Over the years, I've spent a small fortune trying to pretend I don't grow hair south of my scalp line. No one ever handed me a razor and told me I needed to shave, I just knew I didn't want to be the only girl in the school yard with hairy legs. Since then, like most girls my age, I've experimented with tweezers, wax strips, razor blades, electric razors, creams – all in the name of keeping up with a social expectation that, until recently, I've never really questioned.
But new figures published by London-based market research firm Mintel indicate that fewer young women are shaving their body hair. As many as one in four stopped shaving their underarms in 2016, and between 2013 and 2016, the number of young women shaving their legs decreased from 92% to 85%. In addition to this, there was also a reported 5% decline in hair removal product sales between 2015 and 2016.
Although these figures don't take into consideration the number of women who have opted for laser procedures, thus eradicating the need for hair removal products, they do suggest that traditional definitions of femininity and beauty are being challenged in mainstream culture. This, in turn, represents a significant step forward in the body positivity movement.
That's not to say that a body-positive society would be better embodied by a population of yetis. Women have been removing their body hair for centuries. Cleopatra supposedly used a warm liquid wax to remove body hair, and other hair removal methods devised by the Egyptians involved applying a sugar-based formula to the skin. Hairlessness helped prevent the spread of lice and other parasites, and by 500BC Roman women were even using a primitive version of the razor.
Things changed, though, when female hair removal became less about cultural habits and more about social control. Once hemlines rose and sleeve lengths shortened in the early 20th century, advertisers saw an opportunity to make money by engendering a culture in which the female body, in its natural condition, was problematic and unattractive. The process of hair removal objectified women by returning them to a pre-pubescent state, and, by 1975, Hustler magazine was labelling the first completely hairless women in mass-market pornography 'adolescent fantasy'.
Female hair removal advertisements began by feeding on fears of social exclusion. In 1915 when the female razor was introduced, Gillette called the razor the solution to 'that embarrassing personal problem' used by 'women everywhere'. In this way, female body hair was not only framed as shameful, but women were made to feel as though they would be the only one suffering from this affliction if they didn't get rid of it.
Once advertisers had exhausted these fears, the adverts themselves began to veer more in the direction of sex appeal. By the latter half of the 20th century, shaving adverts had transformed from pictures of hair removal kits and cartoons of women in embarrassing scenarios to illustrations of half-naked women flaunting their silky smooth skin. One such example is Gillette's 1981 'Just Whistle' campaign, which features the silhouette of a man looming over a young woman lying provocatively on the beach in a white swimsuit. Below, the caption reads: 'If you want to get somebody's attention, Just Whistle'. Towards the end of the century, hair removal was linked increasingly with sex appeal, femininity and making the female body as attractive as possible for the opposite sex.
This marketing trend hasn't changed much since then. Shaving adverts today often associate hairless skin with desirability, sexuality and even happiness. In one advert released a few years ago for Gillette's 'Venus Embrace' blade, various smiling, playful, heterosexual couples are depicted in intimate embraces. As the men run their hands up the hairless legs of their female companions, the narrator asks: 'What does beauty feel like? And where does it begin? It begins with your skin.' From this we ascertain that women with hair-free legs are more attractive, sexually appealing, and ultimately happy.
We are, however, beginning to challenge these assumptions about what beauty 'feels like'. There is a worldwide campaign to diversify traditional standards of beauty: there are more ethnically-diverse people on our screens, different body types are featuring on magazine covers, and celebrities like Madonna and Julia Roberts have made their own silent contributions to the body positivity movement by exposing tufts of hair from underneath their arms.
It'll be a long time before I'll be brave enough to sport an au naturale look in a sleeveless dress, but every young girl who questions something she does to her body automatically – whether that be shave it, criticise it or paint it with make up – is a step in the direction of a more diverse, inclusive and less superficial society.
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