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The Normalisation of Hair Free Female Bodies

Talking to a beautician friend about hair removal and summer beautification regimes led to a discussion about fashions in bikini waxing and hair removal.  Interestingly she said she had noticed generational differences in the requirements of her clients with younger women often requesting more extreme waxing regimes with either total hair removal or only a small patch left.  When asking about the reasons for this, she said young women told her that this was what the bodies of the women in the images widely available online looked like and this expectation led these women to seek French waxes, Brazilian waxes, or the Hollywood.  Young women also recounted that these were the images that the men in their lives saw and there was an expectation about levels of personal grooming and hair removal amongst both younger men and women.  While this is anecdotal it raises questions about beautification regimes and how and why women feel the need, or expectation, that they should remove ever increasing swathes of body hair in the quest for beauty, or even simply acceptance.

In a study published in 2005, Merran Toerien and colleagues found that over 99% of UK women in their study engaged in at least some hair removal, mostly via shaving or plucking.  This led them to suggest that  “hair removal is part of the taken-for-granted work of producing an ‘acceptable’ femininity”.  This is undoubtably the case across large parts of the world, and there is a long history of female body hair removal.  As far back as ancient Rome and Egypt female body hair removal has been documented.  It is even suggested that the practice may have been popularised in more recent times by Charles Darwin’s 1871 book Descent of Man where it was suggested that homo sapiens have less body hair than his/her antecedents because less hairy mates were more sexually attractive’.  Whether this was the driver or not, by the early 1900s white middle and upper-class American women were associating hairless skin (although notably with a focus on the legs and armpits) with ‘desirable femininity’ and performing the necessary actions to achieve this state.

More recently there has been a significant body of work focusing on the emergence of a more groomed, polished, increasingly hairless and overtly sexualised version of femininity that has become the norm and is better encapsulated, amongst other things, in the growth and normalisation of extreme grooming practices.  This can be seen in the emergence of a range of books published over the past few years, the forerunner of which was probably Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’.  This makes the case that manufactured ideals of female beauty permeate society and are used as a way of controlling women, and that increasingly men are being drawn into the beauty myth with that male grooming is also becoming normalised (think Nivea body shaving advert and Liverpool footballers in the shower).

In  ‘Living Dolls’, Natasha Walters argues that the very terms used in the early wave feminist movement to fight for equality (empowerment, liberation and choice) are now being used as a way of promoting an increasingly narrow sexualised, groomed and airbrushed version of femininity.  This is echoed in other work, for example, the practice of vajazzling has been heralded by some as a way of reclaiming the female sexualised body, in line with the development of pole dancing as an exercise choice.  This view of emancipation and choice is encapsulated in a piece by Emily Hill in the Spectator in 2015 which it is seriously argued that feminism is over now women are largely equalling or outperforming men (itself highly contentious).  Hill further argues that feminists now merely sneer at working-class women who ‘flaunt their beautiful bodies’ and that they are taking the fun out of being a woman using ‘lipstick, high heels and killer hairdos’ as ‘legitimate weapons in [their] arsenal’.  The argument seems here to be that women’s choices about clothing, hair and makeup are not shaped by the nature of the society in which they live and the representations of the female body that they are surrounded by.

But is it all harmless fun, women simply choosing to use their femaleness to advantage?  Protests from the ‘slutwalks’ to the #thisiswhatascientistslookslike twitter campaign suggest that there is more to it.   Let’s refocus on extreme waxing.  In an article in the Guardian Wiseman argued that in the late 1990s a Brazillian was something that glamorous film stars had done that was discussed in glossy magazines.  Over the past decade, this practice has become normalised with a growth in waxing salons, and ever more extreme hair removal from the Brazilian to the Hollywood to the full Showgirl.  Alongside this has emerged an increasing demand for labial plastic surgery as the gaze moves from the quantity of hair to what lies underneath.

This is not just worrying in relation to the trend for hairlessness and the implications of this as the promotion of the image of a prepubescent female body.  There are also health implications of waxing.  A recent study by researchers at John Hopkins, the University of Texas and the Tufts Medical Centre found that microscopic tears in the skin caused by waxing can make someone more prone to infection, and particularly HPV, herpes simplex virus, and molluscum contagiosum. Wiseman also suggests that as images of hairless adult female bodies become the norm across the media and internet more widely, more women will feel compelled to conform to this normalised idea, perpetuating the guilt and shame felt by those who do not wish to do so and further stigmatising body hair.  This is supported by recent work (see for example Stone et al’s work on motivations for pubic hair removal)  linking the current availability and influence of free online porn on female body image and expectations.

This takes us full circle back to the anecdotal evidence of the young women facing pressure to have body hair removed to meet increasingly extreme (potentially sexualised) expectations of body image.  And this is clearly part of a wider picture.  At the more benign end, there are the snapchat selfies with added animal ears and noses which aim to be cute but also artificially make skin completely smooth and flawless. At the other end, there are 17-year-old girls who feel compelled to have every area of body hair ripped out at the roots in the quest to avoid the shame and stigma attached to visible body hair and to achieve an idealised fantasy body.  Far from heralding the end of feminism, and the arrival of equality, choice and empowerment, this suggests a very real need to revisit the work of second-wave feminists on the objectification of the female body within a patriarchal society and the normalisation of creating a female body fit for a male gaze.