Translated by Nelle Tremblay
During an afternoon of unproductive work, I was nonchalantly hanging out on social networks when a photo shared by one of my contacts caught my attention. On the wall of a French city was a long graffiti: "Life is too short to wax1 your pussy." The provocation seemed amusing to me, but the comments about the publication triggered heated debates about the practice of intimate hair removal. Depilation enthusiasts and opponents clashed firmly in an intense and passionate verbal battle. This situation is definitely significant and led me to wonder how such an intimate and personal practice as that of sex depilation could stir up passions so much and generate such strong positions.
Beyond this simple practice, there are issues of social norms. In sociology, a norm is defined as a model of conduct—an obligation that guides the behaviour of individuals by prescribing or prohibiting them; non-compliance with the norm can result in sanctions on the part of the home group, ranging from simple disapproval to more severe social sanctions (Clair, 2011).
Sexuality is also subjected to such norms. Whether through articles in the general or specialized press, advice or recommendations to individuals on current practices or, for example, on the ideal duration of sexual intercourse (Gautherin, 2016), norms are everywhere. Although intended to help, advice of the kind can quickly turn into “injunctions for orgasm” (Osganian and Perriaux, 2002) via the idea of a "useful sexuality" (Mazaurette, 2016). If social customs around sexuality bring one important perspective to this subject, it is also interesting to look at norms constructed around body care. In this context, the subject of intimate hair removal, although not exclusively about sexuality, is a good indicator of how much leeway individuals have or do not have regarding the arrangements they make for their bodies.
It should be noted that this article will focus mainly on hair removal in the West. Hair removal seems to be a cultural practice observed in many societies around the world at various times in history. For example, in Iran before the 19th century, to be considered attractive, women had to have a thick eyebrow and hair over their upper lips to distinguish themselves from young men (Barbat, 2016). Although hair removal is not an intrinsically a Western practice, it seems interesting to me to question this practice in our Western societies in view of the debates held on this subject in recent years (Rose, 2010).
An Ancestral Norm
Historically, hair removal has always existed. In ancient Egypt, hair was considered impure: Men and women from wealthy backgrounds shaved their bodies entirely (Cirrus, n.d.). The same can be said about ancient Greece, where women shaved their pubis completely in order to (according to Aristophanes in particular) not be assimilated to men (Cirrus, n.d.). Proving this are ancient statues from the time when males are generally adorned with dense pubic hair, in contrast to women. However, not all researchers agree with this analysis—some suggesting that hair removal was partial, aiming to give a certain shape to the pubic area (Kilmer, 1982). The Romans also seem to have been fond of hair removal, among wealthier classes at least, and the Japanese as well, who made hair public enemy number one (Bouvier, 2001; Gasc, 2015). According to some theories (Pouvreau, 2015), depilation would allow human beings to distinguish themselves from “beasts,” which are hairy and dangerous, in contrast to civilization which is “refined”. At the time, according to Pouvreau's study, distinctions were also made between the wealthy and the working classes. It can be assumed that the former used hair removal as a means of social distinction to show that they did not need to work, whereas the others, busy in the fields, would have had no time to take care of their hair.
The situation became a little more ambiguous with the arrival of Christianity. At first, this religion represented excess hair as associated with sexuality or sin,—Satan was depicted as being hairy—hair gradually became synonymous with holiness, return to nature and original purity (Pouvreau, 2015). During the Crusades, knights rediscovered the oriental culture of hair removal, and there was a gradual increase in this practice in Europe in the following years (Gasc, 2015). During the Renaissance, many textbooks appeared with instructions on how to completely remove hair from the body, and the practice grew especially among women members of the nobility (Ortelli, 2012), leading to a real trend towards hairless bodies (Burke, 2012).
However, hair is not totally unloved; its meaning varies with time.
The argument that complete hair removal practices exist in our societies only because of pornography, thus derogating centuries of non-depilation, does not hold water completely, since that intimate depilation practices have evidently fluctuated over time.
