When Did Women Start Shaving? The Painful History of Female Depilation
In the U.S., women started to shave in the interwar period and during World War II. Before the twentieth century, women were socially required to remove unsightly hair from the face and neck – virtually the only parts not covered by clothes. But they would do it with the use of homemade or industrial depilatories (concoctions that facilitated hair removal).
Before the invention of the T-shaped safety in 1903, implements for shaving were aptly nicknamed “cut-throat” razors. Shaving was a service provided by men to men in public spaces, and it required significant skill. Even after the first T-shaped razor was introduced to market, it took years for advertisers to challenge the exclusive association of shaving with masculinity.
Self-shaving was introduced to private spaces by men after the invention and popularization of safety razors. It was then gradually adopted by women as a painless and cheap alternative to other hair removal methods.
Private Bathrooms, Gillette’s Safety Razor, and World War I
In the U.S., the first safety razors were brought to market at the end of the 19th century, but they enjoyed only a moderate success, since the upkeep of the blade was time-consuming. This situation was changed with the production of the safety razor with disposable blades by King Camp Gillette in 1903.
The advent of private bathrooms and indoor plumbing in U.S. cities prepared the ground for self-shaving. In 1880, five out of six U.S. citizens washed using a bowl and pitcher. In the 1930s, nearly all apartments in New York City had private baths or showers. This went hand in hand with changing attitudes towards hygiene; it was thought that people should bathe daily to protect the population from contagious disease. With indoor plumbing, the backbreaking work of supplying the house with water (necessary for shaving) was gone.
World War I was also seen by King Camp Gillette as an opportunity to launch an aggressive marketing campaign targeting soldiers. Shaving was construed as a necessary prevention from lice and other vermin and as a way of providing a close fit for gas masks. The Gillette Safety Razor Company began producing safety razors with the insignia of the U.S. Navy and Army.
Women Start Shaving – Interwar Years and World War II
The Gillette Safety Razor Company introduced the first safety razor for women during World War I. However, the product didn’t really catch on, as shaving was still firmly associated with masculinity. Women didn’t want to risk being seen when purchasing a razor.
But shaving was a relatively cheap and painless alternative in comparison with other depilation methods, such as abrasive or even lethal industrial depilatories or x-ray hair removal. After the war, many women would surreptitiously use their husbands’ safety razors.
Women’s conversion to shaving was largely completed during World War II when the need to remove hair from their legs first emerged. Before that, women would conceal hairy legs with thick stockings. However, as stockings were in short supply at the time (with all nylon and silk used for military purposes), women resorted to liquid stockings.
Liquid stockings were cosmetics that emulated the real thing. But they could only do the trick on hairless legs. When the U.S. started to run out of liquid stockings too, women were content with simply shaving their legs and leaving it at that.
According to surveys, by 1964, 98% of all American women aged 15 – 44 shaved their legs.
Before Shaving – Homemade Depilatories
Before the twentieth century, women’s clothes were much less revealing. Only the face and neck were targets for depilation.
In the 18th century in the U.S., women had to have “porcelain” complexions to be considered beautiful. A woman’s face was to reflect her inner character. Removing unwanted facial hair was not only a matter of aesthetics but also of morality. Hair on upper lips or a low forehead were a cause for particular concern.
Eighteenth-century manuals and etiquette guides contained depilatory recipes for women, which merged European practices with that of Native American and African. Other options included shoemakers’ waxes or tree resins – both extremely painful.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, homemade depilatories were being gradually replaced with industrial ones produced mainly by men.
Parallel techniques to those developed in the toiletry sector were also used in meat production. Chemicals for separating leather from a dead animal’s meat were advertised as beauty products to women.
With the rise of cities, the problem of the quick processing and distributing of meat to urban populations became critical. Mechanization and division of labour on disassembly lines were introduced to speed up the process. The removal of animals’ hair was improved at the same time with the use of appropriate, caustic chemicals.
Those same chemicals were sold to women as body hair removals. Since there was no oversight of the depilatory market, industrial “beauty” products permanently maimed, disfigured, and killed thousands of women. As social anxieties around these concoctions grew, popular newspapers and magazines became arbiters on the matter of depilation safety.
Women’s Body Hair in the Twentieth Century
Both the woman’s position in society and fashion changed in the twentieth century.
Hemlines started to rise around 1910. By 1915, they had reached mid-calf, and by 1927, they were just below the knee. Sleeve length also shortened. As a result, the woman’s body with its hairy areas was gradually revealed. Chests, arms, and armpits became the new areas for depilation treatment. Up to World War II, women didn’t worry about hairy legs, as they would conceal them with thick stockings.
