Skip to main content

The interior of a Black River Falls Barbershop with customers in chairs and barbers at work, Wisconsin, 1895.Charles Van Schaick

Bald eagles, full beavers and beards – hair removal trends wax and wane, and talk about ventures below the belt is now part of the regular cultural conversation. Few people would link the forced beard shaving of Guantanamo Bay detainees with Gwyneth "I work a seventies vibe" Paltrow, but historian Rebecca Herzig connects the dots in her new book, Plucked.

A professor at Bates College in Maine, Herzig triangulates American historical data from industry sources, consumer trends and social science research on body hair dating back to the 19th century. While today's salon shills tout virtually pain-free wax, hair removal practices 100 years ago included toxic thallium acetate depilatories and so-called "velvet mittens" made from sandpaper (a misnomer if ever there was one).

Fuzz is still a feminist issue (Naomi Wolf called the management of unwanted body hair the "third shift"), and Herzig also outlines body hair's more insidious repercussions and political currency, which reverberate as loudly now as when hair-removal trends began in the West in the 1800s. She relates American colonialism and immigration to the forcible beard-shaving of prisoners – an act the International Committee of the Red Cross has deemed religious humiliation consistent with torture.

In her smart and engaging social history, Herzig considers various agendas and influences, such as the role of pornography and the political economy of waxes (they are made from carnauba palms and, surprise, petroleum products). It's a breezy, lively read for a book packed with historical information and complicated ideas, and a little sobering, too.

Personal hair removal for aesthetic reasons is body modification on par with piercings and ink, but I wouldn't have put it in the same continuum as detainee hair removal.

The Supreme Court just ruled [last] month on the case of a Muslim prisoner being allowed to grow a beard, such an interesting case when you compare it to Guantanamo. The justices voted unanimously – they hardly ever do that on anything! – that he had a right to maintain his beard. Prison officials argued he could hide contraband in his half-inch beard so he should be forced to remove it.

The pretext of superior hygiene also often comes up, as though that were a credible concern in this part of the world, in this day and age.

There is evidence that the Nazis also [shaved Jews] for humiliation. I think the way to understand "hygiene" is just as a scrim for racism and xenophobia. That's what a lot of historians of public health have talked about. The kind of sudden intensity of investment in hygiene in the late-19th and early 20th centuries was all about new immigrant populations coming to the U.S., the migration of southern blacks to the north, and concern about what that meant for white, native-born Americans. Part of the way that got handled was segregating spaces and practices based on the ideas of hygiene, because those seemed scientifically defensible. And that's also where hair comes in.

Yet even before the Civil War, hairlessness preoccupied the pundits and could be perceived as a deficiency or proof of racial inferiority – you have an example of Thomas Jefferson being intrigued by Native depilatory practices.

You really can't win if you are a racial minority in the U.S. The racial discourse went from "look how weird these people are for having no hair" to "look how weird these people are for being so hairy" [meaning] Jews [and] Italians.

There is that recent meme among young women, tinting their armpit hair rainbow colours and sharing it on social media with the #dyedpits hashtag.

That hashtag is fascinating in that it's not the seventies-era idea of going as natural as possible – the colours are exaggerated artificial hues. I think that it's a really interesting merging of deliberately artificial enhancement and a deliberate reminder of the animal-hairy body.

If the pressure on women to depilate has increased in tandem with their political and economic empowerment, is the popularity of chest and facial hair in men's fashion just a simple reaffirmation of masculine power?

Hair for women in this day and age, it's pretty much one message: take it off. But for men it's much more conflicted and confused – back hair is treated universally, across classes, as unwanted, but the rest of body hair in men is more up for grabs.

What do you think is behind the revival of the traditional barbershop hot-shave ritual?

I put that in the same category as hand-crafted beers or farm-to-table cheeses. It's performative of a certain resistance to [mass-market] care of the body, rather than buy the cheap razor and can of shaving cream. But even if through long and very thin filaments, that does feel tied to the wider, rapidly changing discourse about say, beards and terrorists. In the U.S. after 9/11, references to bearded terrorists shoot up and those two things get tightly linked. There were all these stories about men with beards and even vaguely Arabic features being profiled at airports.

After the two Tsarnaev brothers bombed Boston [in 2013] and neither of them had a beard, the Red Sox all started growing their beards and getting all this press about their solidarity through beards, tying into the global discourse about terrorism. When someone's opening another one of these barbershops, you never hear anyone talking about that.

This interview has been condensed and edited.