In Histoire du poil, Marie-France Auzépy and Joël Cornette explore the social and political significance associated with hair or hairlessness (Auzépy and Cornette, 2011). The wigs worn by the nobility since the reign of Louis XIV, for example, is a trend that demonstrates the return of an association between hair and the wealthy caste. But beyond the war over hair, there are positions that go beyond the simple question of aesthetics.
Hair Removal as Commandment
We may consider the sociological definition of “norm” and can ask ourselves whether hair removal is indeed a norm in our societies. I would argue that this is the case. In a group of individuals, a person who does not wax can receive remarks from others (prescriptive attitude) who question their behaviour and verbally disapprove of such a way of acting (social sanction).
According to Maïa Mazaurette, who cites a survey by YouGov, a market research company based in the United Kingdom, 80% of individuals consider that women should wax their armpits, 75% think they should wax their legs, and 40% believe that they should remove their pubic hair (Mazaurette, 2016).
For this article, semi-structured interviews ranging from fifteen to sixty minutes were conducted with women aged 18 to 35 residing in major urban centres. The above-mentioned belief was confirmed by several of them, including a 25-year-old woman, who said that "In fact, intimate hair removal may be the only thing I decide to do for myself. If I want to shave everything, I can do it or not. On the other hand, I think it would be much more difficult if I decided to abstain for the armpits or legs" (Woman, 25 years old, Paris).
As we can see here, intimate hair removal is not so much the problem. It can even represent a form of freedom for some women, depending on the visibility of the body area.
Even men are not exempt from such standards. Although a number of them have adopted the three-day beard fashion leading to a crisis in the razor market, more and more men are reported to shave other parts of their body (Lentschner, 2013).
A Gendered Standard
However, the fact remains that depilation is still primarily an injunction imposed onto women. The distinction between male and female hair removal reflects the gendered hierarchy still in force in our societies. The hair symbolizing animality (Giard, 2013) becomes, when associated with men, synonymous with strength, bestiality, virility and therefore has intrinsic “masculine” character, which has value in patriarchal societies. On the other hand, the absence of hair immediately qualifies femininity as a form of softness, innocence—hair being a marker of adulthood—and purity, far from the violence of Nature (Giard, 2013). In addition, women who do not wax are confused with men, thus challenging the gender binary (Barbat, 2011).
To ensure the normativity of hair removal, particularly for women, many discursive means are used to stigmatize those who do not practice it. As was written by an unshaved blogger who posted a professionally photographed picture of herself on social media: "I was harassed for several days (insults, incentives to buy clothes and a razor, ironical comments on the size of my breasts, etc.)" (Pho-No-Graphy, n.d.). I have personally observed on several occasions, during festive evenings between students or in comments in several internet articles (Madmoizelle, 2016), that while not all women who don't wax are harassed, remarks from relatives or third parties about the state of their hair are frequent and aim to remind us that the current norm is and remains hair removal. In doing so, it shows us that our current societies value hairless bodies, mainly among women, but also among men (Samama-Patte, 2014). The time is long gone when James Bond, played by Sean Connery, had a large hairy chest. Today, the vast majority of male beauty guns are hairless, with the exception of the beard, which is making a comeback.
While historical examples show a constant pendulum swing between periods that encourage hair removal and ones that create trends around hair, our time is resolutely on the side of hairless genitals.
Although it is difficult, in my opinion, to assign responsibility for this, I think that accusing pornography is a simplistic argument that reduces the complexity of this subject to a single factor. Hair removal norms are a reality that individuals must deal with.
However, it appears that the ways in which people deal with hair removal norms are more subtle than they appear at first glance, demonstrating more nuanced ways of dealing with normativity.
If hair removal practices are by no means linear, with periods where hair was encouraged and followed by times where hair was cautiously erased, I will focus in the next part of this series on the current mores. In doing so, if the progressive questioning of patriarchy is correlated with criticism of depilatory norms, we will see that individuals seem more nuanced in their daily practices.
1For conciseness purposes, “wax” is used to include all forms of hair removal, including shaving, and not only depilation with wax.
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