To shave or not to shave? That is oh-so-rarely the question. For women, running blades across the vast majority of our bodies on almost a daily basis is as much a common practice as brushing your teeth before bed.
And this isn’t a new phenomenon. Women have a long and hairy relationship with shaving. During the Stone Age, there was a very practical approach to shaving. Men and women would shave their heads and faces so that their enemies could not grab onto any hair in battle. It also reduced the likelihood of frostbite. Back then, shaving meant taking a stone, whittling it down to a sharp angle and sliding it down your skin. To get the small hairs, they would use shells, which functioned as tweezers.
It was a few thousand years later in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia when beauty standards began to dictate shaving habits. Prominent women like Cleopatra promoted complete shaving of all body hair except for eyebrows because it suggested cleanliness. Tactics for hair removal at this time included tweezers from seashells and pumice stones and even waxing with beeswax. This beauty standard became even more pronounced during the Roman Empire when lack of body hair was a class identifier. Wealthy women and men would remove as much hair as possible with razors made from flints, tweezers and creams. Pubic hair was also considered uncivilized which is why Grecian women are depicted as hairless in many famous statues and paintings.
In the Middle Ages, hair removal patterns were shaken up when Queen Elizabeth set a standard for eyebrow removal as well as hair removal from the forehead to make it appear larger. This was done by using walnut oil or bandages soaked in ammonia and vinegar. But while hair on the face was discouraged, hair on the rest of the body was completely acceptable.
Modern hair removal standards and practices for women did not really emerge until 1915, when Gillette created the first razor specifically for women called the Milady Decolletee, which launched “the first great anti-underarm hair campaign.” Ads were published that encouraged women to remove “objectionable hair” from their bodies and especially under their arms. This aligned with the increasing popularity of sleeveless dresses in the 1920s.
A couple years after the razor was created, a leading fashion magazine ran an ad that featured a woman with her arms raised displaying her bare armpits. This ad was the first but definitely not the last of its kind. Leg hair became a focus when there was a shortage of nylon during World War II, resulting in a scarcity of stockings and forcing women to display their bare legs. This led to even more products and techniques for hair removal hitting the market.
But now the conversation around body hair is evolving. Women are more comfortable making their own decisions about addressing body hair and even flaunting their hair growth on social media. Some women are going so far as to dye their armpits or apply glitter to make it even more pronounced. And while the hassle and financial cost are reasons enough to avoid shaving, women are also protesting gender stereotypes and expectations. If men aren’t expected to shave, why should we be? That is not to say women should not shave, but rather it should be a matter of personal preference, like hairstyles or fashion choices. If women can embrace all aspects of their bodies, then hopefully shaving will be less of a source of agitation in the future.
Contact Michaela Elias at melias23 ‘at’ stanford.edu.