Credit: Helen Barth via Unsplash

Shaving away the shame

By Marine Ourahli

Writer Marine Ourahli explores the origins of women’s hair removal

Hair removal is not a new creation of our society, there is evidence of women’s hair removal throughout history. Of course, the reasons were diverse, in prehistoric times it was to prevent insects from nesting in the hair. In ancient Egypt, hair removal was a ritual of purity for both men and women. In the Greco-Roman Empire, too, hair removal was a hygiene ritual. In the sixteenth century, the beard and moustache were revived as an external symbol of virility, wisdom and power. As men’s status was defined by their fleece, women’s beauty canons represented a hairless woman with a porcelain complexion. Full body hair removal as we know it today is more recent, born in California in the 1980s, from a meeting between the world of aerobics and its low-cut swimming costumes and the porn industry.

The singer Axelle Red created controversy by considering full body hair removal to be the expression of a “paedophile society”, as intimate female hair appears with the arrival of puberty and prefigures the beginning of a phase of active sexuality. Full body hair removal is reminiscent of youth and of childhood. From very early on, girls are taught to erase anything that might indicate this passage to adulthood. The assumption is that the female sex must be smooth and dry, with the alternative being taboo, starting with menstruation. “A hairless woman looks like a little girl. For me, it is a submissive woman who is not afraid,” says Marie-France Auzépy, a history professor at the University of Paris 8 University Vincennes-Saint-Denis. She points out that in the Muslim religion, the removal of hair from the private parts is compulsory for purity reasons.

The most common argument is hygiene, but contrary to what many people think, being hairy does not make you sweat more. Hair can retain moisture, but does not necessarily promote odours, since these are caused by bacteria. Fungal infections are among the most common consequences, but the risks extend to more serious sexually transmitted diseases. Worrying studies have been accumulating for several years. Emily Gibson, director of the Washington Health Research Centre, already denounced bikini waxing in 2012: “When irritation is combined with the warm, moist environment of the genitals, you have a perfect breeding ground for some of the nastiest pathogenic bacteria.”

Of course, every argument has been used to legitimise hair removal, a true representation of societal pressure on women’s bodies. Hair removal has therefore been one of the spearheads of feminism since its second wave in the 1970s, which was marked by the struggle against society’s beauty diktats. Not waxing became both a militant act and a way of standing out in beauty. Of course, hair removal is still an issue in feminist circles, but the absolute principle defended by this movement is to give everyone the possibility to do what they want. So the issue of hair removal would seem obsolete as long as everyone could make the choice to keep them or not without suffering the oppression of the other’s gaze.


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