Body hair removal . . . that thing we all do because everyone else does it, even though our feminist instincts gnaw at us. The Guilty Feminist even did a hair removal episode recently, so we know it’s an issue. Yet we persist.
It being winter and me being over 30 years of age, I’ve grown ambivalent about the whole hair removal thing. I can usually go at least 2-3 weeks without shaving without shame just out of convenience. Now though, I might resist out of principle.
On February 8, I caught an Atlantic article reviewing Rebecca Herzig’s Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. I haven’t read the book, but the article was enough to make me run away from my razor screaming.
Turns out that shaving derives from Victorian eugenic theory (fun!). Let me quote the article at length:
The campaign against body hair on women originates in Darwin’s 1871 book Descent of Man, explains Herzig. Men of science obsessed over racial differences in hair type and growth (among other aspects of physical appearance), and as the press popularized these findings, the broader American public latched on. Darwin’s evolutionary theory transformed body hair into a question of competitive selection—so much so that hairiness was deeply pathologized. “Rooted in traditions of comparative racial anatomy, evolutionary thought solidified hair’s associations with ‘primitive’ ancestry and an atavistic return to earlier, ‘less developed’ forms,” Herzig writes. Post Descent, hairiness became an issue of fitness.
An important distinction in this evolutionary framework was that men were supposed to be hairy, and women were not. Scientists surmised that a clear distinction between the masculine and the feminine indicated “higher anthropological development” in a race. So, hairiness in women became indicative of deviance, and researchers set out to prove it. Herzig tells the story of an 1893 study of 271 cases of insanity in white women, which found that insane women had excessive facial hair more frequently than the sane. Their hairs were also “thicker and stiffer,” more closely resembling those of the “inferior races.” Havelock Ellis, the scholar of human sexuality, claimed that this type of hair growth in women was “linked to criminal violence, strong sexual instincts … [and] exceptional ‘animal vigor.’”
AGHHHH! Yuck Yuck Yuck Yuck! I can’t get far enough away from this. I found this so horrifying I haven’t shaved my legs in 3 months. Here’s to hairy legs to say #*@& you to everything in those two paragraphs.