At the same time, women started to gain visibility in the economic and political realm. Anxieties about women’s emancipation were articulated, among others, by focusing on female body hair. Hairiness was a symbol of masculinity, lesbianism, and vice.
Women, on their part, experimented with removing temporarily part of their body hair for the sake of fashion or style.
The hygiene movement of the time also stressed the importance of removing unwanted hair as a matter of disease prevention. Those factors contributed to the social repulsion felt at women’s hairy bodies.
Removing Body Hair with Electrolysis and X-Rays
In the first half of the twentieth century, depilation methods that were used in the previous centuries continued to be popular despite a great number of women that were killed or permanently maimed by muscular atrophy, blindness, or limb damage.
But there were also new techniques, which were a welcome alternative to industrial depilatories. One of them was electrolysis, which involved inserting a needle powered by a galvanic battery straight into the hair shaft. Electrical current blenched the hair root and surrounding tissues. This was a painful process, especially if the depilated area was large – each hair shaft required a separate needle.
X-ray hair removal, in contrast, was advertised as safe and painless. American physicians gave up removing body hair with x-rays before World War I due to radiation risk and the fact that depilation was considered too trivial for medical treatment. Commercial x-ray salons were quick to fill the void in the late 1910s.
Most x-ray salon clients were working-class women on a low or middle income. They frequented x-ray salons despite the prohibitive cost of the treatment because they hoped that an improved, hairless appearance would open up new economic opportunities.
The practice was abandoned in the late 1940s due to wider recognition of radiation risk and the legal action taken up by clients who sustained injuries during the treatment.
Hairiness and Hormones
Studies on glands in the 1940s led to the discovery that there were “masculine” hormones to be found in women and “feminine” hormones to be found in men. This revolutionized the concept of sex – once a stable, immutable entity. Now every organism was understood to have different ratios of femaleness and maleness.
Hirusutism (excessive hairiness) was now understood to be caused by glandular disturbance. However, where exactly lay the line between “normal” and “abnormal” hair growth was disputed, especially so as the amount of acceptable hair differed from person to person and from culture to culture.
Hairiness was linked to sexual inversion (non-normative gender behaviour). Glandular science translated old prejudices against hairy women into scientific language. Hormonal imbalance (whose visible sign was hairiness) was linked to political extremism and antisocial behaviour.
Glandular science provided a way of controlling women’s bodies by regulating their hormonal secretion. Unwanted hair and what it symbolized to society could be got rid of in the 1950s and 1960s by prescribing hormonal drugs to women.
The practice was soon discontinued because of its potential side effects: cancer, stroke, heart attack, and others.
The Political Significance of Hairy Bodies
In the 1970s, some feminists advocated stopping depilation as a way for women to reclaim control over their bodies. This trend became part of wider counterculture phenomena. The cessation of shaving was considered by some a dangerous political extremism and an issue too trivial for feminists by others.
At the time, hair was a symbol of rebellion for other groups too. Black people advocated not conforming to beauty standards set by white people and letting their hair grow in a natural way. Male students wore their hair long as an act of rebellion against the ongoing war in Vietnam.
The body, once private, became a site of political struggle.
The Depilation Norm Today
Toerien and Wilkinson conducted a study, which concluded that female depilation is highly normative in Western culture. The study was based on an open-question survey administered to 678 women.
Participants described hairiness overwhelmingly in negative terms (as being masculine and unhygienic), whereas hairlessness was viewed as positive (clean and feminine). Some participants felt forced to depilate by social conventions.
The fact that hairiness and hairlessness are not valued equally means that depilation is not a matter of personal choice but rather a social norm.
Failure to comply with this norm, moreover, carries a heavy social price. Participants reported that relatives, partners, friends, work colleagues, and even strangers told them on occasion that they should shave or joked about their unshaven legs or armpits.
Arvida Byström, a model who posed in a recent Adidas ad campaign revealed her unshaven legs. She received a lot of hate on social media including rape threats. This is perhaps the biggest indication how normative is the depilation practice.
Women’s bodies have been controlled over the centuries through beauty standards. Women have suffered pain, humiliation, and financial ruin when trying to afford expensive and dangerous depilation technologies. Even today, in this era of supposed freedom, many women still meet with punishment for failing to conform to the depilation norm.
Herzig, Rebecca M, Plucked : a history of hair removal (New York: New York University Press, 2015).
Toerien, Merran , Wilkinson, Sue (2004) ‘Exploring the depilation norm: a qualitative questionnaire study of women's body hair removal’, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 1, no. 1 (2004), pp. 69-92.
© 2017 Virginia Matteo