The human relationship with hair has been a subject of conversation since at least the ancient Egyptians, if not even longer. Evidence found in various sites show that the Egyptians removed almost all their body hair, even going so far as replacing head hair with elaborate wigs. Their removal method of choice was a sharp tool and moisturising lubricant.
Later on, the Greeks and Romans committed to art, literature and sculpture their ideas of beauty as hairless, muscular men. Michelangelo infamously avoiding any indication of hair on the chests of his sculptures and art, causing a small artistic revolution in his depiction of genitalia and pubic hair on his masterpiece, “David”. Men with body hair were often reviled, likened to satyrs or to the more bestial of the gods. Ideal standards of Male beauty were hairless.
Despite these classical images, the species has had an “on again - off again” relationship with body hair throughout its history. Paintings and sculptures are a primary source of understanding the society’s relationship with hair, especially within the concept of masculine and feminine. Images of burly, hairy men as masculine heroes are iconic - the song “Gaston” from the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast is a good example of how those standards varied at different periods of time.
“For there's no one as burly and brawny
As you see I've got biceps to spare
Not a bit of him's scraggly or scrawny
And ev'ry last inch of me's covered with hair!”
“Gaston” song and lyrics are the property of Disney.
One thing has remained constant however - that men and women have consistently judged by different standards on body hair, as with so many other things. Whether from an aesthetic point of view or from beliefs on how men and women should conform to expectations about their gender roles, body hair has been a talking point for a very, very long time.
For women, body hair issues seem to historically revolve around the idea of hygiene, which appear to have risen from local customs across the world. The message that female body hair is unwanted, unattractive and so on is not new, as can be clearly seen in paintings of women going back millennia. However, as women’s clothing standards changed, the parts of the body which fell into the “unattractive” spectrum due to body hair increased as well.
Aided by the growth of mass media and advertising of products to help hair removal, the custom for shaving, depilation and plucking has become mainstream and accepted. In one of the most famous cases, the success of an early form of antiperspirant was achieved almost entirely through marketing convincing women that their body odour was making them unattractive to men.
In the 20th century, western women moved away from the practice of almost completely covering their bodies with clothing. Until then, only the face was really visible in terms of “unwanted body hair” - what a lady did beneath her gowns and corsets was never discussed in public! However, as hemlines rose and sleeves disappeared, the amount of publicly visible hair increased and received the same harsh judgement as any other unwanted hair on a woman - unclean, unattractive, and unwanted.
Today, female body hair has become another battleground in the war for control over the female form. Hair removal is a multi-billion dollar industry - as shown by a glance at the top results for a search for “hair removal products” on Google as this article was written
Unfortunately, the days of women being shamed or bullied by advertising into buying products from advertisers is far from over. Models are shown as sculpted, body hair free and beautiful; additional evidence of unrealistic standards of beauty as this article rather satirically points out. That link is to a thought piece on Huffington post about why, in female shaving commercials, women are always shown shaving an already hairless leg.
There are stirrings of rebellion however, especially amongst female celebrities and public figures who loathe the hair removal rigmarole. Probably famous equally for both her powerful music and hatred of shaving, The Dresden Dolls Amanda Palmer caused an internet storm-in-a-teacup by attending The Golden Globes in her usual unique style and unapologetically hairy armpits. Sophia Loren was photographed several times with armpit hair, and more recently, Madonna has joined the no-shaving club.
Who knows - perhaps the articles in the press and debates on Buzzfeed and social media are simply a recreation of arguments held in bathhouses and social gatherings in ancient Rome or Greece?! One thing is clear - body hair across all genders is a modern battleground, with the media creating propaganda for both sides, and a major industry in the firing line.