Scary Hairy Gals.

By: Amy Paschall

Women must shave their legs and underarms in order to be attractive. This gender stereotype is deeply embedded in the culture of the United States. By the time girls reach puberty, they are well aware that they are expected to rid themselves of leg and underarm hair if they want to portray femininity and feel accepted by society as a whole. Mass media and marketing campaigns have encouraged shaving rituals for women that have instilled a conception of beauty that has lasted over generations.

In “Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture,” Christine Hope investigates the history regarding the premise of hairless femininity. She notes that products for removing unwanted hair on the face, neck and arms were featured in women’s magazines dating back to the late 1800s- early 1900s. It was in 1915 that Harper’s Bazar featured an ad with a young woman exposing hairless armpits. Years following, ads started churning out new styles of dress that bared hairless ‘underarms,’ introduced a customized women’s razor and new found hygienic and psychological awareness, the idea that removing hair makes you cleaner and less self-conscious. Not until 1925, was there a health text that covered underarm hair removal, suggesting that it was the fashion advertisements that first introduced, educated and made public the ‘need’ for such a practice. The 1930s-40s focused less on the underarm and more on body hair in general. Focus also shifted from informing the reader of the need to remove hair and more on repetitive product qualities and comparison. The skirt went shorter and the leg became the fashion object. In 1964, 98% of all American women aged 14-44 were removing body hair.

The pressure of commodity culture of the 1950s ideologically increased the isolation of the nuclear family and intensified the feminization of the labor within it. “Isolated from adult society, weighted down with household tasks that commodities increased rather than eliminating, infantilized by advertising appeals, and excluded from the public world that counted, women were desolate in ways that challenged the entire hegemonic order. As it may be true that men naturally have more body hair than women, to exaggerate the difference may have and continues to highlight the need for society to keep gender identities and roles separate.

Christine Hope touches on a study by Broverman that found that male and females are perceived as opposites and that women are considered less than adults. The experiment entailed dividing clinicians into three groups and asking one to describe the traits of “mature, healthy socially competent adult man,” another of a “mature, healthy competent adult woman,” and the third to define a “mature, healthy socially competent adult.” This resulted in closely related descriptions of the adult man and the (unspecified sex) adult, i.e. independent and domineering. Whereas the adult female traits were very different, including traits such as dependent, submissive, and easily influenced. In conclusion, women face conflicting positions, whether to take on characteristics that are positive and desirable of men and adulthood or exhibit the prescribed manners of ‘femininity’, which take the back seat to adult status. The act of removing body hair and mimicking the natural status of a child also supports this notion of lacking adulthood, reinforced by advertisements suggesting products that are ‘baby’ soft and smooth.

Like James Brown said, this is a man’s world and females today suffer most commonly from depression and anxiety, emotional disorders that are considered at least partially consequential to the traditional roles assigned to women and of the sexual discrimination that still occurs.  In public service occupations where looking good for men is important, such as waitressing, it is frowned upon to be a hairy female, unless the job attributes to or reigns on notions that go against mainstream norms, (such as waitressing in a vegan restaurant).
Women are expected to look and feel soft, as well as smell good. The idea of women with armpit hair arouses thoughts of body odor. While they maybe more susceptible to it and less likely to be concerned about body odor, seeing that they are already going against the social norm, this notion still is not congruent with how our culture views armpit hair on men. If women feel that they are being judged and measured by their physical appearance, a decline in performance can occur, known as social interference. In general, clean-shaven woman will most likely feel self-assured and confident and thus perform positively in the presence of an audience. This effect is referred to as social facilitation.

Our first impressions of others are influenced by our cultural stigmas. It is noted that dating partners are more concerned with first impressions that cause long term effects than married partners, whom are more secure with their “true” impression of each other, in which they can “be themselves” and not be rejected for it.

Women who have just started dating will be more concerned with having clean-shaved bodies than say those who have been with their partner for a long time and aren’t as concerned with keeping up the hair as stringently. And when skin is covered in the colder months and/or women aren’t dating, their upkeep is even less of an issue. It is expensive and materialistically/environmentally wasteful to keep a clean-shaven body at all times. It is hard to say whether the repressive ritual could ever be reversed, seeing that gender stereotypes evolve over time with mass media fueling their flame and because they function as social and economic controls in society.

Until then, I’ll shave or not shave when I want to.

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