Essay: Attitudes towards body hair in the media

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  • Published on: August 10, 2018
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One day I stood fully naked in the bathroom after a shower at my friend’s house and HE walked in. I am a 22 year old girl and my friend and I are not on that level where we walk around each other naked. So he opens the door, we were both stunned. Thereupon he closed the door really fast and we got the giggles. A quite funny story in my opinion, but afterwards it made me think about body hair and the way we look at it. I was namely happy that my body hair was decently groomed. For me that meant: not that much body hair. But why did I care about him and my body hair? I knew it didn’t had anything to do with him specifically, because I cared before in other situations. Why does little hair as possible meant decent to me? And wherefore do we call pubic hair in the Netherlands ‘shame hair’? This while everybody got body hair, we all know it from each other and there is nothing to be ashamed about. Later that day I told my good friend what happened and she started laughing. However, the first question she asked me was: ‘’Did you shave?’’ And by that, she meant the hair around my pubic area, armpits and legs. These thoughts and the first question of my good friend motivated me to look deeper into the subject body hair.
In our Western society is a spreading norm of a hairless body for women, and pubic hair removal is a rapidly growing phenomenon among women and also men. But not only pubic hair, certain body hair is a thing that is not fully accepted, what has to be hide or get rid of (Braun, Tricklebank & Clarke, 2013). When I look at commercials, magazines, social media, the people around me of the same age and myself, I see hairless or neatly kept body hair in public. Nevertheless, there is also a counter-movement where going natural has become more accepted. Celebs and bloggers are proudly displaying their hairy armpits. This all made me curious about the perceptions, feelings and behavior of people on this theme. So in this paper, I explore the attitudes towards body hair in Utrecht among emerging adults. Furthermore, I will look at internal and external factors of these attitudes. How big is the impact of the society on this matter? I also will analyze the differences between the two sexes, female and male.

In order to learn about other people’s experiences, I did several interviews with eight emerging adults between the ages of 20 and 30. I met these four women and four men at different places. As a mean of support I looked on the internet at blogs, vlogs and social media sites. Besides this I did some theoretical research to add more information and reliability. The subject is not really a youth culture, but very common among youth. Age matters on this subject, if you look at different cohort studies, the proportion of women removing pubic hair often decreases with age. (DeMaria & Berenson, 2013; Tiggemann & Hodgson, 2008) For example, I noticed that the sauna is a good representation of this phenomenon. Although it’s not clear if this primarily reflects changing norms or age-related factors (Braun, Tricklebank & Clarke,2013).

My interviewees

In chronological order I will introduce my dear interviewees. I first met up with Glenn a 22 year old, half Dutch and half Indonesian, pedagogic worker. He is my muse, because he was the guy that opened the door of the bathroom when I stood there naked. I came to his little apartment that he now rents with a friend and he opened up in comfy clothing, his bouncing curls and his new unicorn slippers. We sit on his bed, me with the computer on my lap and we started talking about the subject. He was really relaxed, but in the beginning he stayed a bit on the surface. During the interview the conversation went deeper. The second interview was a video chat with Pascal who is 23 years old. He is very tall with dark hair, and his mother is half Swiss and his father Dutch. He was sitting in his room, during a break of his homework. He was relaxed and it didn’t bother him at all to talk about the subject. Sometimes he had to think and was quiet for a little while, because it was a subject he never thought about. He said: ‘’It’s some deep shit’’. My third interview was with the 21 year old Sari , fully Dutch, at the Bagels & Beans. I don’t know how to explain but I thinks she fits the store. She is open minded, a little spiritual and with a strong opinion. She wore a red flowered top, with jeans and ordered a cappuccino. She only giggled a bit when she talked about the subject in contrast with her boyfriend, who wasn’t there. Next I met Lotte also at the Bagels & Beans but it was now very crowded. She is 20, a Dutch girl with dark hair and she is doing a communication study in Utrecht. She wore a black top, with jeans and sneakers. She was very open but irritated about the fact that women had to shave so much and she really felt that is was unfair. She was the only one that also asked my view on this matter. Then I interviewed Ferry, the real 22 year old Utrecht lover, at my home. We made some breakfast an after that we did the interview. During the interview we laughed about some questions, especially when he had to tell his preferences. He does a communication and marketing study, and he made some interesting points about shaving, women and the representation of them in the media. He had a strong opinion, but didn’t care that much about the subject. Miriam who is studying nursing was my next interviewee. She is 25 years old and the typical Dutch girl. I came to her home and we sat down with some tea. She doesn’t like trends, and if there is one she really wants to counteract this. She said: ‘’paradoxically I sadly follow this trend of removing body hair’’. Michael I met at Miriam’s home and I told him about my research, he thought I was a bit weird but it was okay to interview him. He was 30 years old, typical Dutch guy and the brother of Miriam. We sat down and he was, surprisingly for me, very open and honest about everything. He had Joepie, their little house bird, on his shoulder during the interview. He wore his working outfit, neat pants and blouse. And my last interview was at the McDonalds with Sjeeda, she is 23 years old and has Iranian parents. She took chicken nuggets, a coke and little fries. She could be very serious at times, but also made some little jokes. She wore a black pants, with a long-sleeved shirt. She was very specific and shared her knowledge of the subject with me. I thought that the interviews were very interesting and during my research I will show some quotes, results and opinions of them.

