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The Body Hair Affair

By Kriti Das

How the simple act of grooming one’s own body, or not, got politicised.

1952 Sofair shaving lotion cream ad

Clam shells tweezers. Pumice stone razors. Flint stone hair shears. These were the varied, ingenious depilatory instruments that could be found adorning the grooming tables of the everyday ladies and gentlemen of yore. Even the likes of Egyptian Pharaohs, and Roman emperors.

The Egyptians, though proud of their beards and bodily manes, shaved as a necessity, to fight the hot African sun.

Alexander the Great, initially aghast at their abject lack of body hair, soon realised how much more difficult it is for an enemy soldier to grab on to one's hairless, frictionless arms. So, he, too, shaved.

By and by, as is wont to be, the rigorous, strenuous, often painful methods of removing one’s body hair started going out of mode. They developed better methods of dealing with the oppressive desert heat. Men were no longer fighting in revealing togas.

In fact, the constant coverage provided by the multi-layered haute couture at the time of the Victorians made depilation rather pointless. But, again, as is wont to be, all that changed after the war. 

World War II saw a steep decline in raw materials, and a rising demand for a new workforce, with the old one now engaged in battle. The cumulative result was women catching the reins at the workforce, stepping out of flouncy skirts, and into rising hemlines. Legs exposed in all their hairy glory.

Enter King Camp Gillette.

The thing about astute businessmen is their uncanny ability to create demand where none previously existed. To identify opportunities where profits are to be made. To package a product and sell it in such a way that makes you wonder where it’s been all your life, and how glad you are that it’s finally here.

The “Milady Décolleté” safety razor came in ivory and gold plating. It was packaged as an ideal gift, an emblem of elegance, and a valuable addition to a lady’s toilet table. It was accompanied by photographs of smooth legs and hairless armpits. It proclaimed how it was the only way to avoid an “embarrassing personal problem”, i.e.: natural hair growth. It was heralded as a way for women to heighten their aesthetic and, believe it or not, boost morale at the war front. More importantly - It effectively doubled King Camp’s sales of safety razors, with barely any effort.

Presumably the gentlemen in their military fatigues were spared this scrutiny of their bare limbs. And so the rest, as they don’t say, is her story.

The Gendered War on Body Hair.

This ideal, set in 1915, of female and femme presenting bodies, to have smooth, alabaster skin, was one of capitalistic opportunism. However, over the years, through perpetuation and amplifying media imagery, it has evolved into a defining characteristic of femininity itself. 

The many supposed merits of waxing, shaving, depilatory creams and the numerous other products out there whose sole purpose is to rid one of one’s fuzz are, invariably aimed at only one half of the demographic - be it hygiene, or aesthetic, or, if you’re a pro athlete, aerodynamic efficacy! While that last point has some credibility to it, every other generalisation of the disadvantage of body hair that has been told to you is a lie. 

As is evident in the fact that most male and masculine presenting bodies have not had their hair, or their right to it, stripped off of them, and are doing Just Fine.

The Beard: A Gender Gatekeeper

And that is where the conversation around our beards and our peach fuzz and our hairy chests, et cetera becomes even more complicated - when it comes to presentation. When this vestigial organ on our body, or its lack thereof, is used as a means of defining a person, to label them, to shame them, to invalidate their existence. When it is used as a gatekeeper of gender. When the matter of personal choice and personal aesthetic in the matter is taken away.

When the simple act of grooming one’s own body, or not, is politicised.

All thanks to one cunning capitalist, an excellent marketing strategy and an arbitrary fashion trend that evolved into a rigid rule.

However, King Camp’s story gives us hope.

Here, we have objective proof of the sheer power of representation. Of the ability of well chosen words and well placed imagery to steer the course of human history. Isn’t that what art is all about? Isn’t that why we’re all here?

Because there is something to be said for feeling the wind in your hair, everywhere. Or nowhere. To be said for marking the passage of time by the length of your beard, whatever your gender. For feeling the comfort of softness of warm sheets on your freshly exfoliated, shaved, and moisturised legs, that our boys have long been told is not for them. For friends throwing shaving parties for their friend with alopecia.

For boys who’ve just started testosterone finally having a beard to shave. For girls with PCOS having more glorious beards than their little brothers. For people loving their bodies because the body exists outside of the binary of “beautiful” and “ugly” and only desires to do, to grow, to be. And will continue to do so, whether you shave or not. All it wants is for you to make that decision, not dictated by rigid standards of socially accepted aesthetic, but the organic yearnings of your own skin and heart.

Because neither in abundance nor in death does anything have the right to define who you are, but yourself.


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