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August 23, 2017

It is almost everywhere if you think about it – the not so subtle bias towards “smooth.” Song titles alone like “Smooth Sailin,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “Smooth Operator,” all paint their subject matter in a somewhat enviable light be it the ‘she’ in Smooth Sailin or the Operator in Sade’s masterpiece. Even when we talk about people in our daily dating lives a ‘rough’ character is one that is decidedly unrefined while a smooth talker is someone we all want to be or be with. Smooth as a character trait is desirable in men, but it expected in women both from a physical standpoint and otherwise. We are all taught to mind our manners, be demure and ladylike, and in general, sand down our rough behavioral edges. In addition to the work done on our personality, we are also expected to be physically smooth. We are supposed to rid ourselves of errant hair (defined as anything not related to the head/eyelashes/eyebrows) as well as any rough skin to appear as delicate and welcoming to the touch as the Venus de Milo herself.

Where did this fascination with smooth come from? It turns out this is not a new phenomenon at all. While some literature points to stone age shaving (mainly to prevent opponents from grabbing it in a fight), most sources point to ancient Egyptians as some of the first to embrace shaving with both men and women removing nearly all their hair using pumice stones, tweezers, and even certain types of waxes. Meanwhile, in Rome, a similar practice took shape with women removing hair with razors, pumice, and even depilatory creams. The beauty standard of the day is evident in many paintings and sculptures which feature a marked lack of body hair below the eyelashes. In ancient times hair removal was a signifier of class and cleanliness amongst women. Over time, these arguments have become less absolute. That said, we estimate that over 90% of the women in America use some form of body hair removal on a weekly basis.

In Europe, the practice of removing female body hair was a bit more complicated. Women still groomed their hair in the 1500s and 1600s, but body hair was less of a concern. At the time a larger forehead was all the rage (think Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen), and so girls would remove their eyebrows and push back their hairline. Between then and the late 1800s a few important inventions including the straight razor and the safety razor came to market. These helped to make shaving both safer and easier for both men and women. That said since most of the US’s population were of European descent, body shaving amongst women was not nearly as prevalent. This started to change in the late 1800s and early 1900s thanks to a confluence of factors.

Armpits were the first battle ground for female shaving in the US. Before we get too far ahead though, let’s examine the players. First, there were the shaving companies (mainly Gillette) that were looking for a new market to expand into. Then there were the magazines, Harpers, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and others that were interested in a new source of advertising revenue. The customers were divided into the elite who were always looking for a new way to set themselves apart, and finally, there were the middle and upper middle-class women who would follow the trends established by the elite women with a bit of a time lag.

Of these four groups, the elite, the magazines, and the shaving companies were the ones that catalyzed armpit shaving. For the elite it was another way to distinguish themselves, for the razor companies it was a great way to enhance sales and finally for the magazines, it was a new source of advertising revenue. Keep in mind that this is the 1910s and 20s. Dresses were getting shorter and becoming sleveless (yeah raging 20s and flappers!), and womens magazines had a huge amount of clout in helping to establish trends since they were unrivaled in information dissemination. So it began that upper class women started shaving their armpits. Once this became normal behavior amongst the elite it was noticed and taken up by the middle and upper middle class. By the middle of the century shaving our armpits was a common occurrence for nearly all women.

As the 40s led to the 50s a few other events occurred which conspired to rid women of our leg hair. First, there was World War II which resulted in a shortage of nylon. Add to that shorter hemlines and the rise of pin-up girls (Betty Grable, Bettie page, Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth to name a few) who became almost instant icons with their long shaven legs and you can easily see how smooth legs became a regular part of our look. During this time the bikini made its debut as well. This encouraged a bit of trimming near our nether regions but we were yet to see the annihilation of bush. The 60s and the 70s saw the hippie movement and womens lib in full swing. This meant a pause in womens shaving before it became complete.

With VHSs now one the scene in a big way porn became quite prevalent in the 80s, as did fashion photography. Both of these featured more and more partially or fully shaved private bits. While this was happening the Brazilian wax made its way stateside and became a part of our culture as well. This led to increased attention to our privates as the final holdout in the war against body hair. In the 90s and 00s a fully shaved vagina became more and more common to the point where it is now the norm. While we are seeing more and more acceptance of a womans right to chose what to do with her pubic hair it seems like this too may also become a de facto habit like armpit or leg hair removal. Ultimately our job is cater to you regardless of the choice you make. Personally, I shave my armpits and legs and trim my pubic hair, but I just can’t get myself to deal with the pain of a brazilian more than once or twice a year.

 


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