Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

28 October, 2006

Whither the Pubes?

(To Part 1.)

Answering this is actually quite difficult as social scientists don't seem to have actually attempted to find one for this specific question. However, they have examined the removal of women's body hair generally but have only done a handful of studies (that I could find, anyway). It's like science knows more about the lives of ants than it does about why women labor to remove all of their body hair. Reading the studies and other articles, it seems like pubic hair removal is, pardon the pun, an outgrowth of the "normal" practice of women removing their leg & underarm hair; this wasn't really something that came out of the blue, but is, rather, an extension of pre-existing norms.



The Christopher Columbus of this area of study is one Christine Hope. Her name appeared constantly in discussions about women and their depilation practices. While there were those before her who noted a "hairless ideal" for women and that the lack of body hair was considered feminine, she seems to be the first person to go out and try to find out why this was. The result was "Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture" which appeared in the Spring 1982 issue of the Journal of American Culture. I wasn't able to find a free copy of the article and wasn't going to pay $29 for one. However, it is quoted liberally in other pieces and I found that I was already familiar with her thesis. Uncle Cecil from The Straight Dope used Hope's research to answer "Who decided women should shave their legs and underarms?". I should note that Hope did not survey women about why they removed their hair. Instead she looked at the ads in issues of Harper's Bazaar, McCall's, the Sears catalogue, and the like from the years 1915-1945 to suss out the normal conception of beauty as it related to women and their body hair during these years.

According to Hope, the underarm campaign began in May, 1915, in Harper's Bazaar, a magazine aimed at the upper crust. The first ad "featured a waist-up photograph of a young woman who appears to be dressed in a slip with a toga-like outfit covering one shoulder. Her arms are arched over her head revealing perfectly clear armpits. The first part of the ad read `Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.'"


(The first razor for women – Gillette's Milady Decollete.)


("A necessity for the well groomed woman")


Next came the assault on the legs:

The anti-leg hair campaign was more fitful. The volume of leg ads never reached the proportions of the underarm campaign. Women were apparently more ambivalent about calling attention to the lower half of their anatomy, perhaps out of fear that doing so would give the male of the species ideas in a way that naked underarms did not.

Besides, there wasn't much practical need for shaved legs. After rising in the 1920s hemlines dropped in the 30s and many women were content to leave their leg hair alone.

Still, some advertisers as well as an increasing number of fashion and beauty writers harped on the idea that female leg hair was a curse.

Though Hope doesn't say so, what may have put the issue over the top was the famous WWII pinup of Betty Grable displaying her awesome gams. Showing off one's legs became a patriotic act. That plus shorter skirts and sheer stockings, which looked dorky with leg hair beneath, made the anti-hair pitch an easy sell.




It seems that, before 1915, women generally didn't find their normal body hair to be a problem and nor, apparently, did men. Then along came clothes with very short or no sleeves and suddenly underarm hair became "superfluous", "ugly", "unwanted", and "unfashionable". These ads were aimed at white women and they often touted the benefits of shaving using the phrase "smooth and white". An advertisement by Dunsworth Laboratories, who presumably made some kind of depilatory, read: "Freedom from Unwanted Hair Opens the Gates to Social Enjoyments that are Forever Closed to Those so Afflicted". Afflicted with what? Being human?



As Hope noted, it was really in the post-World War II timeframe that the "hairless norm" took hold. While most women traipsed towards it with a razor in hand, there were others who were seemingly so desperate to be "normal" that they headed to the back alley for "X-ray epilation". This meant that they exposed themselves to harmful doses of radiation all in the name of hair removal. (Their desperation was later termed "North American Hiroshima maiden syndrome".) And some women paid the ultimate price for their pursuit – death.

In addition to linking hair removal to advertising campaigns and fashion trends, the literature on the topic also tends to speculate that patriarchal imperatives and biases are involved. In the preface to her study "Women and Their Body Hair", Susan Basow notes:

As middle-class women moved out of their "separate sphere" of domestic life both physically and behaviorally, the removal of body hair may have served to maintain a certain distinction between the genders. It also may have served to de-emphasize women's adult status, since increased body hair and the development of underarm hair are secondary sex characteristics that develop after puberty. Since hair has long had sexual association for men and for women, its removal also may have conveyed two closely associated sexual messages – that a woman's mature sexuality is controlled at the same time as her "tamed" sensuality is on display.

In the context of her article, Basow is implying that the above are not side effects of, but rather motivations for a trend. Personally, I find that this interpretation of hair removal as a method of social control puts an awfully large amount of intention behind a marketing ploy that goes beyond making money. While I agree that the ideas of what was "feminine" changed at this time, I still cannot attribute this to a malicious patriarchal subterfuge executed via the Gillette Safety Razor Company.



