Despite the fact that the divisions between the genders have become increasingly fluid as the twenty-first century progresses, one tenet of gender difference has proved to be very difficult to erode from the public consciousness: the idea that women must be significantly more hairless than men. For many girls, the realisation that there is a cultural expectation for them to shave comes very early, and is accompanied by the more sinister realisation that their femininity will be partially defined by their hairlessness. This understanding is passed down from one generation to the next, until it is absorbed so much that women no longer even consider questioning the rationale behind their decision to shave. Despite this blind coherence, the concept of shaving is in reality a deeply political issue that reveals much about our conception of gender and the relationship between men and women.
the concept of shaving is in reality a deeply political issue that reveals much about our conception of gender and the relationship between men and women.
Nowadays, it seems so commonplace for a woman to shave that it is hard to imagine a time when women were not under this societal pressure. However, female shaving is actually a relatively new idea. Beginning in the early twentieth century, women were encouraged to shave their body hair through adverts that specifically told them that their hairlessness was an important part of their ‘appeal’ for men. In this way, companies realised that they could profit off of female insecurities, thereby leading to the cyclical action whereby women spent money on products to remove their hair, companies produced more advertising encouraging women to spend, and women spent more.
When considering that the idea of female hairlessness arises as a result of the male conception of womanhood, it becomes clear why choosing not to remove your body hair is such a radical act for a woman.
From the 1970s, women began to appear in porn with no hair, encouraging men to believe that they should desire women with no hair, as this was the image of women presented to them as the ideal. Years of societal conditioning by a patriarchal society meant that women struggled to avoid internalising the ideals set for them by men, and shaving off all body hair entered the mainstream for women. However, in the past few years, women have been encouraged, mainly by other women, to reject the patriarchy and grow out their body hair. But the fact that men have internalised a certain ideal for women does not change simply by stating that the ideal is outdated. Thus, men continue to desire women with less hair, and women continue to shave, because everyone wants to be found attractive by their partner.
When considering that the idea of female hairlessness arises as a result of the male conception of womanhood, it becomes clear why choosing not to remove your body hair is such a radical act for a woman. For hundreds of years, the patriarchal society of almost every community in the world has defined the roles of the genders and their relation to each other. Women were defined in their relation to men, and even actively prevented from imagining themselves outside of the ‘male gaze’.
A woman choosing not to shave actively rejects one of the key facets of femininity imposed upon her, thereby threatening the conception of gender difference which has regimented society for thousands of years. Similarly, men who decide to shave risk having their masculinity questioned, as the act of shaving body hair has been specifically designated as feminine. It is often women themselves who are the quickest to criticise men who shave too much of their body hair, describing it as a threat to their ‘manliness’, whatever that may be. Thus, it is often women themselves who perpetuate gendered ideas about shaving, thereby ensuring that the idea of female hairlessness continues in the public consciousness.
Removing female body hair is a fashion set for women by men, which the twenty-first century woman must choose either to accept or reject; thus, as much as we may wish things to be different, that choice is never personal but deeply political. The idea of female hairlessness will persist in our society until both genders become actively conscious of the conditioning that results in that idea, and then chooses actively to reject it. Though it is something rooted in sexism, the process of women shaving will probably be around for many more years.
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By Nicole Howlett