When historians write about the roots of hair removal, they usually describe an enjoyable bathing ritual in which luxurious unguents are languidly applied to the skin. Wine is often involved, as are solicitous and comely attendants.
The modern reality bears no resemblance to such romantic myths: Ten minutes past when you should already be out the door, you glimpse a sliver of hairy skin peaking out from a shorter-than-expected dress and frantically track down a dull plastic razor that you haphazardly mow across the field of fuzz. In that moment – and in contemporary culture – opting out of shaving or waxing doesn't feel like an option at all. Today, anything goes in fashion, as long as the leg hair goes first and women continue to scrape their limbs until their skin looks like that of a freshly plucked chicken. Regardless of which wave of feminism we now find ourselves in, wax bars, laser salons and at-home light-pulsing devices continue to cover us with angry red bumps.
Rihanna's flash of a hairy ankle from the front row of the Fall 2015 Zac Posen show in New York might be one of the more recent examples of scandalized female hirsuteness, but the expectation of hair removal goes back centuries. In Plucked: A Social History of Hair Removal by Rebecca Herzig, the gender studies professor looks at Western leg-shaving habits across racial, ethnic and regional lines. The book explores the extremes women go to in pursuit of smooth skin, recounting how a popular 19th-century depilatory powder, Dr. Felix Gouraud's Poudres Subtile for Uprooting Hair, marketed itself as being based on a formula used by the Queen of Sheba. Herzig reminds readers that in some ancient versions of the Quran and the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon summons demons to make núra, an arsenic-laced quick lime depilatory to apply to the queen's hairy legs (other versions of the story suggest the substance was made of boiled honey and turpentine and rolled onto the skin).
A few millennia later (in 1903, to be exact), King Camp Gillette introduced the T-shaped safety razor with disposable blades, and hemlines soon rose. When DuPont converted its nylon production from stocking manufacturing to military applications during World War II, Herzig explains, the shortage gave rise to leg cosmetics like liquid stockings that only worked properly when applied to sleek skin. By 1945, regular shaving was the norm.
When Herzig and I spoke about body hair politics earlier this year, it was still winter, when jeans and heavy tights make it easier to avoid ankle-stubble anxiety. We agreed that it's hard to undo deep psychological conditioning, the reason smart, progressive women still feel the need to shave. According to an April report by Allied Market Research, demand for hair removal products and appliances is only forecasted to rise.
Now that the weather calls for leg-baring, I don't think I'm alone in waiting, expectantly, for someone like comedian Amy Schumer to tackle this final frontier of feminism. She did a great job of satirizing the makeup-dependent no-makeup look, after all. (In that skit, a boy band interrupts Schumer, who is reading a copy of Glamo magazine, to croon the lyric, "girl, you don't need makeup." When she complies, they change their mind and suggest she just wake up an hour earlier to apply her face.) In this case, I imagine Schumer adopting her celebrity persona and perching on a talk-show couch wearing fancy shoes and primly crossed hairy legs.
Another example of dissent, in Herzig's book, seems like it could have easily been pulled from a similiar comedy sketch, but it was, in fact, sourced from a pamphlet called Freedom in Peril published by the National Rifle Association. Warning members about the threat of animal rights terrorists, it depicts a sandal-wearing, pierced and tattooed hairy-legged woman as public enemy number one. The image made me laugh out loud, even though, sadly, it confirms that visible body hair is still a sign of radicalism. Until we get over our own discomfort with revealing a shaggy thigh, hairy women will remain as taboo as bearded ladies.