeans arrived, they were shocked and intrigued by some Native Americans’ apparent hairlessness, with even Thomas Jefferson weighing in on the supposed controversy. Indigenous people from different tribes throughout the continent had a multitude of ceremonies, practices, and beliefs related to body hair removal, and initially, these practices were seen as decidedly unmasculine by European settlers (Herzig, 2015, p.19). 

Attitudes towards hair removal in America began to shift in the 1800s with the growing popularity of evolutionary thought and the publication of Charles Darwin’s work The Descent of Man in 1871. This work reframed body hair as primitive, with man’s relative hairlessness a sign of evolutionary superiority, or at least sign of a higher level of development (Herzig, 2015, p.20). According to Herzig (2015), scientific and medical experts around this time “extended these perceptions of degeneracy, linking hairiness to sexual inversion, disease pathology, lunacy and criminal violence (p. 16).” 

In late nineteenth century America, a barber was usually the only place a person could go to get their face shaved, and the barber would use a straight razor; in 1904, Gilette patented the safety razor and men were able to more easily and safely shave at home. Advertising changed to reflect that, resulting in frequent shaving being seen as more fashionable, suggesting a  man with a clean shaven face was more hygienic or civilized. (“Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections”). The blades in razors were disposable and needed frequent replacement, so the push was to sell even more razors and thus more blades. This change in technique began to affect the perception of women’s body hair as well. Hoping to expand their market, disposable razor manufacturers began to promote the concept of women’s body hair as masculine and “indelicate” (“Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections”).

In the 1920s, dresses and sleeves grew shorter, which provided even more opportunities for advertising razors to target newly exposed legs and armpits. During this time, people still used harsher practices, such as depilatory creams and abrasive mitts (“Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections”). At the same time, maintaining hygiene began to grow in popularity, seen as a way to mitigate the spread of contagious disease, and shaving in particular grew in popularity as a way to stop the spread of lice and other vermin (Matteo, 2019). Changing trends provided more opportunities for shaving, with the decreased availability of stockings during WWII, the spreading popularity of the bikini in the 50s, and the miniskirts of the 1960s. (“The History of Female Hair Removal”, 2017). By 1964, 98% of American women aged 15-44 shaved their legs, and simultaneously, feminists were amping up their fight for gender equality. One target of the feminist movement was women’s reclamation of their own bodies, and particularly the removal of their body hair (Matteo, 2019).  

The question of whether or not to remove all, some, or none of your body hair has followed us into the new millennium, and the debate shows no sign of stopping as we approach the next decade. The discussion has become more nuanced: the concept of bucking convention and keeping all of your body hair as a form of woman/female identified liberation has taken some criticism within the feminist movement. At first glance, it seems pretty straightforward that embracing all of your body hair is a way to reclaim bodily autonomy. After all, the effect of the social norm that one should remove all unsightly body hair, according to social scientists, can produce “feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability.” At the basic, natural level a woman’s (hairy) body is inherently problematic (Herzig, 2015), which is clearly a concept we should all rebuke. Assuming that all women and women- identified people will feel empowered because of their body hair, though, leaves some people feeling left out, hurt, or unheard. 

Overarchingly, the movement of “reclaiming” body hair has been lead by predominately white, cisgender women. These specific white bodies are already the base for beauty standards, and therefore, there is less risk and retaliation associated with these bodies straying from the norm. For instance, black and brown communities are still struggling with the ability to be seen as beautiful, as shaped through the lingering history of colonization. In To Those Who Feel Left out of the Body Hair Revolution: I See You, Kish Lal states that “unibrows, hairy toes, and fuzzy faces naturally have larger implications for some than they do for others. For Black and brown folk, it’s about striving to appear hygienic, professional, and ‘normal’ in a world that reminds us we are not.” Many images championing the body hair movement solely depict white bodies with  armpit hair and leg hair, and no hair in locations such as the face, eyebrows, and arms, places where black and brown bodies tend to naturally have darker, more visible hair. Additionally, for trans women and non-binary people, body hair removal in areas such as the face can equal survival, or mean the difference between life and death. 

Every person’s relationship with their body is unique and shaped through their identities, culture, and personal experiences. We are living in an age where we are looking for ways to continue to reclaim ownership over our bodies, and explore how we want to dress, act, and otherwise move through the world. This includes deciding what to do, or not to do, with our body hair, especially for those who are female-bodied and/or women-identified. Like all things reflected in the feminist movement, we need to make sure that with whatever direction a person chooses, their choice is the right choice for them. Body hair removal, as well as choosing to keep body hair, are forms of self-care, self-love, and declarations of body celebration.  

Works Cited

Cosmetics and personal care products in the medicine and science collections. (n.d.). The National Museum of American History. Retrieved from https://www.si.edu/spotlight/health-hygiene-and-beauty

Herzig, R. M. (2015). Plucked: A history of hair removal. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/Plucked/V9zrBQAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0&bsq=jefferson

The history of female hair removal. (2017). Beauty or torture. Retrieved from https://womensmuseum.wordpress.com/2017/11/22/the-history-of-female-hair-removal/ 

Hygiene throughout history. (2019). Hygiene for health. Retrieved from https://hygieneforhealth.org.au/history/

Kish Lal. To those who feel left out of the body hair revolution: I see you. (2019). Greatist. Retrieved from https://greatist.com/live/loving-my-hair-revolution

Matteo, V. (2019). When did women start shaving? The history of female hair removal. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/When-Did-Women-Start-Shaving-The-Painful-History-of-Female-Depilation

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