The United States’ obsession with hair-free bodies is nearly unprecedented in history. So what gives?
Rebecca M. Herzig
Sunday, Feb 15, 2015
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.
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?
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