The history of hair removal

I found out that in this subject the social and cultural historical context is very important. Sherrow shows in her book Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History that the removal of body hair has a long history that even started, of what we know, during the stone age (2006). The removal of hair has spanned many cultures and periods during the human history. There were several reasons why they shaved, but it was often seen as a civilization practices (Boroughs, et. Al., 2005; Cokal, 2007). But if we look back at the latest century, Sherrow discuss that in the early 1900s the movement of shaving started again. Gillette had a big impact on this matter, because he invented a safe shaving tool and carried this overseas to Western Europa. In ads for hair removal, women were now encouraged to remove “objectionable hair” from their bodies, mostly their underarms. Fashion had a big impact on this matter, because the way they dressed affected the way women shaved. In 1920s the sleeveless dresses became more and more popular and during the 1950s the length of skirts got higher in the USA and later Western Europe, so shaving legs, armpits and tweezing eyebrows grew more common. For men this didn’t count, they could grow their body hair except for their beards. Later in the 1960s and 1970s a wilder bush was encouraged among men and women, but during the 1980s and ’90s images and videos of women shaving their bodies were being spread. Through pornography and fashion photography, which resulted that women started giving it more thought again (2006). In this course of the 1990s there has also been an increased attention to the male body (Bordo, 1999) and boys and men are increasingly experiencing body-related concerns, across different bodily domains (Tiggemann, Martins, & Churchett, 2008). For example, their body hair and how they deal with it. Nowadays the dominant norm in the West frames desirable female bodies as slim and smooth (hair-free) and male bodies as toned (Grogan,2008; Braun, et al., 2013). Nevertheless, men and women are talking about their body hair more than ever before, but do they make their own individual decisions on this subject is what I questioned myself. Braun, Tricklebank and Clarke discuss that attitude toward body hair is a generational shift of beauty standards and esthetics. Therefore, these socio-culturally produced meanings around bodies are profoundly influential in constructing the experiences of individuals (2013). Hereby, the literature and history show that the attitudes towards body hair of individuals are really affected by the collective attitudes about it. It thought this was very interesting because, it looks like something intimate, you do and choose yourself. In the second section I will go deeper on the reasons why youth in Utrecht shaves.

