Why do women shave their legs and underarms? When did this custom begin? If it's for hygienic reasons, why don't men do it too? Is it all a big conspiracy by the razor companies? I've heard some European women don't shave. Please clarify this mystery. --A., Chicago
I knew if I procrastinated long enough somebody would eventually do the legwork on this often-asked question for me. Sure enough, Pete Cook of Chicago has sent me a 1982 article from the Journal of American Culture by Christine Hope bearing the grand title "Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture." The gist of it is that women in the U.S. were browbeaten into shaving underarm hair by a sustained marketing assault that began in 1915. (Leg hair came later.)
The aim of what Hope calls the Great Underarm Campaign was to inform American womanhood of a problem that till then it didn't know it had: unsightly underarm hair. To be sure, women had been concerned about the appearance of their hair since time immemorial, but (sensibly) only the stuff you could see. Prior to World War I this meant scalp and, for an unlucky few, facial hair. Around 1915, however, sleeveless dresses became popular, opening up a whole new field for marketers to exploit.
According to Cook, the campaign began in May 1915 in Harper's Bazaar, a magazine aimed at the upper crust. The first ad "featured a waist-up photograph of a young woman who appears to be dressed in a slip with a toga-like outfit covering one shoulder. Her arms are arched over her head revealing perfectly clear armpits. The first part of the ad read 'Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.'"
Within three months, Cook tells us, the once-shocking term "underarm" was being used. A few ads mentioned hygiene as a motive for getting rid of hair, but most appealed strictly to the ancient yearning to be hip. "The Woman of Fashion says the underarm must be as smooth as the face," read a typical pitch.
The budding obsession with underarm hair drifted down to the proles fairly slowly, roughly matching the widening popularity of sheer and sleeveless dresses. Anti-arm-hair ads began appearing in middlebrow McCall's in 1917. Women's razors and depilatories didn't show up in the Sears Roebuck catalog until 1922, the same year the company began offering dresses with sheer sleeves. By then the underarm battle was largely won. Advertisers no longer felt compelled to explain the need for their products but could concentrate simply on distinguishing themselves from their competitors.
The anti-leg-hair campaign was more fitful, never reaching the proportions of the underarm campaign. Women were apparently more ambivalent about calling attention to their lower chassis, perhaps out of the well-founded fear that doing so would give men ideas in a way that naked underarms did not. After rising in the 1920s, hemlines dropped in the 30s, and many women were content to leave their leg fuzz alone.
Still, some advertisers as well as an increasing number of fashion and beauty writers harped on the idea that female leg hair was a curse. Though Cook doesn't say so, what may have put the issue over the top was the famous WWII pinup of Betty Grable displaying her awesome gams. Showing off one's legs became a patriotic act and soon even "good" girls were doing it. That plus the advent of shorter skirts and sheer stockings made the anti-leg-hair pitch an easy sell.
Body hair removal is now pretty much universal among U.S. women and increasingly common in Europe. Shaving, waxing, depilatorizing--they're a pain, and for what? I'll tell you for what: they make you look pretty hot in the eyes of the average male (including your humble columnist). Just like high heels. We wouldn't wear 'em, but we like the way they make women look. Life (tee-hee) ain't fair.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.