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Hairy Topics? A History of Women Shaving

I remember first really learning about feminism; I think a lot of us start off in the same way. And one of the things that caught my early adolescent eye, was shaving. I saw the adverts, both on TV and in magazines and I remember thinking, why? Why should I have to shave any part of myself, parts that men wouldn’t shave? Why, as a woman, do I have to have baby-smooth legs and bare armpits and tamed pubic hair? It didn’t and still doesn’t, seem fair. And it’s a standard that a lot of us learn to turn against. I shave my legs about once a week now, but mostly to get that smooth feeling against clean sheets ya know? And also, dry skin.

For the most part, we credit the arrival of smooth legs and armpits to fairly recent developments. We track the blame through the commercial aspects, through modern standards and desirability. But where does our history of shaving come from? In the case of male hair, we can very easily track trends and fashions of beards and moustaches; they’re quite literally in our faces. But what about us? What is the history of why women shave and what’s the feminist stance?

The Ancient World

As with most things, we find ourselves in the world of Ancient Egypt, the Romans and eventually, the bizarre styles of the English monarchy. In fact, we can even start in the Stone Age, where archaeologists believe men and women cropped their hair to avoid frostbite using flint.

Early blades, made from copper, dating back to 3000 BCE, around India and Egypt, but what were they used for?

In Ancient Egypt, women used to shave their heads, both as a fashion statement and for practical reasons. Having no hair, meant no head lice. Sometimes women would wear wigs instead, but having a shaved head was a symbol of being high class. Pubic hair was also considered uncivilised. Around Cleopatra’s time, women would use a method not dissimilar from waxing, using a sugar mixture.

For the women of Ancient Rome and Greece, in the sixth century BCE, it was tweezers and pumice stones that got rid of unwanted hair for women and men alike (think of all those smooth statues). And in 14th century, and up to Elizabethan England, and I’m sure we’ve all heard of some of the odd fashion donned in the days of Queen Lizzie, women used to shave off their eyebrows and sometimes shorten their hairlines, to give themselves a longer brow.

And in the 17th century, we meet the merkin. So that sex workers could offer the appearance of pubic hair, without worrying about catching pubic lice. Smart ladies.

Shaving for women was a symbol of status, of wealth and was a tool of both practicality and fashion.

So why?

Human Hair

We are, by nature, hairy animals. Hair protects us from dirt, it regulates our body temperature and keeps us warm in colder weather. And that’s not even getting onto the brilliance that is pubic hair. Which, amongst other things Darlings, is believed to reduce friction during sex, helps to prevent the transmission of bacteria and in general, keeps your vagina clear from sweat, oil and germs. So long as you keep it clean, there is nothing unhygienic about it. Whilst a lot of people credit pubic hair shaving to recent trends and, quite often porn, as established above it is not a new phenomenon. If you prefer a tamed bush, you can credit yourself as following in the footsteps of Ancient Egyptian women.

But according to Charles Darwin and his book The Descent of Man (1871), homo sapiens have less body hair because less hairy mates did better in reproducing. By this logic, it’s a matter of competitive selection, that the smoother you are, the more sexually desirable you are. A standard which holds up today, with sexual partners having their own personal preference for what you’ve got beneath your drawers.

Modern Years

By the 1900s, amongst white women in America, hairlessness was a symbol of femininity among the upper and middle classes. And this only grew. As hemlines got shorter, sleeves got shorter and our limbs were suddenly exposed. These changes in the fashion industry added extra pressure on women to start shaving their legs and armpits. In 1914, the first advertisement for hair removal ran in Harper’s Bazaar; in 1915, Gillette released Milady Décolleté which campaigned against underarm hair, calling it ‘unsightly’.

Come the second world war, with nylon short on supply, more and more women started to shave their legs, since they were now without stockings. Also, in the 1940s, came the invention of the bikini and with it, trimmed pubic hair. Playboy in the 1950s showed images of clean-shaven women, setting the trend for women of the time. And in 1987, the Brazilian wax came into its own.

But despite this, around the ’60s and ’70s, and that wave of feminism we all know and love, came women fighting against the trend, preferring the natural look and protesting against shaving.

So, whilst we look at historical movies and question the accuracy of our hairy fore-sisters, odds are, they’re not far off. Women were encouraged to be hairless throughout time. And yet, growing hair is a sign of sexual maturity, and an important one really.

The feminist stance

So, to shave or not to shave?

We all have preferences, we all have comfort levels, we all know what we want to do with our bodies. It might be different from our sister, our mums or our aunts. Influences may differ from culture, religion, ethnicity and a multitude of other aspects, and this intersectionality should always be taken into consideration.

But put simply: feminism is having the right to choose and having that choice respected.

One woman likes shaving, another doesn’t; I shave my armpits, my sister doesn’t.

The feminist stance is to accept that every woman expresses herself differently, and that in having the freedom to choose, we all might choose differently. What is not feminist is telling a woman what she ought and ought not to do with her body. From outside perspectives, friends, sexual partners, whoever, the choice is ours.

Whether you follow the Ancient Egyptians and opt for a smooth head, or, as lots already do, shaving off your eyebrows a la Queen Lizzie the first, copy the hairless legs of the women of world war two or leave it untouched for maximum usage; the choice, most importantly, does not belong to advertisements of campaigns, not to playboy magazine or Sex and the City or patriarchal constructs. It belongs to you.

I shave my legs once a week, and that’s enough for me.

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