Feelings about body hair

During my research I first wanted to know if they grew their body hair or removed it. All my interviewees did and all gave me a whole list of things they trimmed, shaved, epilated or even removed with a scissor. Most of the women shaved or trimmed their pubic area, epilated their eyebrows, shaved their armpits and most did their legs regularly. The survey of Braun shows that these places are the basics which most people are keeping ‘up-to-date’, but Lotte and Sjeeda also removed hair from places that may be indicated as unusual hair growth for women and had low percentage of removing by my interviewees, like above their upper lip, on their chin and on their toes. Sjeeda also shaved here back and buttocks (2013). Lotte and Sjeeda viewed shaving also as more problematic and time-consuming, especially because some of these hairs are visible, and because they had darker and thicker body hair. The women I interviewed varied in body hair density and coloration, most of the interviewees considered it as acceptable for women with blond hair or spars hair not to depilate on certain places (legs, above upper lip) or at least less. Alongside, I asked how they feel about their body hair and they all said something about how they were used to it, but how they find the fast grow back of their body hair bothersome. Sjeeda and Miriam said:

‘’Well.. I’m used to it, but it’s not ideal. It is time-consuming and restrictive sometimes. It gives a feeling of insecurity, whereby I would do some activities less quickly or not spontaneously. I always have to think in advance whether it can come in handy, and if so, I have to stretch extra time in the shower. The extra time is annoying, sometimes I don’t feel like doing it, but I still keep on doing it.’’ (Sjeeda)

‘’I appreciate my body hair, it has a function, but I rather see it growing less and less rapidly. If I had to choose everything or nothing, I rather choose nothing.’’ (Miriam)

They gave a good overview of what all the ladies said. In the beginning they were generally neutral about their body hair, but after some more questions they were more negative than happy about it. But not that negative, just crossed the line of neutral in the direction of negative.

Moreover, most of the men shaved or trimmed their mustache, beard, pubic area and armpits regularly. Pascal also trimmed his belly, breast and groomed his eyebrows. Glenn shaved his whole legs sometimes. Two guys got brown and thicker body hair, in opposite, the other two had blond and blond mixed with red body hair. But all of them were just fine with removing their body hair and saw no big deal with doing it. Like Michael said: ‘’It’s just a part of the job’’. They were also content with their body hair, because it was growing good and not too much. Ferry and Pascal said:

‘’It’s good, not too much and not too less. I am a man, so in principle I can have more growth, but not overmuch body hair. I have a beard that grows, but it is blond/red so you don’t see it that good. This counts for my whole body.’’ (Ferry)

‘’I am confident about my body hair, I am not ashamed about anything of it. I have beard that grows, and I am happy with that. My body hair is not out of control or out of proportion, so I feel confident. (Pascal)

I heard that the men were way more happy with their body hair then the women were. For the women removing felt as a must, time-consuming, but restricted if they let the body hair grow. For the men the amount of body hair was important, ‘too much’ body hair was bothersome for them. They all said that hair is okay for them to have, but you need to groom your body. Also certain places, like the beard, were seen as important and masculine to have. Therefore, the place, the amount and also a bit of the coloration are important factors, for men and women, regarding to the attitudes towards their own body hair.

Reasons for removal

According to their answers I asked about why these characteristics matter and what their reasons were for removing the body hair. Reasons women gave were different, including hygiene, no itching, attractiveness and esthetics of hairless body parts, conform to the norm, not getting any attention or standing in the spotlight with your body hair, for their potential sex partners, routine, some body hair is ugly, hairless body as feminine and the body in hairy state as unfeminine. Most of these answers are normative, and have a social-culturally embedded meaning behind it. They saw it themselves and told me that the removing of their body hair was a mix of internal and (more) external factors. They all felt a norm and felt less attractive or feminine in natural state, which resulted in insecurity feelings when they did let it grow. Especially when it would be visible for others. Sari and Miriam said:

‘’If I wouldn’t shave my armpits, there will be consequences. People will look at me weirdly, people will think immediately things about me and not only strangers, also my surroundings. It’s interesting how this has developed, that women just have to do this. But what does it even matter, and still we keep on shaving, because otherwise we won’t be pretty for the outside world. Shaving is something I don’t really mind, but there are more things we do which are not that comfortable, like wearing Bras. I shave for myself but also for others and the same with a Bra, I go with the rest, when I rather see different. I am a follower.’’(Sari)

