The history of depilation has ancient origins but waxing made its debut in the Sixties, like the miniskirt, a coincidence? I do not think so.
Unwanted hair. But only for women.
Despite the valiant examples of body neutrality activism, the depilation of women’s bodies is something that remains of an extraordinary conformity. Between 92 and 99% of Western women shave: from the United States, to Australia, passing through (Western) Europe: leg hair, armpit hair, arm hair and bikini line are pulled away , shaved, at least bleached, regularly. It is useless to calculate the costs of all this, as we would do for other practices for women: waxing can be done at home by reducing the budget, but there are also disposable razors – which yes, even if they are the same as men’s disposables they cost three times as much – and therefore we would not make it a matter of privilege for the rich. Oh yeah? Yes. Because as much as the costs may be exorbitant – laser & co – or minimal, what makes it a privilege is the time factor. How long does it take us per month or week to get rid of unwanted hair? And when? And where? Anyone who has time to dedicate to a waxing done with all the feelings and a physical space of privacy is already privileged. Some colleagues were amazed that Captain Carola Rackete, involved in frenzied weeks and in the makeshift docking to bring 53 men, women and children to safety in the safe port of Lampedusa, was not shaved. She had long, thick, blond hair, like socks, said the colleagues who had joined her on the Sea Watch. Certainly Rackete had neither time nor privacy zones to pass the razor blade. But so be it. But that’s not even the issue. We have seen how women around the world have become the favorite targets of advertisements first on TV today online that make them feel ashamed of having a single hair out of place, advertisements that we now recognize are full of body shaming (you must be thin, but also shaved, sister). And it is extraordinary that women all over the world adhere almost without thinking to a norm that is purely aesthetic, that does not give any benefit to health or hygiene. And this is net of those few activists who remain bald and make propaganda for a liberation in this sense. But there are just a few left. Even among the most fervent feminists, the issue of unwanted hair remains a taboo that is difficult to cope with. Most women remove their body hair not because someone else tells them to, but because they want to: it has been normalized that women have no hair that is not hair, yes, bushy, eyebrows and pubic hair. Body shaving has simply become mandatory, mavericks who choose to go against the grain face annoying social pillory or even harsher forms of social punishment, including off-the-cuff comments, discrimination, body shaming, harassment, threats and assaults aimed at extinguishing the flame of their activism. And if these are the conditions to which we subject women who defy social norms to accept their bodies as Nature conceived and made them, it is clear that something is wrong. And certainly not in them. The history of women’s body depilation obviously connects to the history of female oppression, to the thousand insidious ways through which women’s bodies are controlled, managed, shaped, limited, constrained and imagined by external forces.
The history of hair removal governed by fashion
The way in which women experience their hair, that is, calling it “superfluous” and depilation is therefore closely linked to a large group of institutions, the fashion industry and the beauty industry in the front row, which establish what choices women must do about their bodies. And the history of waxing or depilation has its roots firmly planted in the practice of objectifying women: women are told (and internalized) the story that their bodies are fundamentally wrong in their natural state and therefore must alter them to be seen as attractive, worthy of love and protected from aggression and body shaming. Hair removal has been encouraged by the efforts of three different industries: the fashion industry, the men’s hair removal industry, and the magazine industry. Each of which recognized and sought to capitalize on women’s new role as consumers. And as the hems of skirts rose, threatening to reveal hairy legs, the ads and movies urged them to shave. In fact, hair raises an emotional issue: keeping hair on your legs becomes a political reaction, it is a rebellion against a status quo that indicates to women that they are not good, we repeat, in their natural state. And since everyone can relate to this topic, it can very well be a super democratic discussion table, perhaps the most democratic, to talk about socialization, power and oppression. To talk about bodies and how if theirs is a female form, they have to be subject to rules. Today body hair, in fact, is no longer or may no longer be representative of any standard of beauty: it would be the right time to arrive at the common conclusion that no, it is not a duty to shave. But we can’t. Not all, globally. No, despite the social ability to intercept even the trend, with a political flavor, of publishing images of armpit hair or on the legs with the intention of challenging the aesthetic norms that we have been carrying around since the 1940s. Because even if the practice of hair removal comes from a practice linked to personal safety in the Stone Age, today it is an exclusively aesthetic treatment and, why not, a means of expression. Shaving leg hair in the Stone Age was a survival strategy: modern archeology has established that those people there were the first to do it because having a hairless head and face protected them from attack by the adversary (human or animal) which in this way had fewer grips to hold on to. It was done with carved stones that were slid along the face. Dry. Ouch. But clam shells were also used as tweezers. Thousands of years later, the highly evolved Egypt of the Pharaohs gives us back the practice of hair removal more or less as we know it: with waxing. Only it wasn’t wax, it was a sticky paste made from sugar, water and lemon juice that pulled the hairs from the bulb thanks to a pulled cloth. Same as today, basically. In ancient Egypt the safety factor has nothing to do with it: hair, especially pubic hair, was a symbol of incivility, therefore of filth and poverty. And that’s why many women followed the trends set by Cleopatra, who removed all her body hair, even from the top of her head, to indicate her high social class. Even men, however, preferred a clean-shaven face: beards were common among servants and slaves. We don’t know if the Hellenic-style statues tell us that people used to shave their hair in ancient Greece. Perhaps it was difficult or superfluous to sculpt hair, but we know that depilation techniques were adopted during the Roman Empire, when both women and (rich) men used razors, tweezers, pumice stones and depilatory creams. But not the beard: the beard was not touched because it was a sign of virility.
World War II and the absence of nylon
The East introduced eyebrow threading centuries ago, not today: India and Iran used this technique with cotton or silk threads to remove excess eyebrows and moustaches, chin hair and sideburns. Of women, of course. The treatment consists of two wires that tighten and spread like tweezers and, moved along the face, pull out the hair one by one. In some civilizations shaving is also considered a rite of passage: in what was once Persia it marked the beginning of a woman’s journey towards adulthood. But we arrive in the Middle Ages, when Queen Elizabeth I pioneers the idea of total hair removal of the eyebrows and part of the forehead and introduces it into Western culture influencing women all over Europe. How was it done? One way was to soak bandages in a mixture of ammonia, walnut oil, and vinegar to suppress hair growth on the forehead. The trivia is that while facial hair was removed for aesthetic purposes, European women did not shave or wax their body hair. The razor was born in the eighteenth century, indeed, in 1760, when the barber Jean Jacques Perret used the first straight razor for men. Perret created an L-shaped wooden razor guard that helped reduce the risk of cutting yourself while shaving, it’s marketed to men but women also thought it made sense to use it. Another means for depilation was the Poudre Subtile and, in 1880, King Camp Gillette (he wasn’t a king, his name was King) launched an even safer razor than Perret’s model. We are decades away from the first razor marketed for women, which was also brought out by Gillette in 1915: the Milady Décolleté. But women learn to shave every day or at least be thoroughly shaved when showing their legs during World War II. Dark and terrible years when the shortage of nylon made it impossible to buy stockings to use every day, which meant that women sometimes went bare-legged. So they start shaving regularly, as a habit. In the meantime, however, advertising has given a big hand: the standards of beauty for women were soon shaped by the media through the images in magazines and in films in which women were without a hair on their legs or under their armpits. At that point women felt obliged to keep their body hair free, it had become clear that the ideal beauty standard was that and had to be adhered to.
Waxing debuts in the Sixties (like the miniskirt)
However, the most common method of depilation of the legs and armpits is waxing: the strips…