America's hair-removal insanity

The United States' obsession with hair-free bodies is nearly unprecedented in history. So what gives?

Published February 15, 2015 7:00PM (EST)

Steve Carell in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"
Steve Carell in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"

Excerpted from “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal”

In the contemporary United States, few practices are as taken for granted as the deliberate removal of body hair. Recent studies indicate that more than 99 percent of American women voluntarily remove hair, and more than 85 percent do so regularly, even daily. The usual targets, for the moment, are legs, underarms, eyebrows, upper lips, and bikini lines. Those habits, furthermore, appear to transcend ethnic, racial, and regional boundaries. Over the course of a lifetime, one 2008 survey indicated, American women who shave (a relatively inexpensive way to remove hair) will spend, on average, more than ten thousand dollars and nearly two entire months of their lives simply managing unwanted hair. The woman who waxes once or twice a month will spend more than twenty-three thousand dollars over the course of her lifetime. Most American men, too, now routinely remove facial hair, and increasing numbers modify hair elsewhere on their bodies. Research indicates that as of 2005, more than 60 percent of American men were regularly reducing or removing hair from areas of the body below the neck. Although generally ignored by social scientists surveying hair removal trends, transsexual, transgender, and genderqueer people also express concern with hair management, and employ varying techniques of hair removal.

The ubiquity of personal hair removal in the United States is particularly striking given its relative novelty. To be clear: forcible hair removal is not new. The use of hair removal to control or degrade, as with the beard removals at Guantánamo, has been imposed on inmates, soldiers, students, and other captives for centuries. Despite the recent treatment of U.S. detainees, American courts have tended to frown on the forced removal of hair by agents of the state. In an influential 1879 decision, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field held that the San Francisco officials who cut off the long queues of Chinese men confined in county jails were in violation of both the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Nonstate actors also have removed hair as a way to maintain and reproduce specific relations of domination. Particularly telling in this regard were the slave traders who shaved and oiled the faces of enslaved men being prepared for sale. Because vigorous men drew higher prices, traders sometimes shaved away signs of grey beards or the first stages of pubertal growth in order to make the men appear younger. An eighteenth-century engraving of a slave market depicts an Englishman licking the face of an enslaved man to check for telltale traces of stubble before purchase.

Although overtly coercive hair removal has a long history in the United States, the more widespread practices of voluntary hair removal evident today are remarkably recent. So, too, is the dominant culture’s general aversion to visible hair. From the first decades of contact and colonization through the first half of the nineteenth century, disdain for body hair struck most European and Euro-American observers as decidedly peculiar: one of the enigmatic characteristics of the continent’s indigenous peoples. In sharp contrast with the discourse surrounding bearded detainees at Guantánamo, the beardless “Indians” were described as exceptionally, even bizarrely, eager to pluck and shave. Only in the late nineteenth century did non-Native Americans, primarily white women, begin to express persistent concern about their own body hair, and not until the 1920s did large numbers begin routinely removing hair below the neck. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the revolution was nearly complete: where eighteenth-century naturalists and explorers considered hair-free skin to be the strange obsession of indigenous peoples, Cold War–era commentators blithely described visible body hair on women as evidence of a filthy, “foreign” lack of hygiene. The normalization of smooth skin in dominant U.S. culture is not even a century old.

What accounts for this increasing antipathy toward body hair? Previous historical investigation sheds little light on the matter. Even the voluminous scholarship devoted to various beauty practices in the United States—cosmetics, breast enlargements, plastic surgery, hairstyling—largely overlooks hair removal. How, then, might we understand the prevalence of practices that are repetitive and expensive, at best, and not infrequently messy, painful, disfiguring, and even deadly?

Searching through existing scholarly and popular literatures for answers, one discovers that two broad causal stories about hairlessness turn up with special frequency: the first might be referred to as the “evolutionary” explanation, the second as the “gendered social control” explanation. The sheer repetition of these two accounts is revealing. Let us therefore pause here at the outset to look at them directly.

Perhaps the most common explanation for contemporary hair removal practices, inaugurated by Desmond Morris’s 1967 best-seller The Naked Ape, attributes the allure of hairlessness to deep, animal instinct. “Madison Avenue clearly exploits universal preferences,” summarizes one recent socio-biological account, “but it does not create them.” Advocates of evolutionary explanations for routine hair removal often propose that the unusual hairlessness of humans—one of very few mammals to lack fur—allowed them to remain relatively free of fleas, ticks, lice, and other external parasites, along with the diseases they carry. The process of natural selection initiated by hairless hominids’ greater resistance to disease was in turn augmented and reinforced by sexual selection, as potential mates responded to the unconscious messages of health and fitness conveyed through hairless skin. Contemporary homo sapiens allegedly maintain that ancient pattern by waxing, plucking, shaving, and so on. Another version of the theory proposes that because early bipedal hominids were under pressure to carry their infants (since bipedal infants could no longer grasp with their feet, like other primates), infant survival depended on the maternal desire to carry—a desire made stronger, so the theory goes, by the pleasure of (hairless) skin-to-skin contact. Here again, sexual selection is thought to have augmented the process of natural selection, as adults sought hairless sexual partners in order to recreate the pleasurable skin-to-skin contact of the mother-infant relationship. Echoing these evolutionary lines of thought in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy, investigators Mark Pagel and Sir Walter Bodmer suggest that the “common use of depilatory agents testifies to the continuing attractions of hairlessness, especially in human females.”