‘’Certain factors play a roll, like when I go sporting and I have to shower. It feels nicer for me to shave, because I don’t want to attract attention, or stand out, or get questioned about it, I just don’t feel like that. If I really want to let it grow, I would, but that’s not the matter. I feel more beautiful without hair, it can be possible with hair but I should get more used to that. This would be there, I think, if growing your body hair is normal.’’(Miriam)

What they also all mentioned was the impact of the media and how this shapes women and keeps this norm maintaining, because they thought that the media got a big impact on us. This expresses in their early youth, and they get the image that removing your body hair is normal and let it grow is odd. It even become an inherent thing, were it’s even strange to not do it. I had to think about Foucault and his view on discipline. According to Foucault discipline refers to normalizing supervision (Calhoun, et al., 2012). This concerns, by Foucault, the many ways in which institutions such as school, family, work, media, police, army, hospital or mental health services regulate and organize the behavior of individuals and groups of people according to current collective norms. The discipline imposed by these institutions consists of mapping out the behavior of people and then organizing the different groups of people and their behavior. But it also refers, according to Foucault, to a discipline or control that someone imposes on himself. It is a form of working on itself. This discipline or self-control can concern the urges, the emotions, the time and the setting of priorities. These personal, institutional and internalized forms of discipline is gained. It’s not something innate or native, but developed and trained by our surroundings and ourselves (2012). I think this happened with the Western attitude towards body hair on women. Through fashion and save shaving tools, it became normal in society for women to remove most of their body hair. Magazines, TV, billboards and models showed these images of hairless bodies. First it was maybe a bit strange, because nobody did it, but after a while you see more women with shaved body parts. Eventually it become the norm, and people will thinks it’s strange if you have visual body hair. Because of our clothing nowadays, you see many body parts, but also your sexual partner (which can be fluid nowadays), people at the shower of your sport club or even friends will see you and your naked body. Hereby, people will discipline themselves to remove the body hair, but also watch each other on this matter. You’re constantly visible and don’t want to deal with the consequences of not removing the body hair. They will supervision (or discipline) themselves, and others.

Another way it expresses is that women have a more difficult relationship with their bodies, which effects as well their psychological and physical well-being (Grogan, 2008; Grossbard, et al., 2009; Schick, et al., 2010). Self-acceptance was harder for my female interviewees. What the media shows is problematic, but it isn’t a thing that was constantly on their minds. They rather see it just different, because women’s bodies rarely fit these criteria. Which resulted in (too) many expectations among women but also men against women. Expectations that men didn’t had or less, in their opinion. They only cared about back hair of a really big amount of hair.

‘’There are all these commercials were women have to remove the hair from their legs, armpits, pubic area, upper lips, eyebrows, etc. While man only got commercials for their faces. They got way less of a norm, like women have.’’ (Lotte)

According to my women interviewees, hair removal is gendered, but I was also really curious about the way the men viewed this matter. I asked them also the reasons for shaving and that included hygiene, not done to have much hair, cosmetic reasons, routine, no itching, for their potential sex partners, feels more fresh and looks catered. These reasons are comparable with the reasons the ladies gave, but they gave a more unbend opinion about doing it. Bromberger (2008) claimed a neutralization of differences in hair practices between the genders. My men interviewees, thought this was true until a certain point, because they are expected to shave, but not as much as ladies need to do. But not all men thought that women actually had to shave more than men, because Pascal thought that women had less hair then men had and ferry said that a smooth face has to be shaved every day. The men also mentioned the media, but said it was less target on them and shaving their whole body, only their faces. They mentioned that having a beard is a trend right now, so they could choose to shave their faces or let it grow. Although there is a stigma on men with almost no body hair, they said. It’s not masculine and even a bit feminine if you don’t have growth on your body. They also considered it a bit weird or even ‘gay’ when men shave all the things that women shave, without medical reasons (Braun, et al., 2013). But the guys saw that the society was more focused on women and also thought it was harder for women. Glenn said:

‘’Social media is bad, they create an image for other people, so that other people see that as an ideal. But they don’t think further and how impossible these images sometimes are. This also happens with women and body hair, no hair etc. But it was the same with tattoos and you see them everywhere now. So maybe it will come.’’ (Glenn)

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