Grin and Bare It: 11 Facts About Hair Removal
The millennia-old quest for fuzz-free skin has been surprisingly, well, hairy. In ancient Egypt, for example, people relied on tools like seashell tweezers and pumice stones to keep their skin smooth, while cat poop was the depilatory of choice for the British in the 17th century. We’ve rounded up 11 more facts about the history of hair removal, which just might make you feel better the next time you decide to grin and bare it.
1. BEING HIRSUTE IN ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME WAS CONSIDERED GAUCHE.
At the time, if you had little hair it also probably meant that you had heaps of cash. Wealthy women used tweezers, stones, and early razors to remove all body hair, including pubic hair, which was considered unsightly. That’s why many Greek statues depicting the "ideal" female figure are devoid of any fuzz. (It's not believed to be related to paint flaking off the marble, as statues of males feature pubic hair that has been carved in.)
2. GOING BARE SOMETIMES INVOLVED ARSENIC.
One Renaissance-era DIY depilatory, according to a recipe from 1532, involved mixing one pint of arsenic and an eighth of a pint of quicklime, then smearing all over. “When the skin feels hot,” the text read, “wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.”
3. QUEEN ELIZABETH I WAS ALL ABOUT THAT FACE.
Queen Elizabeth I removed most of the hair from her face—including eyebrows—but kept her body hair untouched. She was also in the habit of plucking the hairline around her forehead in order to make her face appear elongated. Naturally, her female subjects followed suit. Their depilatory products of choice: walnut oil, which was better than what women (and men) would soon be using. In the mid-17th century, Peter Levens gave a recipe titled “For to take away hair” that suggested the following: “[Get] hard cat’s dung, dry it, and beat it to powder, and temper it with strong vinegar; then wash the place with the same where you would have no hair to grow.”
4. THE PROCESS BECAME (A LITTLE) EASIER IN THE 1800s.
One of the first mass-produced depilatory creams, called Poudre Subtile, was created in the 1840s by the (fictitious) "Dr. T. Felix Gouraud." Not surprisingly, it could cause skin damage if applied incorrectly or left on for too long. In 1901, King Camp Gillette patented his first disposable razor for men. Fourteen years later, he crafted a razor specifically for women, delicately titled the "Milady Decolette."
5. BUT THE EARLY 1900s WERE THE PITS.
Around 1915, sleeveless dresses became fashionable. But with exposed armpits came societal pressure to remove decidedly unstylish underarm hair. That May, Harper’s Bazaar featured an ad of a young woman showing off her fuzz-free pits. The text read, “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.”
6. WORLD WAR II GAVE WOMEN THE RIGHT TO BARE LEGS.
A wartime shortage of nylon meant women had to go barelegged more frequently, which led to a slew of new hair-removal products—including the first electric women’s razor in 1940. It also launched a new trend: Women would draw stripes on the backs of their bare legs to give the appearance of stocking seams.
7. THE ADVENT OF THE BIKINI POSED NEW CHALLENGES.
When the two-piece first appeared the United States in 1946, women began to tweeze and shave the hair outside their panty line, too. Writes Sarah Hildebrant in The EmBodyment of American Culture, “As this history illustrated, the more clothes women were 'allowed' (or expected) to remove, the more hair they were also expected to remove.”
8. NEW METHODS TOOK ROOT IN THE '60s.
Although waxing itself is thousands of years old, the method took off again in the 1960s with the introduction of wax strips. Early laser technology was also harnessed in the battle against body hair, but these lasers weren't yet refined enough to avoid damaging surrounding skin and were quickly abandoned.
9. AND THEN THERE WERE THE BRAZILIANS.
In 1987, seven J-monikered siblings opened the J. Sisters nail salon in New York City. There, in 1994, Jocely, Jonice, Janea, Joyce, Juracy, Jussara and Judeseia introduced the States to South America’s go-bare-or-go-home philosophy. “In Brazil, waxing is part of our culture because bikinis are so small,” Jonice explains on the salon's website. “We thought it was an important service to add because personal care is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.” Today, Brazilian bikini waxing is the salon’s most requested service.
10. SOME CREDIT SEX AND THE CITY WITH GENERATING A BRAZILIAN BUZZ.
In a 2000 episode of the HBO hit, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw feels decidedly bare after getting an accidental Brazilian bikini wax. Ildi Gulas, a wax and laser specialist at New York City's Spruce & Bond salon, told Refinery29 that scene gave the procedure “a major boom” in clients seeking out the service. But whether you credit the rise of pubic hair grooming to Sex and the City, the J. Sisters' NYC takeover, or the spread of pornography, the fact is that the majority of American women today either trim, shave, or wax the hair down there. In one survey, published in JAMA Dermatology earlier this year, 84 percent of the 3300 respondents said they've always groomed their pubic hair, while 62 percent admitted to getting rid of all of it at least once in their lives. (Back in 1968, 40 percent of women had never touched their pubes, while just 10 percent had ever gotten rid of it all.)
11. EVEN THE GOVERNATOR HAS DARED TO GO HAIRLESS.
While announcing his candidacy for governor of California on The Tonight Show in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger told Jay Leno, “It’s the most difficult [decision] I’ve made in my entire life, except the one I made in 1978 when I decided to get a bikini wax.” Today, manscaping isn't limited to bodybuilders like Ahh-nold looking to show off their hard-won physiques. According to Inc., men's grooming pulls in $4 billion a year in the U.S.—$1 billion of which is from hair removal products. With those kinds of deep (cultural) roots, there's no way the hair removal industry will be going the way of, say, those errant hairs stippling your upper lip anytime soon.