TSL: The Hairy Truth: Why do women shave their legs?

No-Shave-November, anyone?

According to StatisticBrain’s statistics on shaving from this year, you probably shave. Almost all women—something like 97%—participate in the removal of body hair, whether it be by shaving, waxing, or hair removal cream. Whether you’re new to the world of knobby-kneed nicks and cuts or a battle-tested veteran such as myself, the average woman shaves up to 12 times a month, clocking in at just under eleven minutes a shave. I did the math, and (carry the two) a lifetime of shaving will cost you well over 58 days and about $11,000. This is just the average, of course; the costs are higher for the tenth of women who shave every day.

It’s bad enough that shaving is costing us $11,000. But is it costing us our girl power, too?

Feminist Emer O’Toole appeared earlier this year on the nationally syndicated morning show This Morning. And she appeared with purposefully unshaven legs and underarms. Rather than avoid the subject, O’Toole brought her fur to the forefront. Her message: that “shaving body hair is anti-feminist and forces women to conform to ‘artificial gender norms.’” While it’s old news that unshaven legs have come to represent a woman who defies the norm, recently many female celebrities have jumped on the furry feminist bandwagon, notably Mo’Nique, Julia Roberts, Alicia Silverstone, Britney Spears, and Amanda Palmer.
What’s all the buzz about? Does shaving, or not shaving, really affect a woman’s life? Blogger Zinnia Jones makes the point that although removing body hair is clearly a personal choice, choosing not to do so causes both men and women to make assumptions about a woman’s politics, sexuality, and identity, characteristics that go far beyond the follicles.

But this is where it gets hairy.

Your hair (or lack thereof) has always said a lot about you. Almost every ancient culture had rituals surrounding the growing, shaving, cutting, trimming, or covering of hair. Curly sideburns? Jewish. Sinister curly mustache? French villian.  And of course, the suit of leg hair that has come to say “Hey. Open that door for me and I’ll sue your pants off.”

Unfortunately for that stereotype, women don’t actually shave for anti-feminist reasons.

As it turns out, they shave for marketing reasons.

Women weren’t always such a smooth customer.

According to research by Christine Hope, which she titled Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture, before the twentieth century, most American women did not remove their body hair, not even from their underarms. In fact, at this time the word ‘underarm’ was considered distasteful for print. This changed, however, after World War I, when wartime manufacturers became peacetime manufacturers that needed new products to sell to the American people.

Why would women buy razors when women didn’t shave? In order to get women to buy their razors, the manufacturing industry placed “instructional advertisements” in magazines such as Bazar and McCalls. Large waves of ads ran between 1914 and 1945, instructing women that underarm hair was “objectionable” and “unsightly.” Historians say that these companies were “introducing innovative behavior as opposed to simply convincing women to use a particular brand.” More than telling women how good their product was, these ads were convincing women that there was something wrong with them. Before long, knowledge of this cutting-edge trend reached virtually every corner of the population.

At the same time, Bazar and McCalls began featuring sleeveless dresses, worn by models with smooth and hairless underarms. Not only did the dresses sell, but in buying them, women redefined how they would view their underarms forever. Decades of rising hemlines were to follow, making the shaving of legs inevitable.

Jonathan Asher is the senior vice president at a consumer-products research firm. He points out in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that one of the strengths of American marketing has always been its ability to “point out needs that consumers may not have been fully aware of.” He says that “People may have accepted a condition partly because no one pointed it out before.” It is the marketing industry’s job, he says, to tell the people the problems that they have—just in time to offer a solution.

This would never work on us today, right?

Remember Dove’s Go Sleeveless campaign? Studies by The Wall Street Journal report the fact that 100% of women report using deodorant. Shouldn’t be a hard sell. But with over 300 distinct brands on the market, marketers must find a way to make their brand stick out. And they did it like they always have. First, the ads used “real women” who point out the unattractive nature of armpits. Next, Dove offered the solution: an antiperspirant with added moisturizers and vitamins that, in addition to preventing odor and wetness, will make the skin in our armpits more attractive. Because apparently attractive armpit skin is now something that we need to have.

However, the real danger just might go beyond the self-esteem of our underarms.

WebMd explains that most leading antiperspirants, including those manufactured by Proctor & Gamble, fulfill these claims with an aluminum-based compound that can be used to temporarily block sweat ducts. As early as the 1960’s, studies have linked excessive amounts of aluminum to Alzheimer’s disease, as Alzheimer’s patients have been found to have large amounts of aluminum in and around their brain. At least one study done as recently as 1990 and reported in the New York Times suggested a link between the aluminum in antiperspirant and Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, the study depended on 130 progressed Alzheimer’s patients to recall detailed behavior analyses, which was difficult for obvious reasons. Although these studies in particular could not be deemed credible, with a lack of hard evidence on either side, the theories continue to spread.

Don’t sweat it just yet.

The senior director of the Alzheimer’s Association, however, disagrees with any conclusive claims made against antiperspirants. Dr. Heather M. Snyder said that despite the years of research, “there hasn’t been any definitive evidence to suggest there is a link.” The President of the American Academy of Dermatology, Dr. David Pariser, agrees, explaining that the fears are largely unscientific: “The aluminum salts do not work as antiperspirants by being absorbed in the body. They work by forming a chemical reaction with the water in the sweat.” Dr. Leslie Spry says that although the FDA has made label warnings mandatory on aluminum-based antiperspirants, “Unless you eat your stick or spray it into your mouth, your body can’t absorb that much aluminum.”

TLDR; You can’t tell who she voted for from her leg hair unless she shaved their name into it. And shelve the razor if you will, but know that what you’re really boycotting is the marketing industry. Which might not be such a bad thing.



4 thoughts on “TSL: The Hairy Truth: Why do women shave their legs?

  1. Awesome job. I think you may have duplicated a paragraph right before the “Don’t Sweat It Just Yet” subhead, but other than that, this was flawless.

    Posted by Joey Strawn | November 5, 2012, 2:21 pm

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