April 16, 2010

"The Great Underarm Campaign" 1915-2010?

So, of course it would fall to me to write this piece as I am the hairy feminist of the bunch. I never shave my armpits and so rarely shave my legs that it’s a special occasion to my partner. Literally. I present my freshly shaven legs as a gift (oh, you only think I’m kidding). As a woman who doesn’t shave AND is a feminist, I feel like it’s incredibly taboo to even be having this discussion, but here it goes.

On Monday an article was published in the New York Times “Unshaven women: Free Spirits or Unkempt.”  It was prompted by Mo’Nique (winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Precious”) lifting her dress at an awards ceremony to reveal her unshorn legs. She is not the first celebrity to make this decision (mistake or not): Julia Roberts, Alicia Silverstone, Gillian Anderson, Britney Spears and Amanda Palmer of the Dresdon Dolls have all done it. I was kind of excited both to read this article and to see what responses it elicited from bothmen and women…the most annoying of which are men complaining about how it’s gotten so hard for men now, as well. I’m not even going to validate that with a response. Of course, the vast majority are men who basically say, “Do what you want, but you and your hairiness would never have a shot at me.”  How about this one:

I’m sorry. I will vote for a woman for president. I will work for a woman. Women should be priests, soldiers, equal pay, whatever. But hairy women are seriously unappealing.

Well, in all your glory, I can only imagine what we’re all missing! There are also a great many women who share a similarly grossed out sentiment, and have been indoctrinated to believe that it is somehow dirty or unsanitary to not shave your body hair. And, not just the ‘pits and the legs….ALL OF IT HAS TO GO! But, I’d like to backtrack and review a little bit of the history of shaving. Here’s a condensed timeline for you……

• Around the time of dinosaurs OR 100,000 B.C.E.     -     Neandertal men first start pulling body hair and tattooing (they also enjoyed filing down their teeth. Enjoyed? Yeah….right.)
• 3,000 B.C.E.      -     Invention of metal tools; Egyptian & Indian priests use copper tools to shave their heads
• 400      B.C.E.     -      Alexander the Great advocates shaving to prevent “dangerous beard grabbing in combat” (also, Alex hated the five o’clock shadow)
• Middle Ages, Rome, and The Crusades OR 300 B.C.E. to 1603     -     Various strange and painful methods of hair removal from plucking eyelashes, to using resin, pitch, white vine, ass’s fat, she-goat’s gall, bat’s blood, and powdered viper to remove body hair are employed
• 1603 – 1700’s     -     Both women and men shave/remove their eyebrows and forehead hair, and wear artificial wigs and mouse fur for eyebrows…..again, really? : /
• Late 1700’s – 19th century      -     Shaving becomes something that only “dandy’s” engage in…and, mostly in London; as well, as “women of the night,” but they only shave to prove to their sirs that they don’t have lice.

And, that brings us to the juicy stuff (no, not the lice)…..the important stuff…..the stuff that still matters and compels me to write this blog. In 1901 King Camp Gillette along with MIT engineer William Nickerson patented their first safety razor. This was the beginning of the creation and domination of the shaving market. In a large and profitable marketing venture, Gillette teamed with the U.S. Army and gave every enlisted man in the army a razor during World War I (for those of you who were asleep during history class, that was 1914-1919). During the same time, Gillette was trying to find a way to expand his reach. He was motivated, of course, by the same thing that motivates any corporate campaign. Greed. That coupled with a seemingly mundane development in fashion - the popularity of sleeveless dresses marked the beginning of “The Great Underarm Campaign.” In 1915 Harper’s Baazar published the first advertisement featuring a woman with shaved “underarms.”


From this point the campaign turned female body hair into something “objectionable,” and “the woman of fashion says the underarm must be as smooth as the face.” And, by 1922 (two years after women won the vote), Gillette and the advertising barrage had won the underarm hair fight. They didn’t win the leg hair fight as easily as the length of skirts didn’t mandate shaving. However, by the 1930’s we’re not only shaving it all off we’re waxing it off!

