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To Shave Or Not To Shave

Words by Charlie Adams

Today, women have incorporated shaving as part of their standard beauty routine, but where did this standard come from? For me, it seems nonsensical that women are expected to remove body hair, for we all grow it. We do not regard male leg or chest hair with disgust; so what changed for society to deem women’s body hair as unsightly? People even go as far as calling it unnatural that women would choose not to remove these offending hairs; how did standards warp so much that the natural turned unnatural?

We have hair for many reasons, including warmth, to protect us from germs, to reduce friction, and to assist olfactory (relating to smell) communication. Hair removal is not a modern concept, with evidence from 3,000 to 4,000 B.C. showing that women were removing body hair, sometimes using dangerous ingredients like arsenic as a depilatory cream. The Ancient Egyptians removed all hair, even on their heads, a practice done by both men and women – this was more for health than beauty as it discouraged the spread of disease and parasites. By 500 B.C. Romans had discovered easier ways for hair removal by using pumice stones and even a primitive version of the razor.[1]

Until the early 1900s, not much thought went into the hair on a woman’s legs or underarms, but this soon changed with the emergence of a few well-executed marketing campaigns.

In May 1915, Harper’s Bazaar published an advertisement featuring a woman with a sleeveless dress with her arms raised; its caption read ‘Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.’ This was the start of what is known as the underarm campaign[2]. Before the campaign women were unaware of how embarrassing their armpit hair was, but they were soon to be bombarded with ads to remind them. Before this time even the word ‘underarm’ was deemed shocking and to be avoided. This coincided with the popularity of sleeveless dresses – modernist Victorian clothing had been outdated by the new modern flapper dress. Many brands including Wilkinson and Gillette saw this change of women’s fashion as a way to make more money, introducing women’s razors and marketed underarm hair removal for both hygiene and aesthetical reasons.[3]

Gillette’s 1915 advert stated that, “Milady Decollete Gillette is welcomed by women everywhere — now that a feature of good dressing and good grooming is to keep the underarm white and smooth”[4] playing on the conscience of women, implying that all women were already doing so and that your personal appearance and hygiene were to be questioned if you didn’t follow suit. Soon, all women desired smooth white underarms and by the early 1920s, adverts stopped telling us why we should shave, but rather why to choose their brand[5].

The modest, prude like values of the Victorian age were long gone and now women everywhere were being encourage to beautify as much as possible (for if they didn’t, they were embarrassing themselves and being judged). Ads by the 1930s even went as far as to suggest you would remain single and unloved if you chose to keep ‘ugly, noticeable, unwanted hair’[6].

Leg hair removal did not become popular until later on, although in the early days marketing did try to convince women to do so, but it did not catch on the same as underarms. In the 1930s hem lines dropped causing the female leg to remain covered. It was not until the 1940s as skirts shortened that women became conscious about their legs but even then, the wearing of stockings meant legs were covered. By WWII the shortage of nylon meant more women were forced to bare their legs and once again, corporations and adverts taught them the ‘correct’ hairless way to do so. Those still lucky enough to wear stockings were also instructed that the best way to wear them was by being hair free.[7]

The issue of leg hair was further addressed by the rise of the WWII pin up, with the iconic images of Betty Grable looking beautiful posing with her hair free legs, aspiring women to do the same.[8]

By the 1950s our modern shaving routine was established, with the ideology that a woman can be beautiful and feminine only if she is hair free. The 1960s saw a re-emergence of ads trying to shame women into shaving as a counter effort to hippy and second wave feminist views that put the new idea of what it is to be feminine into question. The 1970s saw even more revealing clothing, with thinner bikini bottoms creating the need to groom more private areas to stay on track with the latest fashions; once again, advertisers didn’t lead us in what was acceptable and what wasn’t. From the 1980s to the present day, shaving ads are much akin to those in the 1930s, being solely based upon attracting a mate.[9]

Advertising campaigns from 1915 onwards have successfully made us doubt our natural bodies as being beautiful in their own right – projecting body images for us to aspire towards, creating problems and embarrassments that previously were not known of, and redefining what it means to be feminine and making millions in the process. Advertisers today get criticised for their use of air brushing and the portrayal of the ‘body beautiful’ but in fact, ads have been putting pressure on women to adhere to their standards for over a century; maybe it’s time we learn to ignore them.

[1] http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/04/the-history-of-shaving/
[2] http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/625/who-decided-women-should-shave-their-legs-and-underarms
[3] http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/625/who-decided-women-should-shave-their-legs-and-underarms
[4] https://www.bustle.com/articles/137072-100-years-of-shaving-ads-show-how-weve-been-tricked-into-going-hairless-photos
[5] http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/625/who-decided-women-should-shave-their-legs-and-underarms
[6] https://www.bustle.com/articles/137072-100-years-of-shaving-ads-show-how-weve-been-tricked-into-going-hairless-photos
[7] https://www.bustle.com/articles/137072-100-years-of-shaving-ads-show-how-weve-been-tricked-into-going-hairless-photos
[8] http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/625/who-decided-women-should-shave-their-legs-and-underarms
[9] https://www.bustle.com/articles/137072-100-years-of-shaving-ads-show-how-weve-been-tricked-into-going-hairless-photos

Lisa Harrison

Lisa Harrison

Lisa is the Deputy Editor of Vintage Life Magazine and Publisher at Dragoon Publishing. She is avid bookworm, collector of vintage homeware, loves travel, lazy weekends away and eats way too much cake!