In the last 30 years, a clean-shaven body has become an important feature of the western image of femininity, and it is thought that over 99% of women in the Western culture remove hair through one means or other. The image of a smooth, bald female body is one we are all familiar with, but why is this the ideal, when it is the exact opposite of what is natural?
According to Anneke Smelik, author of ‘A close shave: The taboo on female body hair’, the trend for bare bodies is positively correlated with fashion’s tendency to show more skin. We associate armpit hair with sweat and pubic hair with excretion and urination, this creates a sense of repulsion, which makes hair seem ‘dirty’ and increases our desire to remove it. Moreover, body hair is linked to our ape ancestry and hair removal can create a boundary between us and animals, which makes us seem more sophisticated and evolved.
However, this does not explain why men are not subject to the same beauty standards. Although male grooming is gaining more prominence in society, beard maintenance and chest waxing are more popular than they were 10 years ago, men are still not frowned upon for displaying hair in the way women are.Seen from some feminist’s perspectives, this is due to the fact that hair removal is a result of the patriarchy. Being clean-shaven is depicted in many adverts as a way to please men, through this both men and women learn to react negatively to female body hair. The advertisers’ new definition of what it is to be a woman is a way of defining gender characteristics and controlling femininity. This suggests the taboo has been created in order to marginalise and control women.
This relates to Freud’s idea of the ‘horror’ of the female body. Psychologists suggest that hair-removal has gained popularity, particularly in porn, due to a fear of adult female sexuality. Hairless bodies are childlike, when this image is transposed onto an adult female body, it can make women seem less mature, more vulnerable, or even submissive, as well as more familiar and safe.
The imitation of a childlike body also fits in with the current beauty goals of appearing ‘forever young’. There are numerous products on the market from anti-ageing make up remover wipes to Botox, expressly designed with the aim of giving the aura of youth. Some sociologists put this down to the cold-hearted approach of businesses and advertising agencies, whose sole purpose is to generate profit. They use advertising and commercials to sell us the dream of a bare-bodied beauty.
Although it’s impossible to say which of these factors contributes the most towards the taboo against female hair anywhere but the head, which contrastingly epitomises female beauty, none of the reasons can fully justify body hair removal. It, therefore, seems clear that we need to concentrate more effort on removing the stigma against it and the double standards between men and women, than the body hair itself. Body hair is natural for both men and women, and whilst there is nothing wrong with removing it, we should not be judged for deciding not to.