A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Who decided women should shave their legs and underarms?

February 6, 1991

Dear Cecil:

Why do women shave their legs and underarms? When did this custom begin? If it's for hygienic reasons, why don't men to 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.

Cecil replies:

I knew if I procrastinated long enough on this often-asked question somebody would eventually do the legwork 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 the article is that U.S. women 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, namely 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 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.'"

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. Antiarm 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. The volume of leg ads never reached the proportions of the underarm campaign. Women were apparently more ambivalent about calling attention to the lower half of their anatomy, perhaps out of fear that doing so would give the male of the species ideas in a way that naked underarms didn't.

Besides, there wasn't much practical need for shaved legs. After rising in the 1920s, hemlines dropped in the 30s and many women were content to leave their leg hair 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 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.

Some argue that there's more to this than short skirts and sleeveless dresses. Cecil's colleague Marg Meikle (Dear Answer Lady, 1992) notes that Greek statues of women in antiquity had no pubic hair, suggesting that hairlessness was some sort of ideal of feminine beauty embedded in Western culture. If so, a lot of Western culture never got the message. Greek women today (and Mediterranean women generally) don't shave their hair. The practice has been confined largely to English-speaking women of North America and Great Britain, although one hears it's slowly spreading elsewhere.

So what's the deal with Anglo-Saxons? Some lingering vestige of Victorian prudery? Good question, but what with world unrest, the economic crisis, and the little researchers having missed their naps, not high on Cecil's priority list. Here's hoping some all-but-thesis Ph.D. candidate will pick up the trail.

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