In contrast to contemporary opinion, the removal and grooming of pubic hair is not new or a Western invention. Research suggests that pubic hair depilation had been practiced by women in ancient Egypt, Greece and across the Roman Empire for centuries. The ancient Egyptians used a resin like material in a procedure similar to contemporary pubic waxing, whilst other pubic hair removal techniques, including shaving and plucking can be traced to Ancient African and Middle Eastern cultures. I read a study entitled ‘Pubic Hair and Sexuality’, that pubic hair on women was thought of as un-civilised in Ancient cultures, and predominantly undertaken by ancient Roman and Greek women of middle and upper class status. Likewise, we see representations of women in Roman and Greek art and sculpture that depict the feminine form without pubic hair. Have these smooth sculptured female bodies helped us over time to structure our cultural imagination marking a hairless body as a required feminine aesthetic ?
In the Middle Ages pubic hair removal does not appear to have been a common practice or have much social or cultural significance. However, historians advocate that it was sometimes undertaken by women to get rid of, or avoid contracting pubic lice. This is when The Merkin (a pubic wig for those not in the know), made its dubious entry into our history books, to cover up private areas that were ravished by lice or even worse by syphilis !
Pubic hair removal in modern Western society, as we will see did not become popular until the latter part of the 20th century. Before 1915 there is little or no evidence that women removed leg or underarm hair either. However negative attitudes towards body hair as unsightly, dirty and superfluous spurred an increase in leg and underarm hair removal by 1915. In the same year Gillette began the ‘Great Underarm campaign’ releasing the first disposable razor for women called the ‘Milady Decolletee’. Furthermore, an article in Harpers Bazaar from the same period implies that body hair was increasingly becoming a new problem for women, or at least marketed as one; ‘summer dress and modern dance combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair’. This emerging trend continued to grow during W.W. 2 and its aftermath, when rationing shortages in the USA prevented the manufacture of nylon and silk stockings, and quite literally exposed more legs. As noted by a cultural historian, ‘By the end of this period the majority of women removed both leg and arm hair as part of their personal hygiene routine, to be clean, neat and modern’ .
During the years 1920-1940 female legs went from obscurity to a thing of beauty and by 1964 statistics suggested that 98% of American women aged fifteen to forty-five regularly shaved their legs. More recent surveys on female hair removal practices revealed that in the 1990s under arm and leg hairlessness became a much taken-for-granted grooming practice in contemporary Western culture.
I’d say that historical analysis of Western under arm and leg hair removal practices exposes a relationship bound to media advertising, emerging consumer markets and changing fashion trends. Thus, we can assume that today hair removal continues to be influenced by fashion, advertising and growing consumer markets. And what role does the media play in all this ?
More history tomorrow.