According to the newly-published Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, more than 99 percent of American women remove their body hair, and upwards of 85 percent commit to a regular removal practice. Author Rebecca M. Herzig says the most commonly targeted areas are the legs, underarms, eyebrows, upper lip, and bikini line.
And get this: Over the course of a lifetime, the average American woman who regularly shaves will spend more than $10,000 on the ritual, while those who wax once or twice a month will spend an average of $23,000. So what drives us to burn that kind of cash on this now seemingly standard grooming practice?
“American women who choose not to obsess with removing their hair learn pretty quickly that there is a social price to pay for breaking that norm,” Herzig tells WomensHealthMag.com. “It’s not just that women are teased, scolded, or shamed for not removing their hair—for ‘not taking care of themselves’—but also that women have been fired from jobs, lost relationships, been barred from social events, and so on,” adds the historian, who is chair of the program in women and gender studies at Bates College in Maine.
In the 1970s, when women’s activists (a.k.a. feminists) stopped shaving their armpits and legs, hairiness became a “thing,” a sign of a liberation movement. Over time, though, the presence of hair in these places has appeared to morph from a declaration of independence into a subversive anarchist statement, with all kinds of negative implications. In fact, you’ve probably heard the stereotypes about feminists being man-haters or unattractive, adding to the cloud of disgust around female body hair.
That’s because smooth, hairless skin is often seen as a sign of youth—and traditional femininity, says Mary Pritchard, Ph.D., a body image expert in the psychology department at Boise State University. “I think our obsession with body hair is tied to our obsession with youth,” she says. So by removing hair, women may be sending signals of a young, sexual prime. “Women tend to favor more rugged and hairier men during ovulation, and they want to be perceived as more feminine—and less hairy—during their fertile time,” explains Pritchard.
While armpit hair on women has always been more socially acceptable in countries like France, the desire for smoother skin has crossed borders to become an all but universal trend today, says Herzig—because of that desire to look young and conform to convential notions of attraction.
You’ll still see rumbles of the disco era’s hairy trend emerge here and there via social media, however. Take, for example, the recent barrage of people letting their pit hair grow and dyeing it bright colors. “But overall, the broad trend is definitely toward overall hairlessness, across genders and ethnicities—even the avatars people create in virtual worlds tend to be hairless,” says Herzig.
There is one area where the pendulum has thoroughly swung back, though, says Marla Malcolm Beck, CEO and co-founder of Bluemercury, where she also serves as a market buyer of products that reflect consumer beauty trends of the moment.
“A fuller brow is definitely in—think Cara Delevingne,” she says, referencing the English fashion model whose unruly brows have stormed the fashion world and inspired legions of bushy fans. In-store experts are actually working with customers to determine the best way to grow out and groom fuller brows by popular demand, says Malcolm Beck. So, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that having leg hair will someday become the norm. That sure would save us all a lot of time and energy, huh?
As with most beauty trends, it seems our cultural obsession with hairiness is not actually rooted in fact, but the social message it conveys about attractiveness and what it means to be a woman today.