Another fine scrape

A question not calculated — but certainly guaranteed — to get my attention:

I wonder what women did back when my grandmother was young, before safety razors. Did they just not worry about it? Or did they have some other method of removal? I know one of my aunts — of whom I am very jealous — has never had to shave her legs because she has very fine, very blonde hair — and the hair on her legs DOES NOT SHOW. But surely there were enough fair skin + dark hair women back in the day that hair on the legs would have been an issue. Or did they just always wear thick stockings and so many layers of undergarments that it didn’t matter? What did the flappers do? I don’t think the safety razor existed in the 1920s…

The very first safety razor — it featured a skin guard of sorts made of very thin wire — was patented in 1888, though it really didn’t make a whole lot of headway until King C. Gillette (of course) went into production circa 1903, and it became pretty much the standard after Gillette provided a razor for every American soldier sent off to the Great War.

Then again, those soldiers were, um, men. How did women get caught up in this? Cecil Adams’ The Straight Dope advises that it was a two-part process, starting with underarms:

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.”

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 of female vulnerability for marketers to exploit.

According to Hope, the underarm 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’.”

OMG, objectionable hair! Whatever will we do?

Opaque stockings and variable hemlines made leg hair a non-issue for a couple of decades. What happened?

Though Hope 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. That plus shorter skirts and sheer stockings, which looked dorky with leg hair beneath, made the anti-hair pitch an easy sell.

Yes, folks, it’s the dreaded Male Gaze. The Patriarchy wins again.

Of course, this assumes that the Patriarchy has put some thought into the matter, which is a lot to assume of a bunch of, well, guys, especially considering that guys have only a few square inches to scrape off every day, if they bother to scrape at all, which a lot of them don’t. And besides, women have a whole lot more surface area to deal with, which boosts the potential for drudgery.

That said, there are women who spurn the razor, and yes, it is possible to do that and not become “unsightly,” though it helps to have a favorable juxtaposition of hair and skin shades. As for the chemical treatments — well, I’ve tried a couple myself, and I disliked them intensely. Imagine that.


  1. GradualDazzle »

    27 July 2011 · 1:06 am

    Interestingly, the “favorable juxtaposition of hair and skin shades” can be a serious drawback in the laser hair removal field… unless the undesirable hair is fairly dark, the laser light can’t “grab” the hair and do its deed. Us natural redheads and natural blondes are out of luck.

    I am of the less-is-more camp as far as body hair goes, and I think it’s in large part because of my perceptions of cleanliness (not necessarily based in actuality, just my perceptions).

  2. CGHill »

    27 July 2011 · 7:04 am

    Just so. I noted this laser issue about 18 months ago:

    Clearly this gizmo has to be able to distinguish between skin color and actual hair color, or it can’t deliver the high optical energy to the right place. Which tells me they shouldn’t expect any endorsements by, say, the Supremes.

    By which I mean the celebrated Motown group of three women, not the overworked Washington group of nine jurists.

  3. fillyjonk »

    27 July 2011 · 7:08 am

    Yeah, if I ever win the lottery, (not that I ever play the lottery), getting my leg-hair lasered would probably be one of the things I’d consider blowing a chunk of dough on. As it is, it seems too much to spend my hard-earned paycheck on, when Daisys still go at 8 for $4 or whatever it is.

  4. nightfly »

    27 July 2011 · 11:19 am

    The Male Gaze… what twaddle. Presumably guys were undressing their brides before 1915 – were they objecting to leg hair in the sixteenth century too?

  5. Tatyana »

    27 July 2011 · 5:54 pm

    nightfly – in XVI cent they – presumably – were distracted by horrendous body odor, unsuccessfully camouflaged by rose essence and by fleas, hoping up and down in hirsute jungles

  6. Tatyana »

    27 July 2011 · 5:55 pm

    hopping, not hoping! shshshshsh…

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