The Secret History Of Hair Removal

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 a smorgasboard 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 Brazilians, the details get a little hazy.
While it's true that women (and men) have been shaving, waxing, sugaring and tweezing on and off since time immemorial, practices and aesthetics have varied wildly from generation to generation and across the globe. Read on to discover the weird and wonderful things our ancestors got up to when it came to their hair...
Cropped Cavewomen
Though in 2017 it’s fair to say that fuzz is a feminist issue, hair removal began with equality between the sexes. Archaeological evidence suggests that both female and male early humans shaved their head and facial hair to avoid frostbite. 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, teeth and sharp flints. And we thought dry shaving was bad.
Pharaohs' Facial Hair
Ancient Egyptians loved hair removal and we still use some of their methods today, including sugaring and waxing. Fortunately we've ditched the very much more unpleasant-sounding methods, including arsenic and quicklime.
History doesn't record every body hair trend of this time but we know royal ladies at least were into hair removal, as razors were found in Queen Hetepheres' tomb. But it wasn't all smooth sailing; female pharaoh Khentkawes I wore a false beard as part of her royal regalia.
Ancient Greek Unibrows
The hair removal continued in Europe, where Ancient Greek women were expected to have no pubic hair, as it was seen as 'uncivilised' to appear in the public baths with a full bush. Above the waist, though, hair was definitely in – including unibrows. Women would darken their brows and fill in any space between them not only with dye but also "dyed goat's hair...attached with tree resin". On fleek indeed.
Medieval Foreheads
By the Middle Ages, attitudes towards all body hair had done a complete turnaround. The edicts of the Catholic Church meant women were supposed to grow out their hair but not let any of it show in public, with some even plucking out their eyelashes to be more godly. By the 14th century this had become a fashion trend, with women shaving off their eyebrows and repainting them higher up, to make their face appear longer and more beautiful.
When Elizabeth I came to power in 1533, she dominated the brow game in England. Once she began dyeing her hair and brows strawberry blonde, women who wanted to be in her good books would do the same. Some even used rhubarb juice mixed with sulphuric acid on their eyebrows and eyelashes. Ouch.
17th-Century Sex Workers
Fashions 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 not in the know, a merkin is a wig placed on the vagina to replace natural pubic hair that's been removed. Sex workers in particular were likely to do this as as they didn’t want to catch pubic lice (who can blame them) but still wanted to please their male clients. Johns of the time apparently preferred a full bush (and who can blame them for that, either).
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 even said: "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.
Famous art critic John Ruskin fainted on his wedding night in 1848 – allegedly at the sight of his new wife’s pubic hair – thus never consummating the marriage. Although this rumour is much disputed, it can't be ruled out, and the silence around female body hair probably did lead to some extremely surprised Victorian virgins.
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 in 1915 Harper's Bazaar ran an advert for "the removal of objectionable hair", warning would-be flappers that "modern dancing" could lead them to flash too much underarm hair.
By the time WWII started, 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 skirt fashions, even led ladies to shave their legs and paint on a fake seam to recreate that stockinged leg look.
Mid-Century Mixed Messages
The 1960s were when things started to get pretty confused. The first wax strips hit the market and Raquel Welch's portrayal of a gleaming cavewoman in a deerskin bikini sent many women running to remove hair from almost everywhere. The fuzz-free swimsuit look continued until the 1970s, when the first safe electrolysis became available and some women were able to be hairless almost everywhere, from their face to their bikini line.
But the '60s and '70s was also the time of free love and a full bush – in 1972, The Joy of Sex brought illustrations of a distinctly unshaved 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 no room for body hair, anywhere. In the 21st century, Brazilian waxes hit the high street and the small screen; who can forget Carrie's wax on SATC or Amy Child famously introducing the nation to the 'vajazzle' on TOWIE?
It wasn't just our hair down there that we started to invest in; the UK brow industry was valued at £20 million in 2011, growing by £13.5 million in just five years. But the future of body hair might not be all about removal; Amber Rose's call to #bringbackthebush has inspired a whole Instagram movement whose followers can now invest in luxury pubic hair products as well. Big brows are back and bolder than ever, and icons like Harnaam Kaur are breaking down gender stereotypes every day.
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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