Besides Susan Basow's study, "Women and Their Body Hair" (1991), we have "The hairless norm: the removal of body hair in women" (1998) by researchers Marika Tiggemann and Sarah J. Kenyon. Whereas Basow looked at the habits of professional women, Tiggemann and Kenyon examined the hair removal habits of Australian high school girls and university women. Basow found that about 80% of her sample removed leg and/or underarm hair. T&K found:

Of the university women: 91.5% removed leg hair & 93% removed underarm hair

Of the high school girls: 92% removed leg hair & 91.2% removed underarm hair

Basow's respondents generally reported that they began shaving for "normative" reasons (i.e. – it was just something that women did when they hit puberty) as opposed to reasons related to femininity or attractiveness. Seven years later across the Pacific, T&K, however, found something different:

In contrast to Basow's (1991) finding for starting reasons, both groups also rated the feminine/attractiveness reasons as more important. This was much less pronounced for the university students, whose third to highest rated reason was the normative item "It was the thing to do" (highest rating in Basow's study). However, it was extremely clear that for the high school girls their starting reasons were primarily the feminine/attractive ones.

And why do women continue to shave? From Basow:

Most women continue to shave for reasons relating to femininity and sexual attractiveness. Few respondents say that they remove leg and/or underarm hair for functional reasons; i.e., that body hair is unclean or uncomfortable. Few also say body hair is gross, ugly, or disgusting; or that they shave to avoid looking like an animal or even like a man. Furthermore, few say they shave to appeal to men. Although self-reports may not be entirely accurate, the results do suggest that white women shave primarily because it is socially normative and because shaving is tied to feeling attractive and feminine.

T&K:

As can be seen in Table II, which displays the means for each of the reasons for hair removal, both the university and high school groups rated the feminine/attractiveness reasons as most important in why they continue to remove body hair. For the university group, the two most highly rated reasons were "It makes me feel attractive" and "I like the soft silky feeling". For the high school girls, the two most highly rated reasons were "Body hair is ugly" and "Men prefer women without body hair". This is consistent with Basow's (1991) findings, although in general the mean ratings are much higher.

In addition to the data above, each study engaged the topic with much more nuance than I give here. For instance, Basow emphasizes the differences in attitudes among women of different sexual orientations and identification with feminism while T&K discuss "the ways people process and analyze information in autobiographical memory". I do recommend that you go and read the studies themselves as they're quite interesting. I would also like to note that the samples of these studies consisted primarily of whites. This being the case, I would like to take a moment to quote Basow on the answers given by her black respondents.

These general findings need to be qualified by possible ethnic group and class differences. Since 91% of the sample is white, this pattern of behaviors and reasons apply primarily to white professional women. Since only 12 black women were respondents, statistical analysis of their responses are problematical. However, their results are suggestive of a very different social norm regarding body hair. Although there were no significant differences found between black and white respondents with respect to age, degree of body hair, growth rate, frequency of shaving, sexual orientation, degree of feminist identification, or removal of underarm hair (25%), more blacks than whites do not remove leg hair (50% compared to 21%). Those black women who do shave rated most of the reasons low, especially the social normative ones.

Basow and Tiggemann reappear in studies designed to gauge how body hair affects the perception of women.

Basow set out to see how body hair affects the perception of women by others. She had a couple hundred college students watch two 2-minute video clips featuring the same actress in each. A 22 year-old white model would emerge from a swimming pool in a two-piece swimming suit and dry herself off. In one clip, the woman had hair under her arms and on her legs while in the other she was shaved. Some of the results are rather disturbing. When shown with body hair, respondents found the woman to be:

1) less intelligent
2) less sociable
3) less happy
4) less positive

These results matched other studies and supported the author's thesis that people generally have negative attitudes towards body hair on women. One result, however, bucked the trend. In a previous study, women with hair were seen as "stronger" but, this time around it was the hairless who were perceived as "less strong active, and aggressive". Also of note here is that respondents who held feminist attitudes were more accepting of women with body hair than those who didn't. While this jived with her previous study, she notes that most women with feminist attitudes still shaved.

Tiggemann teamed up with Christine Lewis in 2004 for "Attitudes Toward Women's Body Hair: Relationship With Disgust Sensitivity". In addition to revisiting the reasons women give for shaving, they also examined how women perceive other women's reasons for removing hair. T&L found that women say that they shave themselves so that they look attractive and/or feminine. However, they perceive that other women shave because that is what's expected of them. (That old normative reason again.)

Thus, women interpret others’ behaviors, as due to normative pressures, in a way they do not do so for their own… It appears that women can recognize the normative pressures on them in general to shave, but are unwilling to accept this as the rationale for their own specific behavior… Perhaps the normative values of individualistic cultures render it difficult for women to acknowledge their own vulnerability to social pressures, although they can recognize such vulnerability in others.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before attitudes towards underarm and leg hair were applied to the pubes to complete a mindset which is dead set against body hair on women. The area between women's legs became increasingly more visible and so it joined the ranks of the underarm and leg in hairlessness. But this "hairless norm" for women is a social construction. Men do not have the same social pressures. We men can walk down the street in shorts and a sleeveless shirt without social opprobrium despite having hairy legs and armpits. However, women are generally not able to do such. Plus, until fairly recently, women outside of North America felt little pressure to remove their body hair.

