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Embodied: Our Tangled Relationship With Body Hair

Woman sits in the shower shaving her legs
Credit: Betsssssy//Flickr//CC
More than 90 percent of American women remove at least some hair from their bodies. Standards for hair removal are based on ideas of white, cisgender femininity from the 1800s.

Women’s war with body hair has claimed many casualties since hair removal and femininity became linked in the late 1800s. 

Scientific studies and advertisements elevated hairless, white women as society’s beauty standard, and the expectations took hold. Hundreds of years later, those standards still influence the decisions cisgender women, trans women and gender non-conforming people make about their body hair.

Studies show the majority of American women remove some kind of hair from their bodies — one 1998 study found that 92% of American women removed hair, most frequently by shaving. Heightened pressure falls on women of color, as they seek to match their bodies to standards made with white femininity in mind.

Host Anita Rao digs into when we started caring so much about body hair and the evolution of hair removal practices with Rebecca Herzig, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College and the author of “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal” (NYU Press/2015).

Rao also talks to Sharan Dhaliwal, founder and editor-in-chief of Burnt Roti, about coming to terms with being a hairy Indian woman. And Marilyn Minter joins the conversation to look at the portrayal of body hair in art. Minter is a visual artist and faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Interview Highlights


Dhaliwal on conversations about women of color and body hair:

When you do see, I guess, representation of body hair in the media or in adverts — for example, of shaving creams and so on — it tends to be white women and it tends to be like small, blonde wisps of hair … which most women of color that have excessive body hair can't really relate to it. It seems like another step backwards more than anything, because there's no real representation there. There's no real discussion about body hair.

Herzig on why talking about body hair is important:

One of the things that I've found most fascinating about the whole subject is it's pretty easy for people to dismiss: Oh come on, you know, body hair? Aren't there bigger issues right now?

Of course these things are true, but what is worth attending to is the way these seemingly little tiny trivial daily things, like what people do to their body hair or don't do their body hair ... become part of these larger systems, these larger structures that then seem so difficult to shift.

   And I was really interested in how these sorts of daily, seemingly minute practices add up into large-scale structures like gender binary, like racial hierarchies.

Dhaliwal on the process of “unlearning” standards of beauty for body hair:

When I was younger, I would shave my legs. If there was a tiny bit that I missed, I would have a panic attack and run home. Whereas now I would just go: Oh well, missed a bit. That unlearning isn't an easy process. It's not just you sitting there going: Oh, I should stop doing that. It's realizing that it's out there, like that pressure is going to be out there. And that's probably not going to change in our lifetimes. But through that understanding, it's kind of slowly accepting yourself as a person.

Minter on turning body hair into art:

I noticed that I had more pubic hair than anybody I've ever seen in any paintings and art history. And that's really where I think the jump off point was. So my thought was: I'm going to make pictures of pubic hair that are so beautiful that people can put them in their living room. I started with photographs, and then I ended up making a lot of paintings.

Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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