Our tangled relationship with body hair

When did you first feel conscious about your body hair?

I remember a shift in conversations in seventh grade. Boys started teasing girls for being hairy, and my girlfriends began frequently chatting about how it was so annoying that our moms wouldn’t let us wax or how lucky it was to be someone that wasn’t naturally hirsute.

When eighth grade came around and we were deemed “old enough” to wax, we entered arguably the most consistent habit of our lives — the once-a-month ritual of getting waxed at a beauty parlor. Hot wax, slap paper on, rub, yank off, repeat. Imagine my surprise then, when I moved to the US, to find that not only do most women here prefer to shave but that arm hair is a-okay in America. How crazy!

This got me thinking about why we are so conscious about body hair to begin with, and why is it necessary for women (and men) to wax, thread, trim, and shave?

As always, I started by interrogating the genetic history behind this. If we compare human body hair with that of our ape ancestors, the difference is stark. What prompted us to lose our fur and could evolution have lent a hand in our disgust with body hair?

Scientists have two plausible theories. The first one posits that we evolved to have less hair so we could keep cool in the hot savannah.

Once we left the shady trees of the jungle, humans spent most of their time roaming and hunting in grassy plains. Being out in the sun for so long meant that we risked overheating our furry bodies, and so, perhaps we lost our fur to thermoregulate our bodies more effectively.

Genetic evidence supports this theory as it is estimated that we became furless around 1.7 million years ago, which coincides with when our ancestor, Homo erectus, was living in the savannah.

A second theory for why we might have lost our fur has to do with reducing the prevalence of parasites.

A thick furry coat increases the likelihood of ticks, lice, biting flies and other parasites burrowing in, making it their home, and bringing skin irritation and disease.

As humans discovered fire, built shelters, and fashioned clothing from animal skins, they relied less on fur to keep them warm at night and perhaps, encouraged evolution away from fur so we could be parasite-free.

Interestingly, while we lost our hair on most of our body, we still retain it on our head and pubic areas. It’s not clear why this is the case but it’s likely that head hair was retained to protect us from the sun and pubic hair enables wafting of pheromones.

This link between hairlessness and a lower risk of parasites may be one factor in why we have a preference for no body hair. As humans look for the perfect mate, hairlessness may have become a signal for good health, hardwiring in us a positive response to being hairless.

Of course, beyond the biological causes behind why hairlessness may be preferred, a variety of social influences have shaped our relationship with body hair over the years.

If we look back in history, hair removal seems have to had utilitarian roots. During the Stone Age, shaving one’s hair off was a survival tactic, both for protecting against opponents grabbing your hair during a battle and from water freezing in hair against skin and causing frostbite.

Since the Stone Age, however, different cultures have evolved diverse norms around grooming and hair removal linked with hygiene, social status, and beauty.

In some cases, female body hair had strong links to social class and civility. In ancient Egypt, for example, women removed their body hair because it was seen as dirty and unhygienic. In fact, Cleopatra removed all her hair, even from her head, to display her superiority. The Egyptians were also pioneers in developing sugaring, the practice of using a sticky paste made from sugar, water and lemon juice to pull off body hair, which gave rise to waxing techniques used today.

On the other hand, during the Middle Ages, beauty standards for women evolved to covet a long forehead, resulting in women pushing back their hairlines and plucking away their eyebrows to create the illusion of a longer forehead.

An interesting contrast in hair removal norms can be observed when we examine the first interactions between American colonizers and Native Americans.

When colonizers first arrived, they were shocked by Native American practices around hair removal. For the colonizers, beards were linked with philosophical wisdom, and thus, they looked down on the Native Americans who plucked off their beard hair as soon as it grew. For the Native Americans, these practices were driven by norms around body hair being disgraceful and ‘hog-like.’

In the years following, however, colonialist norms around body hair shifted, likely influenced by Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection that proposed the aforementioned link between being hairlessness and reduced parasites and thus, an increased chance of survival. Thus, by the early 1900s, smooth, hair-free skin emerged as a desirable trait, especially for women.

This desire for hair-free skin was further magnified by capitalism.

As fashion evolved and hemlines receded, and as World War II caused a shortage of nylon that meant women had to go bare-legged without stockings, the demand for hair removal products surged.

During this time, Gillette introduced a women’s razor and hair removal creams became more popular. Ads in women’s magazines, media, and television built the market for these products by encouraging negative norms around hair growth and further shaped prevalent beauty standards.

For men, too, beauty standards have been closely linked with hair. While beard trends have seen a rise and fall over the years, average female preferences indicate a desire for no body hair (although, there is variation by culture).

Studies show that there may be biological links here. When women are shown different pictures of men with varying hair growth over time, results find that women prefer men with less facial hair when they are ovulating, further supporting the sexual selection hypothesis around hairlessness.

Today, social standards around hair removal are shifting again, with pushes from the feminist movement to take back control of female body hair, and work place standards relaxing to find facial hair more acceptable.

Hair removal today is becoming less of a chore and more of a choice.

And who knows, with quarantine minimizing the need to prioritize hair removal, maybe it will soon become a thing of the past?

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