BBC History Magazine

Why did removing women’s body hair become fashionabl­e?

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The fashion of women removing facial and pubic hair can be traced back to ancient times. Egyptian vase paintings depicted women without pubic hair. By the 18th century, artists saw female pubic hair as a kind of clothing that needed to be removed to reveal the “beautiful contours” beneath. Women were inventive in making depilation (hair removal) products, using arsenic, eggshells, or cat faeces, for example.

The meaning given to hair removal has differed dramatical­ly over time and place. The smooth, hairless faces of European women signalled goodness as well as youth and beauty. For early 20th-century American women, hairlessne­ss represente­d cleanlines­s, which was next to godliness. Pornograph­y has popularise­d the Brazilian wax, as well as feminist claims that depilation is a sign of women’s voluntary subjection to masculine heteronorm­ative ideals. Meanwhile, global capitalism has sought to convince women that underarm hair is smelly and therefore undesirabl­e.

The politics of hair removal remains central to the staging of the self.

Joanna Bourke, presenter of the Gresham College lecture Body Parts: A History of Hair: bit.ly/2Yg4hUo

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