Fashion + Body Image

A Hairy Situation: The History and Modern Tropes of the Hairy Woman

By Madalena Juma

It’s lockdown. Naturally, you might have let things go. You’re eating whatever the heck you want. Maybe not exercising as much. You don’t have the pressures of the outside world looking in so maybe you forego your shaving/waxing routines. Who’s going to see?

Time passes, and now you can’t remember when you last shaved. Suddenly- you are aware. Aware of all the… foliage growing. You panic. May even go into a mini crisis. Women aren’t meant to be so hairy, surely?? What you see before you isn’t shown in the media… Even adverts for female razors (bar one or two- check out Project Body Hair by Billie!) don’t show hairy women! The models are bizarrely dragging the razor over their already hairless skin (also, ouch!).

It’s not a topic many women feel comfortable bringing up. It’s like we have to keep up this pretence that we don’t naturally have any hairs by ‘dealing’ with them, but we also have to burn and hide any evidence of ‘dealing’ with them too. By not creating that space for discussion, so many of us feel enclosed within a singular, narrow option for the perception of our own body hairs. So it’s time to open that space up. Let’s start with a little history tour. How and why did hairless women become the Western norm? 

Pre-19th century

Funnily enough, Europeans’ first thought on Native American hair removal was one of bafflement and intrigue- they didn’t understand why Native Americans would go through such painstaking processes. Unsurprisingly, this practice became an obsessive concern for Europeans that the Native Americans wouldn’t be able to conform to European living, and so was made to be an alien behaviour. So… how did the tables get turned so violently?

19th century

The emergence of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution paved the way for social Darwinism- a belief that the principles of Darwin’s theory can explain differences and ‘superiority’/’inferiority’ between human races. This has been used in the past to defend social inequalities, and at its very worst, eugenics and genocide. So it was proposed that races with supposedly hairier individuals (those from the colonised world) were less evolved and more akin to our ape relatives due to the hairs.

Xenophobia in Western countries led to fear among the White population of losing superiority in everything. One being beauty. White women had to be the most superior, the default and definitive beauty. A way to cling to that and exclude other races and certain immigrants was to emphasise the hairless, pale, soft skin of the White woman.

To be clear, this generalisation is NOT absolute. There are always exceptions to this rule, but in order for this selective and White supremist beauty standard to work, it was necessary to generalise. Not only this, but there was the added pressure of class difference, and working-class women were also included in this list of women to differentiate from. So body hair carried with it all the stigma of race and class stereotypes and anxieties.

Since then, people of colour (PoC) and/or from working-class backgrounds sometimes also themselves propagate the same negative narration about body hair in an attempt to protect themselves and their race/background from being associated with further ‘negativity’.

For the longest time I resented my Indian heritage for my hairs (as I’m mixed race White and Asian) and started developing a negative self-image regarding my race, even. I felt it further deviated me from the beauty ideal I grew up seeing, and the rest of the white British population.

Something we need to understand is that being hairless is an EXCLUSIVE beauty standard, unattainable by many, which can lead us to question our OWN selves and bodies before we question the beauty ideals and the realistic nature of them.

20th century

Body hairs are actually intrinsically linked to fashion in many ways, one being that as fashion evolved to reveal more skin (through styles such as the ‘flapper girls’), women shaved more of it to appear more socially acceptable. Ironic that such a style meant to empower the woman in her sexuality ended up equally controlling her by spotlighting the demonised body hair. This is because there were tropes that by then were so established of body hair being symptomatic of criminal, sexual and mental deviance, and more.

Let’s have a look at some of these tropes and myths that have remained through a troubling history that need debunking…

Common Tropes:

  • Hairy women are witches/radical feminists. The images of witches and feminists are of powerful women who take things into their own hands and do what they want. This power is often seen as intimidating to a patriarchal society- one needs only to look into the history of such people to see that persecution of them was due to a fear of ‘overthrowal’. But these comments are hurled as insults to make the hairy victim feel different; to alienate them; to put them further outside the box we claim to be definitive of normality. Well, when we think outside the box, that’s when creative and revolutionary ideas can come.
  • Hairy women are masculine. It is an incorrect belief that only men have body hair. The devaluation of an individual’s femininity due to the presence of hair is absurd when you think about it. Plus, this comment reflects the double standards of our society, believing that the same attributes given to body hair on men (power, sexual maturity, etc.) cannot be given to women.
  • Hairy women are ape-like or bestial. Many hairy women might have recollections of being called certain names that reflect this- I was called a gorilla, for example. These words hold within them vestiges of history and ties with social Darwinism. These insults are relics of the past, and frankly, have no place in our modern world.
  • Having hairs is dirty/unhygienic. Not true. Pubic hair, for example, directly reduces pathogen and bacterial spread. As long as one cleans their body hair well, there is no issue. This commentary is synonymous with the commentary sometimes used to describe PoC, immigrants, and working-class people THEMSELVES, an example of a race/class stereotype that body hairs, in association with said people, had to then bear.
  • Hairy women are ugly/unsexy. Iran’s perception of beauty in the 19th century was, perhaps surprising to us now, a woman with heavy brows (monobrows even) and faint moustaches. Women would go so far as to accentuate their facial hairs with makeup. Yet, with increased linkage with the West, Iran changed their beauty standards in line with more Western thinking. This is important because if the West is seen as the pinnacle of forward thinking, so then should our thinking on body hair be. Furthermore, some African tribes view female body hair as powerful, perceiving the women as erotic and desirable. Beauty standards, then, are changeable depending on where you go. This should prove that there is no one ‘right’ form of beauty. If we take this thought and apply it to arguments that not shaving is a ‘crazy, illogical feminist thing to do’, going against the status quo might not be quite so crazy as people may think. Arguably, what is more ‘illogical’ is to stick with what your society has told you and blindly follow it, unquestioning.
  • Female body hair is a medical problem. There are terms given that pathologize ‘excess’ body hair, like ‘hypertrichosis’ and ‘hirsutism’. The danger with this is that the boundaries of what’s ‘normal’ and ‘excessive’ are medically defined (also, by whom??) which can be very damaging to one’s self-regard.

I personally have hirsutism, meaning a female having the terminal hair growth pattern of a male. Having a name to the situation legitimises cause for concern and worsened my self-esteem because I would then compare myself to Google images of other ‘sufferers’ to see how ‘affected’ I was, and spent a lot of time crying afterwards because I felt WRONG.

While I feel that women are shaving more, we are also at a point where we question and challenge beauty standards more, and body hair should get a revisit. Being honest here myself, I have a long way to go with my relationship with my body hairs. Though I am letting some hairs be, I still struggle a lot with other areas, and am considering laser treatment. This is because due to the hirsutism, I feel abnormal STILL for a hairy woman.

I am by no means a role model to follow. But I’m learning and getting better. At the end of the day everyone has free choice over their body and I encourage that completely- I just want to also encourage reflectivity and honesty to self over said choices. I finally want to gently remind people that body hair issues (from having too little/too much) can be faced by any and everybody. We all need to be kinder to each other and think twice before we throw a stone.

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