Okay….so almost 100 years later why are we STILL shaving? Why do a lot of women shave, pluck, wax (which can actually be very dangerous), burn, trim, bleach, dissolve, laser or otherwise remove every inch of body hair?? It is not dirty, unsanitary or unfeminine. Contrary to everything you have ever been told, that hair is there to hold in your essence and protect the skin (note: your skin doesn’t develop those annoying little red bumps for nothing). This may seem counter intuitive due to all of the bad press your body hair gets! It has become such an ingrained, unconscious part of our culture that it’s an assumed responsibility as opposed to a choice. The first time a former boyfriend of mine commented on the fact that I hadn’t shaved my legs in a couple of days….it hit me. How ridiculous! And, how dare you! To be rebellious - I stopped shaving. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you have to be hairy to be a feminist. I like the way Amanda Palmer summed it up…..wake up every day and make your decisions. But, I’ll take it a step further and say wake up and make informed, conscious decisions.


  1. Great post.

    Comment by JessicaO — April 16, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

  2. Let’s talk about pubic hair! I had pubic hair for maybe six months before I was convinced (by an older girl) to shave it all off. Six months! I waited what, twelve years for that hair? This bald eagle thing started popping up in 90’s porn and (as most images in porn do) became a goal of real folk. This timeline means that my entire adult life, pubic hair has been deviant. I consider myself a somewhat media-aware feminist, and I’m still grappling with the idea of going au natural.

    I will say, there are plenty of men and women out there who are DOWN with hair (stubble, sparse, bushy, whatever). For those you come across who aren’t, it’s an effective (and free!) way to say “fuck you, I control my body”.

    Comment by Kristine — April 16, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

  3. Posts like this often ignore one fact: many men remove all their hair, too. Yes, there is no comparison between the expectations put on women and the expectations for men to be hairy but not too hairy (some people are okay with chest hair, but back hair?) More and more men are trying it out, are mostly figuring it is a pain in the ass (sometimes literally) to maintain, and are often still doing it. Men are getting liberated from patriarchy to be able to be less hairy, while women are still having a hard time getting out of the social constructs.

    In ten or twenty more years, it will probably be very inexpensive for people to be permanently hairless. I bet most people, women and men, will opt for it by then. The technology it takes to remove hair is pretty amazing stuff, and I’ve had some laser treatments so I know.

    As for the protective necessity of hair, I call bullshit. The skin does a very good job of protecting with or without hair, otherwise we’d have very furry soles on our feet. Shaving isn’t the best thing to do to skin, nor is waxing, though shaving does a great job of getting rid of dead skin (exfoliating with a blade? it happens.) And a little care and aftercare makes the danger very minimal.

    Comment by jon — April 30, 2010 @ 5:57 am

  4. Thanks for your comment, Jon. But Lani wrote this to specifically look at the cultural shift predicated by corporations that advertised shaving and made unshaven parts less desirable. Its a cultural exploration if you will. Personally, I shave my legs, underarms, trim my bikini line and even my big toes. Yup, there I said it. lol And, mostly, I shave because I know it is considered unattractive and, frankly, I am used to it.

    As for men, yup, they have become increasingly less hairy. But, again, this article was specifically aimed at the sociohistorical origins of women’s shaving rituals. With that said, I know plenty of men that shave, wax and have gone through laser hair removal. One friend stopped his laser treatments because they were expensive and painful. My other friend is completely hairless except for eyebrows and stuff, you know. Personally, that isn’t attractive to me. I used to like a hairless chest in my youth but as I grew older I liked a man with some hair there It’s his “choice,” though. For men uncomfortable and embarrassed by body hair, I suppose patriarchy has “liberated” them to seek hair removal without negative sanctions BUT it was really an opening up of the consumer culture and the corporate creation of the term “metrosexual” that provided shelter for men from ceaseless teasing and attacks on their sexuality and masculinity. The corporate consumer culture began targeting men approximately 12 years ago as an untapped demographic. This is when we began to see hair dye sold for men etc. I’m happy men can groom themselves, if they choose, without being harassed but I do know the true origins of this “opening up” of the culture.

    Comment by Melanie — April 30, 2010 @ 7:02 am

  5. Oh, I just want to add: this article specifically addressed underarm hair and didn’t look at hair on bodies in general. You obviously know the endless stereotypes about women and feminist women who don’t shave. One of the intentions in taking on this brief sociohistorical post was because to call a feminist “hairy” is supposed to be and insult and an attack on her femininity. Clearly, underarm hair is not desirable by mainstream culture these days. If shaving were truly a choice, women and men would not be deemed ugly or gross (or wherever else) if they chose not to. For women, shaving has become a mandate. I have never seen a commercial advertise underarm shaving to men. While some men do shave their underarms, most don’t and underarm shaving is still seen as something that “women should do.”

