The Strange Secret History Of Hair Removal Will Blow Your Mind

Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images.
Raquel Welch on the set of One Million Years B.C.
From Rome to Peaky Blinders, the 21st century has blessed our Netflix accounts with an array of period dramas praised for their attention to historical detail. But somewhere between Elizabeth I's apparently on-fleek eyebrows and multiple 18th-century sex workers with full-on Brazilians, the details get a little hazy.
While it's true that people have been shaving, waxing, sugaring, and tweezing on and off since the beginning of time, practices — and preferences — have varied wildly from generation to generation and across the globe. Ahead, discover some of the weird and wonderful things our ancestors got up to when it came to their hair...
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Cropped Cavewomen
Though it’s fair to say that body fuzz is a feminist issue in 2017, hair removal began with equality between the sexes. Archaeological evidence suggests that both female and male early humans shaved their heads and facial hair to avoid frostbite from water becoming trapped and frozen against the skin. This was pre-history and well before the invention of the wax strip, though, so the main hair-removal method was a razor made from clam shells, animal teeth, and sharp flints. And we thought dry shaving was bad.
Pharaohs' Facial Hair
Ancient Egyptians were big fans of full-body hair removal, as they believed it was a signifier of hygiene and cleanliness — and we still use some of the methods they pioneered today, including waxing and sugaring. Archaeologists even discovered a razor alongside other toiletries in the tomb of Queen Hetepheres. (Fortunately, we've ditched the less appealing methods, like the early depilatory concoctions of arsenic and quicklime described in Victoria Sherrow's Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History.) But for the female "kings" of the time, sporting a tie-on false beard was common for lady pharaohs like Khentkawes I and her successor, Hatshepsut.
Ancient Greek Unibrows
The trend of hair removal continued into Europe, where Ancient Greek women were expected to remove their pubic hair. A full bush was considered "uncivilized," Sherrow writes, and the artists of the time did not show signs of pubic hair on statues portraying women. Above the waist, though, hair was definitely in — especially the prized unibrow — and women used powdered minerals or soot to darken and define their brows. Meanwhile, in Rome, some women were actually fashioning fake brows made of fur, as Michael Sims describes in Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form — with both Ovid and Petronius referring to the practice in their writings.
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For the female "kings" of [Ancient Egypt], sporting a tie-on false beard was common for lady pharaohs.

Medieval Foreheads
By the Middle Ages, the attitude toward all body hair had taken a complete U-turn. The edicts of the Catholic Church meant women were supposed to grow out their hair as a display of femininity but keep it completely concealed when in public. As Paul B. Newman writes in Daily Life in the Middle Ages, wealthy and fashionable women of the 14th century started plucking the hair from their foreheads in order to raise the front of their hairlines, creating the illusion of a higher forehead and an elongated face.
When the flame-haired Elizabeth I came to power in 1533, she revolutionized the brow game in England. Many of her subjects chose to dye their hair and brows similar shades of strawberry blonde, with some using a corrosive mixture of rhubarb juice and oil of vitriol (now called sulfuric acid) to lighten theirs. Ouch.
17th-Century Sex Workers
Trends of all sorts come and go, and by the 17th century, women were loving a bit of fake hair down there. In 1714, Alexander Smith wrote in A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen about "the hairy circle of [a] prostitute’s Merkin."
For those who are unfamiliar, a merkin is a wig placed on the vagina to replace natural pubic hair that's been removed, which was common practice among sex workers who didn't want to catch pubic lice — and also those who had something to hide under there, in the days before penicillin.
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Victorian Virgins
During the 18th and 19th centuries, women were again expected to display as little open sexuality as possible, and that included showing no body hair under long sleeves and even longer skirts. One Victorian doctor, William Acton, was even quoted as saying, "The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind." Clearly, he had never watched The L Word.
There's a very famous, very long-standing rumor that John Ruskin, England's leading art critic of the time, left his five-year marriage unconsummated as he fainted on his wedding night in 1848, allegedly at the sight of his new wife's pubic hair. While much-disputed, the tale can't be ruled out — and the silence around female body hair probably did leave some Victorian virgins extremely surprised.

The shortage of nylon during [World War II], combined with the shorter skirts in fashion, even led ladies to shave their legs and paint on a fake seam to recreate the look of stockings.

20th-Century Baldness Begins
The turn of the 20th century brought in a new age of hair removal. The first women's branded razor, the Milady Décolleté, hit the open market, and an advertisement for depilatory powder, published in a 1915 issue of Harper's Bazaar, advised "the removal of objectionable hair," warning would-be flappers that "Summer Dress and Modern Dancing" could lead them to flash too much underarm hair.
By the time World War II began, women were shaving regularly, as well as plucking their eyebrows to get those perfect '30s pencil-thin arches. The shortage of nylon during the war, combined with the shorter skirts in fashion, even led ladies to shave their legs and paint on a fake seam to recreate the look of stockings.
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Mid-Century Mixed Messages
Things started to get a little more complicated in the 1960s, when the first modern wax strips hit the market, and Raquel Welch's iconic portrayal of a prehistoric cavewoman wearing nothing but a bikini made from the skin and hide of a deer sent many women running to remove hair from almost everywhere.
The fuzz-free swimsuit trend continued until the 1970s as the first "safe" electrolysis was approved, and some women jumped at the chance to be hairless from head-to-toe. But at the same time, the '60s and '70s were also the decades of free love and a full bush — in 1972, The Joy of Sex brought illustrations of a distinctly unshaven woman's genitalia into almost every home.
A Bald Brave New World?
The close of the 20th century was a chilly time for body hair: Fashion trends like '80s Daisy Dukes and '90s micro-minis meant there was just no room for body hair. In the 21st century, Brazilian waxes hit the real world and the small screen: Who can forget the infamous Carrie-gets-a-wax scene from Sex and the City, or the time that Jennifer Love Hewitt devoted a chapter in her book to all matters of vajazzling?
It wasn't just our hair down there that we started to invest in; the brow industry more than tripled in value from 2011 to 2016. But the future of body hair might not be all about how to get rid of it: Amber Rose's call to #bringbackthebush, for example, has inspired a whole Instagram movement, while even Emma Watson has given the thumbs-up to luxury pubic-hair grooming products. Big brows are back and bolder than ever, and inspiring icons like activist Harnaam Kaur are breaking down gender stereotypes every day.
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Perhaps the most game-changing body hair trend of 2018 won't be how much fuzz women have, but the freedom to grow whatever the hell we want, wherever we want.
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