In her Elle.com article “History of Hair Removal,” Taylor Barringer states that removing hair goes back to the Roman Empire. During this era “the lack of body hair was considered a sign of the classes.” Barringer explains that, much like today, “wealthy women and men used razors made from flints, tweezers, creams, and stones to remove excess hair.”
How did this ancient obsession with bare skin become a cultural norm in modern times? More importantly, why did society decide to remove hair from a part of the body that is basically hidden under another body part?
The answer, just like with leg shaving, is fashion.
The 20th century brought about a lot of change in women’s fashion. In their article “Pit Stop: A Quick History Of Women & Shaving,” female-centric blog Women You Should Know explains that no one ever paid any attention to underarms until around 1915. In fact, WYSK states that “even the word ‘underarm’ was considered scandalous, what with it being so near certain other interesting body parts.” Perhaps that’s why the sleeveless dress was invented in the first place.
Sleeveless garments quickly became a major fashion trend despite revealing some, apparently, sexual parts of a woman’s body. WYSK explains that “an ad in the fashion mag Harper’s Bazaar decreed that to wear it (and certainly to wear it while participating in “Modern Dancing”), women would need to first see to ‘the removal of objectionable hair.'” Lauren R. Harrison notes in her Chicago Tribune article “Shaving and fashion: A storied history,” that the 20th century saw “sheerer fabrics became fashionable and hemlines rose” to reveal even more skin.
Women quickly embraced Harper’s Bazaar‘s advice, most likely because of how easy it had become for women to remove “objectionable hair.” Barringer notes that in 1915 Gillette debuted the Milady Decolletée, the world’s first women’s razor. Despite this revolution, hair removal creams were still a major industry as “the early 1900’s also saw ads for depilatory cream hit the masses.”
Sheer fabrics and sleeveless garments stayed in style for years, and their hair removal techniques did not waver throughout the years. By the 1920s “a leading women’s fashion magazine ran an ad featuring a woman with her arms raised and her armpits bare,” thus solidifying these trends as lasting fashions rather than passing fads.
By the 1950s bare underarms were the norm in America. Hair removal creams were still too harsh to be completely comfortable for the masses, so razors were the number one choice for body hair. This all changed when wax strips were introduced in the 1960s. Today there are many more options. Traditional razors are still popular as well as waxing and hair removal creams for sensitive skin, but laser hair removal has come farther than any other method. While it was too unreliable when first used in the 1960s, today it is the favored hair removal method of women all over America.
Despite remaining a cultural norm, not shaving underarm hair is also a major trend for women in the United States. Harrison explains that since shaving is seen as a feminine act, since the 1970s accepting women’s body hair, including underarm hair, has become the “litmus test of feminism,” as well as other things.
Whether you shave your underarms to follow cultural norms or because you simply enjoy smooth skin, consider taking a break during No-Shave November just to see if the grass is greener on the other side. And for those of you who don’t shave, be it for feminism or to protest a culture that does not accept nature or a natural state of being, keep the spirit of No-Shave November alive and wait to see how the other side lives until December.
istolethetv. confident. 24 Jun. 2007. Online image. Flickr. 12 Nov. 2014. https://flic.kr/p/YbHMk