When finally a long overdue, extensive dance evening is approaching, I can hardly wait to throw myself into my skin-tight yellow dress and put my painstakingly growing hair on display. It’s been far too long since I’ve really dressed up. Gatherings like this are always a glamorous event and I am just unbiased in my opinion: my girlfriends have the most beautiful beards on this continent.
The elaborate styling of the beards requires sophistication. For example, since I’m blonde, my beard just doesn’t grow as thick. I always try to add a little beard dye to my grooming lotion to make my beard hair look fuller. We use combs the size of a pinky finger to make our hair extra purr-fect, depending on the length. My creation turns out sparse. Narrow and elegant at best.
Without a doubt, the best beard style is Magdalena’s. She has beautiful, long and dark beard hair, which she either braids into endless pigtails or lets grow upwards with gel, like a proud, headstrong rose. She then paints her eyebrows in the most beautiful colors depending on the beard style, her face the canvas of her art.
What I like most about my yellow dress is the perfect composition with my shimmering gold, finely coiffed leg hair. Rarely have we been able to celebrate our bodies as unrestrictedly as we do now.
For centuries it has been the task of women to present their bodies as hairless as possible. Attempts are made to transform themselves into a naked cat with eyebrows using cut stones, tweezers, hair scrapers, sugar preparations, razor blades, wax strips, epilators and lasers. As important as it is to maintain a full head of hair on the head, it is equally important to be silky smooth on the body. I didn’t understand how fundamentally problematic this social habit actually is until I researched and studied the history of body hair.
Blonde & White
If you ask the internet about body hair, the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians are readily cited as historical examples who were interested in eliminating body hair for hygienic and class-specific reasons. Anyway, hygiene is often used as the decisive argument. But even if this was perhaps a little bit true at some times, the history of the hairless ideal image is white through and through. The Western ideal image of a white, blonde, hairless woman has been carried to the far corners of the earth from the time of the Roman Empire to the present day.
In Quajar Iran (1785 -1925), however, beauty was largely gender-insensitive. In terms of body and facial hair, similar concepts of beauty applied to men and women. “At this time, the mustache was a distinctly prized sign of female beauty.”
It was only through the cultural denunciation of Europeans* that Iran began to move into a binary gender system with binary beauty ideals of the Western world. Europe and North America were good at feminizing beauty early on. Originally un-gendered symbols such as angels, for example, were feminized. Among other things, this led to the heteronormativity of love and sex. “The male beloved [once adored], now feminized, became subject to ridicule.” Over the centuries, not a hair on the body or head was spared from elaborate elimination practices.
The Problem of Classification
Lack of body hair has always been a sign of “civility.” That is why many scientists misused Darwin’s theory of evolution. They propagated that race was an evolutionary continuum in which so-called “savages” (racist categorization) were closer to animals and white “civilized” people were the most evolved form of humans. Thus, body hair was seen as a characteristic of animality and degeneration.
As women began to work in the 20th century, it increasingly became the strategy of the male world to regulate female appearance in order to maintain control over women and the contrast between men and women. “Jewish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants in particular were targeted by advertisements for x-ray epilation on the grounds that body hair removal would enable them to integrate into Anglo-dominant whiteness.” (Alok Vaid-Menon)
Illustration: L’Officiel lll Depilation and Beauty Center advertisement, Brazil, 2015.
Even today, body hair is as banned in mainstream magazines as nipples are on Instagram. Although monobrows, mustaches and sideburns have been proudly displayed more often just in the queer community and on Instagram for some time now, there is still a lot of work to be done. When artist and model Arvida Byström showed leg hair in an Adidas ad in 2017, she received rape threats for months. In movies, commercials and porn, we have been presented with nothing but naked, smooth bodies for the past few decades.
A little armpit hair is accepted, but leg hair is still repulsive. Pubic hair has been allowed to be more natural again for some time, but really only on the mons veneris, the labia are still supposed to be silky smooth and the bushy hair is not allowed to spill out of the bikini panties on the right, left and top. And what about back or chest hair?
Slowly but surely, especially in porn aesthetics, things are changing towards the normalization of body hair. And maybe we can come back to the understanding that body hair is genderless, doesn’t equate us to animals and hairless doesn’t mean feminine.
In closing, I would like to say that I too am far from completely detached from our nude cat ideal. I find myself more beautiful with shaved legs, for example. Nevertheless, I hope that I, and we as a society, can slowly but surely break free from the racist, sexist, and elitist notion of body hair. As a start, I highly recommend the Instagram accounts of Alok Vaid-Menon and Queen Esther.
Herzig, Rebecca M. (2015). Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. NYU Press.
Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2005). Women with Moustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. University of California Press.