The hairlessness norm: The removal of body hair in women
The ideal of beauty for women has never been a static one, but rather has changed across time and between cultures. However, as Mazur (1986) points out, the rise of the mass media in the late 20th century is likely to impose more uniform standards of beauty throughout the world than before. Most authors (e.g., Rodin, Silberstein, & Striegel-Moore, 1985; Fallon, 1990; Wolf, 1990) agree that current ideals of beauty emphasize the looks of “youth”: a slim body, high taut breasts, and smooth unwrinkled and hairless skin. Certainly anecdotally many women reportedly lie about or are unwilling to reveal their age (Rodeheaver & Stohs, 1991), and “it makes you look younger” is invariably taken as a compliment. Wolf (1990), among others, argues that this idealization of youth carries the political agenda of powerlessness, and arises at particular times when women become too powerful. The impossible prescription for a “young” beautiful body is a source of great dissatisfaction, and many studies document that women show much greater dissatisfaction with their bodies across the board than do men. Further, physical appearance tends to be much more important for a woman’s global view of her self-worth than is the case for a man (Rodin et al., 1985). Such dissatisfaction, in turn, leads many women to try to alter their bodies to match the ideal, and of course, supports the multi-million dollar diet, cosmetic and cosmetic surgery industries.
Although a great deal has been written about body weight and shape, one aspect of the idealized female body which has received relatively little attention is the aspect of smooth hairless skin. Body hair is a sign of sexual maturity for both women and men, but in women femininity is actually associated with a lack of body hair (Hope, 1982), such that “feminine” does not mean “womanly” when applied to body hair. Approximately 85% to 90% of women have unwanted body hair (Chapkis, 1986). For women, body hair is seen as embarrassing and sometimes repulsive, and many women do not venture out without first removing their visible body hair (Freedman, 1986). Statistically, hair removal is one of the most frequent ways women alter their bodies to achieve the ideal of youthfulness and attractiveness. Although the practice of hair removal does not carry the large personal and health consequences of dieting and cosmetic surgery, the process is still frequently uncomfortable and somewhat painful. Further, it does contribute to the cosmetic industry.
Perhaps the major reason that hair removal has received so little research attention is that the practice is so socially normative as to go unquestioned. But, as Hope (1982, p. 93) points out, “those behaviours which are most taken for granted in a culture may well be the most important ones for revealing an understanding of that culture”. Although shaving for most women is habitual behavior which may be viewed as trivial, it does strongly endorse the underlying assumption of any of the body-altering behaviours, namely that a woman’s body is not acceptable the way that it is (Chapkis, 1986; Ussher, 1989).
There has only been one previous empirical study which has investigated the meaning of hair removal and the reasons women remove their body hair. Basow (1991) investigated the practice in a sample of professional women in the United States with a mean age of 44.0 years, a sample chosen deliberately for high education, professional status, and to maximize the number of feminists and lesbians. The results showed that the majority (81%) of professional women do remove their body hair, at least occasionally. About half of the respondents removed hair at least once a week, most (96%) by shaving. Even among strong feminists and lesbians most (72% and 55% respectively) removed leg and/or underarm hair. The main reason they gave was to avoid social disapproval. Open-ended comments emphasized the strength and power of the hairlessness norm, and the intense social reaction to violations of these norms. Respondents were also asked to rate a set of reasons for why they began and why they continued to remove body hair. Factor analysis identified two main factors: reasons to do with femininity and attractiveness, e.g. “It makes me feel attractive”; and social/normative reasons, e.g. “Women are supposed to shave”. The most important reasons for continuing to remove hair were the feminine/attractiveness ones, and the most important for starting were the social/normative ones. Basow (1991) speculated that shaving may act as a rite of passage for girls, since girls start shaving at puberty primarily because of social and normative reasons.
There is a clear need to replicate these findings with other samples in which lesbians are not over-represented and which contain fewer well-educated and feminist women. Thus the aim of the present study is to investigate the practice of hair removal in a different population, in this case of Australian university and high school students. It is expected that Basow’s (1991) findings concerning the motivation for starting and continuing to remove body hair will be replicated in the university student group.