The popularity of evolutionary explanations for behaviors such as the “common use of depilatory agents” points to the rising cultural authority of the sciences noted above. They also raise as many questions as they answer (as Christian creationists are quick to point out). If the common use of hair removers signals the instinctual appeal of hairlessness, why would hair removal be conducted so much more diligently and obsessively in some times and places than in others? Are contemporary Americans somehow more driven by evolutionary imperative than their eighteenth-century counterparts? More than twenty-first-century Germans or Italians? If the loss of body hair provided early humans with better health and longevity, why would pubic and armpit hair remain? And what’s so inherently distasteful about hairy skin–to–hairy skin contact? Isn’t soft, touchable fur a large part of the appeal of some domesticated animals (why they are lovingly referred to as “pets”)? As one paleoanthropologist, Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, concludes, “There are all kinds of notions as to the advantage of hair loss, but they are all just-so stories.”

Evolution did play a role in shaping American hair removal practices—but not because those practices reflect “Early Man’s” aversion to fleas and lice. Rather, the growth of evolutionary thought, particularly the influence of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871), transformed framings of body hair, especially women’s body hair. Rooted in traditions of comparative racial anatomy, evolutionary thought solidified hair’s associations with “primitive” ancestry and an atavistic return to earlier, “less developed” forms. Late-nineteenth-century medical and scientific experts extended these perceptions of degeneracy, linking hairiness to sexual inversion, disease pathology, lunacy, and criminal violence. Popular culture, too, advanced hair’s atavistic connotations. The display of a young, unusually hairy Laotian girl known as Krao as a “missing link,” a vestigial embodiment of civilized “man’s” primitive roots, exemplified this trend. In short, readiness to attribute hair removal to the innate allure of evolutionary “fitness” is itself a consequence of cultural change.

A second common explanation for Americans’ intensifying pursuit of hairless skin focuses not on primordial instinct but on vested social interests: specifically, efforts to constrain women’s lives. In this narrative, hair removal appears as a mechanism of “gendered social control,” one exerted in proportion to women’s rising economic and political power. This explanation, also born of a particular historical milieu, owes much of its popularity to analyses provided by feminist social scientists. Social psychologists, in particular, have found that women who resist shaving their legs are evaluated by others as “dirty” or “gross,” and that hairy women are rated as less “sexually attractive, intelligent, sociable, happy, and positive” than visibly hairless women. None of this scholarship ascribes such evaluations to an orchestrated plot against women (other than the stakes that “multi-million dollar companies associated with hair removal” have in promoting the message that “hair is dirty”). Yet several studies propose that “the hairlessness norm” imposes distinct new psychological constraints on women and girls, even as other longstanding legal and social restrictions are eased. The overall effect of the norm, social scientists suggest, is to produce feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, the sense that women’s bodies are problematic “the way they naturally are.” Practices of hair removal, in turn, are said to produce “pre-pubescent-like,” “highly sexualized” bodies, which ultimately “may contribute to the increasing objectification of young girls.”

The claim that adult hair removal is tied to the sexualization of young women is not unfounded: some of the first fully depilated female models displayed in mass-market pornography, such as a 1975 edition of Hustler, were explicitly labeled “Adolescent Fantasy.” It is also fair to say that the labor of maintaining hairless skin, like many other practices of body modification in twenty-first-century America, falls disproportionately to people with feminine gender identities. Naomi Wolf famously referred to the work of beautification as a “third shift” expected of women (or, we might clarify, those who seek to be identified as women), wedged alongside the first shift of paid work and the second shift of unpaid household and caring work for the family.

Yet the “gendered social control” narrative also suggests a rather startling level of conformity on the part of the women being analyzed, who appear to trudge off to their repetitive, demeaning “third shifts” without protest. Not surprisingly, many women balk at this depiction. Indeed, perhaps the most intriguing finding in the social-scientific literature on body hair is that while U.S. women readily recognize the normative pressures on them to remove their hair, and report those pressures as determining the behavior of other women, most do not accept adherence to social norms as determinative of their own practices. Women asked to explain their own hair removal habits instead point to increased sexual pleasure, attractiveness, and other goals of “self-enhancement.” Interviews with men establish similar phenomena. Put simply, Americans tend to describe other people as dupes of social pressure, while narrating their (our) own actions as self-directed and free.

The durability of the “social control” narrative compels us to confront power-laden questions about freedom, subjectivity, and truth. Is the person who chooses to spend twenty-five hundred dollars on laser hair removal demonstrating personal liberty or a dangerous “false consciousness”? What defines false (or “true”) consciousness of such choices? Who gets to say? These sorts of questions pervade contemporary discussions of breast implants, hair straightening, rhinoplasty, and other types of aesthetic “enhancement.” These sorts of questions reach from the founding of the nation to the present: from eighteenth-century naturalists’ arguments over whether Native men did or did not purposefully pluck their beards to more recent conflict over whether total pubic waxing constitutes personal “enslavement,” American debates over body modification have entailed consternation over just how autonomous and willful apparent choices truly are.

In the end, such questions bear an important resemblance to debates over whether forced grooming at Guantánamo is “nothing to be ashamed of” or a cruel and degrading “deprivation of liberty.” Common to both sets of questions is an effort to determine whether a given activity meets or exceeds some presumed standard of “freedom” or “suffering”—ignoring how those standards are set, and by whom. While not indifferent to the enduring enigma of individual will, I take a different tack in this book. Rather than evaluating the choice to remove hair, I seek to show how and for whom body hair became a problem in the first place. Tracing the history of choice in this way, we see how some experiences of suffering, and not others, come to matter.

Excerpted from “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal” by Rebecca M. Herzig. Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca M. Herzig. Reprinted by arrangement with NYU Press. All rights reserved.

By Rebecca M. Herzig

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