    Comment by Melanie — April 30, 2010 @ 7:17 am

  6. You sound a lovely lady. I have previously commented that why should women have to shave because of a 1915 invention? Women with bodies as nature intended are powerful, beautiful and downright sexy (as I speak as a UK national who has visited the US on several occasions). I totally support you and keep up the good work!

    Comment by Mark — May 1, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

  7. I don’t believe it was Gillette that made shaving “necessary” through advertising, as the timeline clearly shows that there was always a desire to change bodies to accommodate various fashions even at times when advertising wasn’t part of the social environment. It wouldn’t have worked if there wasn’t a desire on the part of many women to go out in public in more-revealing clothing, so in some ways it is feminism that created an un-feminist event. The ancient Greeks shaved, modern women often shave, and in between there were times of more and less hair, but that’s a Western/European perspective. Societies in cultures that barely had access to steel, such as various African, Pacific, and South American “indigenous peoples”, often got rid of body hair in multitudes of ways. Mostly, it’s done because some adornment is desired to separate people. The drive goes deeper than an advertising campaign.

    In general, the correlation is between how much skin is shown and how much hair is removed. The swimsuits of 1915 didn’t “require” as much hair removal as those of today. Gillette wasn’t the chicken or the egg in the which came first question; they’re the farmer making the profit.

    Comment by jon — May 2, 2010 @ 9:46 am

  8. Jon – Thanks for all of your comments and attention! I agree with you that body adornment, piercing, tattooing, hair removal, etc. are all a part of the cultural experience. And, I don’t condemn any one individual for choosing to participate in those rituals. I didn’t write this piece to make any women feel bad about their choices or even to paint Gillette as the one and only cultural standard instigator (I have issues w/ the Gillette corporation for many other reasons – animal testing not being the least of them).

    I do, however, believe that a person who chooses to participate in anything that is presumed to be a cultural expectation (esp. due to something so basal as gender) should be aware of where they came from, as well as why they themselves are making those decisions.

    Advertisements serve to create a certain (and profitable) sense of beauty and normality. In that way – Gillette did without a doubt create and foster the cultural notion that shaving ones armpits (and later, legs) is attractive and hygenienic which I do not believe to be true. And, women who (hairy feminist or not 😉 should not be made to feel the way the media made Mo’Nique feel, for example, for making choices that don’t line their wallets or adhere to what they think is attractive and appropriate.

    As for your earlier statement that skin protects as well as hair – that certainly depends on the part of the body we’re talking about. (Your head being far too obvious). Case in point – a friend of mine had her pubic hair waxed which – due to sexual activity – caused an abscess and she ended up in the hospital with a nasty infection. Additionally, and more to the point of the post, armpit hair actually exists to protect the upper arm from chafing, and to pull moisture/sweat away from that crevice because its existence there can cause yeast and/or bacterial infections. It has also been suggested that the axilla have something to do with the release of pheromones. RE: Furry soles of our feet…..the skin on your feet is substantially thicker than the rest of your skin (which has hair – no matter how fair or thin – to protect it) nature made different accomodations for the feet.

    Comment by Lani — May 2, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

  9. Then again, there’s always the bugbear in the room. The omni-prescent fear of man love. If I, a seemingly straight-enough guy, make joyous and unrestrained love to a women with hairy legs, doesn’t that make me a little bit…. gay?

    Look, you can make all the choices you want. Just don’t do it in a way that makes me feel ashamed to be a manly American man-male.

    Comment by kevin_m — May 20, 2010 @ 4:45 am

  10. I really rather prefer to see hair under the arms, I find it quite sexy. I certainly don’t shave anywhere (unless it gets really hot), and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to. My partner found this out when she stopped shaving while on holiday with her family, (she usually just relaxes and lets her hair down), and was surprised that I hadn’t mentioned it.

    It’s so frustrating when the second someone decides to be slightly different, a chorus of majority kicks in and demands that they conform again. I appreciate the variety in life, thank you.

    Comment by Jamie — July 27, 2010 @ 1:14 am

  11. It is so true that the constructs of society can probably go back to some patriarchal movement. When I heard that Playboy only put up clean shaven women because men tend to like that little girl virginal look, well, YUCK. Who wants to be someone’s pedophile fantasy.

    In my line of work, I am actually seeing mostly men, but women too, who shave and wax so as not be able to be subjected to a hair follicle drug screening. I have 3 clients who shave completely in order to keep their children our of DHS/DSS control.
    Just saying, there may be more to this than the naked eye can see.

