This is part 4 in my “No-Shave Experiment” mini-series. Here’s part 1 – the reveal, 1a – a call for personal experience, part 2 – the rant, and part 3 – the reflection.
Back in September 2015, I finally finished reading Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, by Rebecca Herzig. I typed my notes into a draft blog post and it sat there for many months. Lately, I’ve felt the need for some closure on this “No-Shave Experiment”, begun in November 2014 (because it’s really not an experiment for me any more) and so I’m going to try to push through and finish the final three posts in the series.
Rather than try to mold my notes (taken almost 18 months ago) into any sort of coherent report, I’ve organized them into categories but just left them in note form. For the most part, these are my own summaries of what I read. Sentences/phrases in quotation marks are taken directly from Plucked. (Any errors in the quotations are definitely mine.)
Hair Removal (HR) through the ages:
- Overall impression: hair removal as both racist and sexist (the more hairy the person, the more crass, visible body hair = “dirty foreigner”)
- HR among non-native women in the US started around 1910/15 as hemlines started to rise – considered essential for sleeveless gowns
- HR as a way for middle-class American women to “separate oneself from cruder …lower class, and immigrant [people]”
- shaving = with the need for private bathroom/indoor plumbing, therefore a mark of the well-off
- By 1938, for women, any hair not on scalp is considered excessive. Also, Gilette’s need to sell more shaving stuff after World War 1 (to keep up higher sales due to the bare faces needed for gas masks) motivated them to start advertising to women. Advertising avoiding mention of blade and instead referring to “caring for niceties of personal habit.” Shortages of nylon/silk in WWII meant women started to go bare-legged and wanted to maintain the look of stockings, hence needing to shave.
Hair Removal (HR) in more recent times:
- unshaven armpits as political statement – feminism, symbolic reminder of the often “repetitive, expensive and often invisible labor of maintaining hair-free flesh” – either as trivial nuisance or very embodiment of women’s oppression.
- For advocates of Black Power and Black Nationalists, revised treatment of head hair became a vital element of resistance to racist perceptions of beauty and Eurocentric standards of appearance. [I think that this was a direct quote from the book because they don’t sound like my words but I didn’t have the quotes in my notes so I’m not sure.]
- “The treatment of armpit, facial, or leg hair…provide women’s liberationists with a malleable and visible symbol of their commitment to the ‘natural,’ unconfined body. Simply by ceasing shaving, advocate of women’s rights might quickly establish their identification with larger social movements.”
- Another [maddening] example of “gendered social control”: the forcible, mandatory shaving of pubic hair at the beginning of labor. (This is a practice that thankfully has almost completely died but still makes me furious to think about it happening.)
- “visible body hair on women signals political extremism” – like the radical PETA activist in the [possibly a hoax] NRA advertisement.
- “If God gave it to me, why should I shave it off?” (A question I ask myself a lot and found it interesting to see it expressed in this book, not written at all from a Christian viewpoint.)
- About waxing: Waxing depends on “conversion of petroleum waste into valuable by-product” – i.e waxing is NOT a carbon-neutral activity. The Brazilian wax came out of porn (if everyone has shaved legs, how can we make porn more shocking?). Waxing brands/formulas are not regulated like cosmetics (i.e. no mandatory testing procedures). Brazilian waxing is SO incredibly painful for the client but also bad for the workers (repetitive strain injuries, noxious chemicals/fumes) and primarily depends on cheap immigrant labor.
On why people say they shave
- “Over time, hairlessness, once perceived as characteristic “deficiency of the continents” (i.e. of indigenous peoples), [has become] normalized – a persistent standard of health, beauty, cleanliness, and desirability.”
- “When asked, however, Americans tend to downplay the influence of such norms and values [see above]. Instead they attribute their own hair removal practices to “personal” goals of increased attractiveness, elevated self-esteem, and enhanced sexual pleasure.” They attribute their decisions to personal choice, individual freedom = the “right” to shave (To which I have to thing: Really?!?! – as in, you’re glad to have the right to spend a bunch of money and time taking hair off your body?)
“The uneven effects of “personal” enhancements are distributed broadly, temporally, and geographically. Those uneven effects, moreover, are routinely excluded from ethical and political debates. Plucked is,first and foremost, a call to remember those excluded others: the staggering volumes of sweat and blood and imagination and fear expended to produce a single hairless chin.”
As you can probably tell from my editorial asides, I just kept getting more annoyed, the further into the book I read. If you’re interested in the history of hair removal, I really do highly recommend reading the whole book. I’ve barely scratched the surface with these notes.
P.S. Want to read more? Check out this article in The Atlantic. It quotes quite a bit from Plucked and the comments section was really fascinating to me. (I NEVER read the comments section these days but got sucked into this one for some reason.)
Still to come: the [anecdotal] RESEARCH and the RESOLUTION (Can you guess what it will be?)