Hair Apparent

The rules around women’s body hair are in a constant state of flux. With #bodyhairdontcare a popular Instagram hashtag, is female depilation about to enter terminal decline?


Women’s body hair is the stuff of endless debate. In the first quarter of the 21st century, what’s generally considered desirable is long and luxuriant head hair with little or nothing anywhere else on the body. There is an entire industry dedicated to the removal of ‘unwanted hair’ with lasers, other electrical devices and even a depilation tool called No!No!, the screaming exclamation marks leaving no doubt as to society’s views on hirsutism in women. (Eyebrows, it seems, are currently exempt, though that too could change, as bleached and finely plucked brows make regular appearances in fashion shows and creative editorials as a reminder of the alternative.) Waxing, shaving, threading, bleaching, plucking, sanding, electrolysis, depilatory creams and mousses are all options for the body hair averse. With the US market for device-based removal alone worth around $1.35 billion (£1 billion), there’s a vested interest in maintaining the hair-free status of women, although the market intelligence agency Mintel reports that overall body hair removal is on the decline in the UK.

If you’ve ever watched Channel 4’s dating series, Naked Attraction, you’d be forgiven for thinking the opposite is true as nearly all contestants – men as well as women – are devoid of pubic hair. “Did pubic hair go extinct while I wasn’t looking?” tweeted one viewer. No one asked if the women had waxed it all off just for the show, but when presenter Anna Richardson questioned men about their pubic preferences in females, phrases such as ‘nice and clean’ and ‘neat and tidy’ were used. It speaks of a society that equates body hair with a lack of hygiene. Perhaps we’ve got more in common with Muslim culture than we think, as pubic and underarm hair removal for women is directed by Islamic law every 40 days for reasons of purity and cleanliness.

A 2016 personal grooming survey by YouGov puts things into perspective and perhaps highlights the Naked Attraction contestants’ extreme waxing bias, revealing that less than half of women remove genital hair, even though 70 per cent of men and 71 per cent of women believe it is bad to be hairy. It’s concerning there is so much guilt around pubic hair but encouraging that guilt doesn’t always equate to action. More specifically, of the same group surveyed, 80 per cent of women removed armpit and leg hair while 40 per cent removed facial hair.

“There is still an intense vibe in society about body hair,” Grimes, the Canadian songwriter, producer and singer told Teen Vogue last year. The contrary 29-year-old only started shaving her legs recently as a self-fuelled rebellion against her formerly hirsute limbs, which elicited negative comments. “I have the right to shave my legs,” she said in justification. “I think people policing my body either way is bizarre.” Equally vociferous is Adele, who, when asked by Vanity Fair whether her husband minded her hairy legs, said: “He has no choice. I’ll have no man telling me to shave my fuckin’ legs. Shave yours.”

Model and DJ Marley Parker, who flaunts her armpit hair and delights in the reaction, positive and negative, explained to US Vogue: “I had to unlearn body hair constructs. We grow up watching Nair or shaving ads that make hairless women seem like real women. We need to stop fetishising our prepubescent forms.” Judging by Swedish photographer, model and digital artist Arvida Byström’s comments, she concurs. After appearing in an Adidas advertisement with hairy legs, Byström revealed the abuse she received on social media: “Me being such an abled, white, cis body with its only nonconforming feature being a lil leg hair. Literally, I‘ve been getting rape threats in my DM inbox.”

Such extreme reactions to female body hair aren’t a modern phenomenon. It is said the Victorian philosopher John Ruskin was so disgusted by his wife Effie Gray’s pubic hair that their five-year marriage was unconsummated. Historians have made their excuses for Ruskin: he had never seen a woman naked, they said, and smooth, classical Greek statues were his only point of reference. Perhaps Ruskin had also seen Manet’s 1863 painting of the prostitute Olympia, which, though deemed shocking at the time, wasn’t as radical as it seemed – he omitted her pubic hair as it would have been considered immodest to show it.

The recent advertising campaign across the Tube network, in support of the 2018 centenary of the Viennese modernist art movement, highlights how attitudes have hardly changed. The posters featured three Egon Schiele portraits of women, but TfL’s media buyers were unhappy with the nudity, so they were printed with modesty bands covering the pubic area, bearing the words “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today”. It may be a century since they were painted, yet, despite the almost mainstream nature of modern pornography, it seems the British public are still at risk of fainting at the sight of a hairy fanny.

Undoubtedly, the porn industry’s standard of prepubescent, subordinate nudity – which coincided with the second wave
of feminism in the 1970s when body hair was a feminist badge – has influenced attitudes and practices. But there is a growing fourth-wave feminist-led counterculture that is harnessing new technology and shifting attitudes.

What began as a photographic project has become a social media-driven movement for Ben Hopper, whose Natural Beauty exhibition features women with armpit hair. “The more armpit hair is on display, the less of a big deal it will be. It’s nothing, it’s not important, it’s just hair,” said Hopper, who cited as inspiration the power of the ‘free the nipple’ campaign, the awareness-raising initiative to promote women’s equality in the US, a country that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. With
a Republican government, led by a man with a misogynist agenda and a Christian fundamentalist base, there are clear intentions to roll back abortion rights and make the US a less female-friendly country. It’s not a huge leap to connect that level of coercion with ingrained practices that equate female body hair with male displeasure – after all, society encourages women to please men.

Body hair is animalistic, natural and an indicator of a woman’s sexual maturity, the ability to procreate, a signifier of female
sexual desire and power. Yet for too long, femininity has been rooted in a luxuriant head of hair coupled with a virginal absence of body hair. Thankfully, there’s a new generation of crop-haired, hirsute-bodied women who disagree.

Published in Beauty Papers Issue Five
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