    Comment by Tina — November 13, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

  12. I quite prefer the look of underarm and un-trimmed pubic hair on a woman. To me, it is very sensual and natural. It says that that a woman is comfortable and confident with her body. What could be more sexy than that?

    Comment by william — December 4, 2010 @ 12:00 am

  13. I recently stopped shaving – probably a few months ago now. I stopped once I realised that my reasons for shaving were bullshit – “I like being smooth”, I would say. “It feels nice”, “it’s my choice, and I just like to shave”.
    I realised it wasn’t my choice at all – the choice wasn’t “hairy” or “smooth” the choice was “hairy and shamed” or “smooth and accepted” – that is no kind of choice… I didn’t actually like to shave, and I was only really ever smooth for a short amount of time with a fresh blade, the rest of the time I was stubbly and prickly anyway.

    So I stopped. I may choose to shave again, but I’ve decided that I’m only going to do it once it feels like a real choice. It will be a real choice when I can chose between shaving and not shaving without having to think about the social consequences. I deserve to have control over my own body, damn it!
    Anyone who says “it’s a free choice, I just choose to shave” without even knowing what their body looks like in it’s natural hairyness doesn’t quite get it… I mean, you might make an informed choice to conform to the leg and underarm standards, if the battle in that area just isn’t worth fighting to you… but don’t tell me it’s a choice about removing hair or not. when people who don’t shave get shamed like they do, that makes it a choice about acceptance and conformity, not about hair.

    Comment by Alien Tea — December 8, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

  14. I completely agree with “Alien Tea” ‘s post about shaving. I have grown my armpit hair and leg hair for the last 5 years, and it is not only a lot more comfortable and a lot less hassle (re: I don’t have to constantly make time for shaving to avoid stubble, because grown hair is not prickly), but it is also not a real “choice.”

    Alien Tea wrote in her post that it is not a choice between “hair or shave” it is a choice between “hair and shame or shave and be accepted.” I’ve found that the type of people who will accept you just because you shave and shun you if you don’t, are the type of people who will never really accept anything about me in the first place.

    Once you start growing your hair our yourself, you feel the incredible pressure that coerces women to shave all the hair off of their bodies. It is absolutely empowering to ignore this pressure and wear my natural leg hair and armpit hair.

    I still face a lot of hostility, depending on the part of the country I am in. This has got to go. This is what we fight against: other people telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies. What, may I ask, does my having leg hair and armpit hair have to do with anyone else’s life?

    And Cheers to the Women and Men who come out and make statements and draw the public’s attention to this issue. We have to start talking about it to address the prejudice.

    Comment by Zulee Rae — January 18, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

  15. I find it laughable and PATHETIC that feminists think that an adult woman shaving her body hair is somehow the equivalent of a little girl….As if this practice is some sort of socially imposed neoteny. If you don’t wanna shave, Find. But I reserve the right to refuse to have sex with a woman who doesn’t shave. Maybe that makes me a “bad person” to some, but I could care less.

    Comment by Namenlos — June 18, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

  16. I Think its all Bullshit!!!

    Comment by vaibhav — October 24, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

  17. And, you are entitled to that now informed opinion.

    Comment by Lani — October 25, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  18. I think people have way too much time on their hands. This was actually posted? Yes, a company wanted to make money so it could stay in business, SURPRISE, and in doing so pushed its product so women would shave AS WELL AS men. I’m not saying that there isn’t a social “push” for women to look or act a certain way, but am just getting tired of nobody really paying attention to the personal choices they or others make or personal attractions that they or others have. And if that is already known and understood then what was the whole point of this? Pointing out that men don’t like hairy women but they would vote for a female president and to be soldiers…..WHAT?! I think you are a very bitter individual (which sucks) and by the way what type of Feminism appeals to you anyway? “I’m a feminist.” Okay, I’m a “Philosopher” or I’m a “Student.” I think there is more to it than that and I think that that would be a great blog! I prefer shaven women and hope to find a woman that does not mind shaving and will put up with a hairy man. So far I do not have back hair. YUCK!

    Comment by R.D. — October 28, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

  19. One more thing I would like to add. Deconstruction is the easiest way to put meaning into places where it does not belong. I say this not only to people reading this but also to myself. Have a good night and a Happy Halloween.