The problem here is that these studies didn't study pubic hair removal and merely mentioned it via tangents. Unlike the armpits and legs, the women's pubic areas don't get a lot of exposure out in public, except for situations such as the beach. In this sense, the fashion of removing the pubes bucks the trend that Hope noted, which was that hair removal seemed to be commensurate with more revealing clothing. Perhaps this can be explained by the proliferation of pornography. Starting from the beginning of the trend of women removing body hair, the marketers and the media have been complicit. Porn went mainstream and it started to demand that female actresses remove their pubic hair for more revealing shots. After this, non-porn stars felt the need to go barer and barer down there. In "The Trouble With My Vagina", a surgeon who performs labiaplasty notes that many of his patients come to him saying that they want the "Playboy look" or "I wanna look like Playboy". And so for many women, pornography provides a model to be emulated for literally thousands of dollars.

Thusly, I think it's fair to think of pube removal in the terms outlined above for other body hair.



(To Part 3.)
|| Palmer, 1:54 PM

7 Comments:

I think that the trend to remove pubic hair is too new, but that studies should soon be out. The whole thing makes me sad. Although your side comments are hilarious.
Blogger Suzanne, at 12:07 AM  
A most interesting article - I won't say exactly how it came to my attention, use your imagination... ahem!
As a man, I find pubic hair an almost essential requirement when it comes to 'attractiveness' in a woman. I don't want a little girl, I want a woman... that is part of it. Even so, the thril of seeing it when I was growing up (in Playboy etc. first, then for real a bit later) was indescribably exciting, and must have stayed with me ever since?
I consider it highly erotic, and very attractive - in moderation of course - neatly trimmed is my preference, though not essential. I am not an 'hirsuit' fetishist however, underarm hair is not to my taste, yet has never put me off either. Nor have hairy arms and legs?
I think it is a matter of fashion, and the 'fashion police'... the horror, embarrassment and expense of being shaved, waxed or otherwise humiliated by such intimate hair removal, is certainly not a thing any woman I know would relish or willingly undergo.
Even so, the idea of it is rather exciting in some perverse BDSM way, and I confess I have 'shaved' a few crotches in my time, which was mutually rather satisfying - in a kinky, shameful way. I did not like the results however - or the complaints, nagging and admonishments that followed, when the itching started as it grew back.
I had to laugh at M J's comments about having a Brazilian being some kind of aid to being attractive and desirable. Let's face it, by the time the pants are down and everything is in view, the job of seduction and temptation is already done.... how many women have ever been rejected at this stage?
Being objective, I might well be put off by a shaved crotch - but inly with foreknowledge of it. By the time it was revealed or discovered by touch, it would be a bit late I think?
How unspeakably sordid... but that is my honest opinion, based on experience.
Women - don't shave! Trim, neaten, enhance whatever, but don't try to look like little girls....
Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:25 AM  
A most interesting article - I won't say exactly how it came to my attention, use your imagination... ahem!
As a man, I find pubic hair an almost essential requirement when it comes to 'attractiveness' in a woman. I don't want a little girl, I want a woman... that is part of it. Even so, the thril of seeing it when I was growing up (in Playboy etc. first, then for real a bit later) was indescribably exciting, and must have stayed with me ever since?
I consider it highly erotic, and very attractive - in moderation of course - neatly trimmed is my preference, though not essential. I am not an 'hirsuit' fetishist however, underarm hair is not to my taste, yet has never put me off either. Nor have hairy arms and legs?
I think it is a matter of fashion, and the 'fashion police'... the horror, embarrassment and expense of being shaved, waxed or otherwise humiliated by such intimate hair removal, is certainly not a thing any woman I know would relish or willingly undergo.
Even so, the idea of it is rather exciting in some perverse BDSM way, and I confess I have 'shaved' a few crotches in my time, which was mutually rather satisfying - in a kinky, shameful way. I did not like the results however - or the complaints, nagging and admonishments that followed, when the itching started as it grew back.
I had to laugh at M J's comments about having a Brazilian being some kind of aid to being attractive and desirable. Let's face it, by the time the pants are down and everything is in view, the job of seduction and temptation is already done.... how many women have ever been rejected at this stage?
Being objective, I might well be put off by a shaved crotch - but inly with foreknowledge of it. By the time it was revealed or discovered by touch, it would be a bit late I think?
How unspeakably sordid... but that is my honest opinion, based on experience.
Women - don't shave! Trim, neaten, enhance whatever, but don't try to look like little girls....
Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:25 AM  
Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. And I won't ask how the post came to your attention. :)
Blogger Palmer, at 5:24 AM  
Easy: if you prefer the convenience to oral sex, don't shave. If you like oral sex, do.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:00 PM  
I'll second that it makes oral sex much nicer, I have floss for my teeth, no need to use hair.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:36 AM  
It doesn't make oral sex more convenient nor any nicer. You guys are nuts.
Blogger Palmer, at 6:24 PM  

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