A Hairy Situation: The History and Modern Tropes of the Hairy Woman

It’s lockdown. Naturally, you might have let things go. You’re eating whatever the heck you want. Maybe not exercising as much. You don’t have the pressures of the outside world looking in so maybe you forego your shaving/waxing routines. Who’s going to see?

Time passes, and now you can’t remember when you last shaved. Suddenly- you are aware. Aware of all the… foliage growing. You panic. May even go into a mini crisis. Women aren’t meant to be so hairy, surely?? What you see before you isn’t shown in the media… Even adverts for female razors (bar one or two- check out Project Body Hair by Billie!) don’t show hairy women! The models are bizarrely dragging the razor over their already hairless skin (also, ouch!).

It’s not a topic many women feel comfortable bringing up. It’s like we have to keep up this pretense that we don’t naturally have any hairs by ‘dealing’ with them, but we also have to burn and hide any evidence of ‘dealing’ with them too. By not creating that space for discussion, so many of us feel enclosed within a singular, narrow option for the perception of our own body hairs. So it’s time to open that space up. Let’s start with a little history tour. How and why did hairless women become the Western norm?

Pre-19th century

Funnily enough, Europeans’ first thought on Native American hair removal was one of bafflement and intrigue- they didn’t understand why Native Americans would go through such painstaking processes. Unsurprisingly, this practice became an obsessive concern for Europeans that the Native Americans wouldn’t be able to conform to European living, and so was made to be an alien behaviour. So… how did the tables get turned so violently?

19th century

The emergence of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution paved the way for social Darwinism- a belief that the principles of Darwin’s theory can explain differences and ‘superiority’/’inferiority’ between human races. This has been used in the past to defend social inequalities, and at its very worst, eugenics and genocide. So it was proposed that races with supposedly hairier individuals (those from the colonised world) were less evolved and more akin to our ape relatives due to the hairs.

Xenophobia in Western countries led to fear among the White population of losing superiority in everything. One being beauty. White women had to be the most superior, the default and definitive beauty. A way to cling to that and exclude other races and certain immigrants was to emphasise the hairless, pale, soft skin of the White woman.

To be clear, this generalisation is NOT absolute. There are always exceptions to this rule, but in order for this selective and White supremist beauty standard to work, it was necessary to generalise. Not only this, but there was the added pressure of class difference, and working-class women were also included in this list of women to differentiate from. So body hair carried with it all the stigma of race and class stereotypes and anxieties.

Since then, people of colour (PoC) and/or from working-class backgrounds sometimes also themselves propagate the same negative narration about body hair in an attempt to protect themselves and their race/background from being associated with further ‘negativity’.

For the longest time I resented my Indian heritage for my hairs (as I’m mixed race White and Asian) and started developing a negative self-image regarding my race, even. I felt it further deviated me from the beauty ideal I grew up seeing, and the rest of the white British population.

Something we need to understand is that being hairless is an EXCLUSIVE beauty standard, unattainable by many, which can lead us to question our OWN selves and bodies before we question the beauty ideals and the realistic nature of them.