    Comment by R.D. — October 28, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

  20. The argument for women to remain feminine as nature created with adult body hair is absolutely right We are ‘objects’ of creation with human bodies of both gender equipped and programed as necessary to procreative sustenance of human species. The respective bodies as HE or SHE serve as basic instruments of indwelling subjective personality, consciously addressing one self always as “I” irrespective body gender or parent given name of address.
    Hairy cell matrices are holographically formatted as part of natural creation, covering particular skin areas at birth and extending to larger areas according to growth of body, reaching an average age of puberty. If the tender and innocent minds of playful children are allowed to develop along with changes in body patterns, released according to age without any prejudiced advice of distortion and taboo, they grow up on an average into loving personalities of rational character. Europeans tend to be more naturally inclined to rational judgement regarding pit and pubic hair of both gender as an unavoidable patented process of nature.
    The case and reasons of developments in the U.S and the causal factors are well narrated in the above article along with embarrassment experienced by parents of precocious child developments. This is because ‘hate’ of a natural manifestation is forcefully programmed and imbibed into the minds of innocent people for the ‘sake’ of business promotion, noting the fact that copy rights of design and patented rights of production are accorded and owned by human beings among themslves as ‘creators’ of secondary products. Do they own the same over their bodies as products of primary creation?

    Comment by Sastry.M — March 26, 2012 @ 12:39 am

  21. Thanx for this informative article. Im so tired of the constant domestication of humans. Everything thats normal function of our bodies are made out to be shamefull. As long as we follow the crowd, we OK. No! I want to be instinctive, original and make choices about my own body. I refuse to be a market value to companies that make out that we less than if we do not conform. Body hair is there for a reason. Well , mine is.

    Comment by ilse — June 30, 2012 @ 11:37 am

  22. LOL Seriously Kevin actually wrote that comment? Wow talk about insecurity. How the hell does being with a woman who doesn’t shave MAKE YOU GAY!? Does that mean if the woman is your height, your weight/heavier, taller… etc. you are also gay? How pathetic. Did you know that there is a spectrum of biological maleness and femaleness anyway!? people who appear androgynous can be more male or female than a person who looks particularly masculine or feminine! So that kind of throws your comment out the window with some facts. If body hair on a woman makes you feel like you are with a man, you need some serious help lol. If I started growing my underarm hair I wouldn’t be any less feminine than I am now! Your lack of intelligence and logic is so concerning.

    Comment by Olivia — October 23, 2012 @ 1:07 am

  23. How DARE you have hair on a certain body part… when I think that you should not have it there. Remove it. Now. I order you to. (And billions of foolish women follow it, blindly.)

    There’s nothing the least bit unattractive (or attractive) about shaving (or not shaving) hair under your arms.

    Comment by Alice — December 23, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

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    Comment by adonis golden ratio — April 5, 2013 @ 6:41 pm

  26. I wish we could start a be natural be free movement. I remember seeing hair under the arms of women in the 80’s and 90’s, for more added history. I remember in school guys looking girls with hairy legs. Guys speak up and remember this doesn’t apply to every culture of people. But all the days in July or Aug. 2013, women who do not shave or those who want to stop could wear tank tops or whatever u want and show your armpits or legs (which I do not notice there to much of an issue with hairy legs in the public) etc. We have the power to change things no need to seem like we are losing to being more empowered-women will continue to change the world like Mrs. Obama being a great example. We need to make it clear that there are women who keep it 100 and those who spend 100 at some point in time. Bottom line do what you want, but so will I. We would need someone that can spread this via tv or radio fast and when I hear it; I will be proud and just being me anyway but more proud and comfortable.

    Comment by Ross — June 2, 2013 @ 9:49 am

  27. Guys liking to see girls with hairy legs is what I meant above.

    Comment by Ross — June 2, 2013 @ 9:53 am

  28. Using straight razor for shaving under-arm is advantageous and save time. But if you’re afraid of cutting skin, then choosing safety razor would be better. After all caring your skin is your responsibility.

    Comment by Stewert — November 19, 2013 @ 7:22 am

  29. You must learn to take responsibility for your self and learn to take responsibility for your role played in
    all of your life dramas with various characters. Let’s not make
    it acceptable for black people to call one another the N
    word while it’s unacceptable for anyone else to. And the Black females (mostly the younger generation
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    Comment by African Porn Pics — December 4, 2013 @ 5:40 am

  30. It is a woman’s choice whether to shave or not. Personally I believe that women who leave their underarms are far more beautiful and sexy than those who shave. Let’s have more natural women and make 2015 a year in which the shaving convention that has held sway for a century is finally ditched!

    Comment by Mark S — June 22, 2014 @ 3:45 pm

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