British dating reality series, Love Island, is known for controversy. However, viewers were left angered by the show after contestant, Aaron Francis, revealed that ‘hairy arms’ are his biggest turnoff. The misogynistic comment sparked discourse concerning attitudes towards women’s body hair. But the topic is hardly new. For years, women have fought to destigmatise their natural bodies from the peculiar male aesthetic. 

Why we started to remove body hair

The practice of removing human body hair can be traced back to 30,000 BC when sharp shells and shark teeth were used to remove surplus fuzz. What is interesting, is that the removal of body hair originally existed for more practical reasons as supposed to cosmetic ones, such as in preventing head lice and other diseases.

When it comes to removing female body hair, however, the chauvinistic roots that have made men like Aaron Francis bold enough to demand hairlessness can be traced back to the great poets. In 2 BC, the Roman poet, Ovid encouraged women to groom their body hair so ‘that no rude goat finds his way beneath your arms and that your legs be not rough with bristling hair’.

During the Renaissance, hairlessness was seen as a sign of class. For this reason, women and goddesses in art were depicted without body hair, including the pubic region. Even the ancient Egyptians considered pubic hair uncivilized, while upper-class Roman women used pumice stones and depilatories to achieve the desired degree of smoothness.

In Modern times, the reasons for removing body hair are more cosmetic and the pressure to look smooth and sleek is a relatively recent phenomenon. The idea of achieving a sphinx-cat level of hairlessness begun around World War I in countries like New Zealand, following Gillette’s creation of the Milady Décolleté razor, which launched an anti-underarm hair campaign in 1915. Adverts of the razor urged women to remove ‘unsightly’ and ‘objectionable hair’ from their bodies.

The message stuck and so did Gillette’s hair removal products. But the vogue of a baby-skinned woman is not just outdated and patriarchal, it is also unrealistic for certain types of women. Middle Eastern, South Asian or Mediterranean women often have thicker, darker and more abundant body hair than the typical East Asian or White woman. For them, having visible hair is a genetic trait, while the pressure to remove ‘surplus’ body hair can become a laborious necessity — especially if they seek to fit a western aesthetic of the ‘ideal woman’.

Defining femininity

There is a lack of choice when it comes to body hair. When women feel they have to do something just to meet certain expectations, we have a problem.

Having said this, it is also undeniably the case that many women simply enjoy feeling smoother and remove their body hair because they prefer to. Such women cannot be accused of trying to fit societal expectations or appeal to the ‘male gaze’. These women are arguably in control of their bodies. Any woman that decides to remove her body hair should not automatically be labelled a victim. If we compare this with men who remove their leg hair or facial hair, we don’t immediately assume that they do this to make themselves more appealing to the opposite sex. We assume it’s because they made a choice and because they have a  right to make it. The same argument applies to a woman that prefers to remove her body hair.

It’s true that something as primitive as hair removal has long shaped gender dynamics and defined notions of femininity. But why should something as natural as body hair, be such a big factor in defining one’s femininity? This is a question any sensible woman should ask and one that feminists have been asking for decades.

Years of feminist backlash against the removal of body hair has had a positive influence on women’s choices. Society is finally starting to grasp the message that says having body hair is a natural thing, it’s not ugly, and that it’s down to individual choice how you wear your skin.

Reality programmes like Love Island help sustain a misogynistic perspective. Whilst childish comments by the likes of Aaron Francis perpetuate a harmful narrative. This narrative reflects a largely western notion of beauty that tries to make women conform to a Playboy-bunny image.

We must stop shaming women for their genetics and their personal choices when it comes to body hair.

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