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Monday, May 3, 2021


Tearing Your Hair Out

by C. A. Asbrey   

The average human body has about five million hair follicles, but whilst they're associated with strength and virility in men, women have spent a large part of history getting rid of strategic parts of it in the name name of beauty. We don't know when it started, but we do know it was an extremely long time ago. 

It's also cultural. The Chinese have only recently taken to hair removal in areas which have become more westernized. They tend towards leaving body hair alone due to a combination of superstition and a belief that body hair is there for protection. And they're not wrong about the element of protection, but that hasn't stopped the rest of us plucking, tearing, burning, lasering or using electrolysis to rid ourselves of some, or all, of our hair.

The ancient Jews considered the entry into adulthood for females as twelve along with the appearance of two pubic hairs. For boys it was thirteen, along with the pair of pubic hairs. If a woman reached the age of twenty-four without producing the requisite number of hairs she was deemed incapable of reproducing. If the hairs appeared earlier, that alone did not signal adulthood, but the age alone did not signify it either. The child had to have the hairs, and attain the age, before the threshold was met. In reality, nobody really checks nowadays, but they used to. Records also exist of similar examinations in Roman culture too. How those hairs were dealt with was gendered. The women removed public and underarm hair, whilst then men did not. This was seen as not only more attractive, but was thought to be healthier for men to have sex with a woman who had removed her body hair. Women were also allowed to remove an facial hair. Men were forbidden to remove body hair in an edict against looking like a woman. The Talmud has instructions on kosher depilatories.

In an aside, Rabbis were forbidden from officiating if they were bald, had no eyebrows, only one eyebrow, or eyebrows which hung over the eyes.

The Greeks and the Romans had similar rules. Ovid , the Roman poet, urged women, "to groom so that no rude goat find his way beneath your arms and that your legs be not rough with bristling hair."

Originally, sharp shells and shark teeth were used, until the razor was invented. It probably came from ancient India about five thousand years ago, but we cannot be sure. We do know that women removed body hair in ancient Babylonian texts, as did Zoroastrians. Egyptians saw hair removal as a sign of status, with some removing it all, including the head. They replaced it with elaborate wigs, and a queen would also wear a false beard as a sign of her power.

Ancient Greeks saw anything below the neck as worthy of removal, and would have shared the shame of the Roman matron seen entering the baths in full bloom. Both men and women saw excess hair as low-class and animalistic, so they would both work hard to remove it using razors, tweezers, and depilatories. Pumice stones would also be used to wear away the stubble too.

Above the neck was another matter. Greek women loved a huge unibrow. The medical term is Synophrys, and they would paint them in, and even stick on dyed goat hair with resin to create the desired look. This look is still favoured in some parts of the world. Women and men in Oman and Tajikistan still see them as attractive, and a sign of fertility and good health. Those not fortunate enough to grow their own buy a herb called usma. They dry the leaves in the sun, and grind them up until they produce a dark sap which can then be applied with a matchstick.

In medieval Europe, the Catholic church encouraged people to allow their hair to grow, but to hide any from public view. This led to a trend for hairier legs, but balder eyebrows. Women either plucked them or shaved them off entirely. There was a trend for plucked and shaven hairlines too. In the Renaissance, statues and paintings showed men and women without the animalistic hair to signify class and elegance. By Elizabethan times the fashion dictated that eyebrows be removed as well as hair on the forehead. Eyebrows were painted on higher up than their actual site to make the long faces which were fashionable. The queen's hairline rose so much that women again shaved part of their head to emulate Elizabeth the first. Rumours persist that this was caused by natural hair loss in the queen, it didn't stop people copying her.

The merkin remained fashionable for a long time, right through the 15th century to the eighteenth, and in some specialist brothels, the 19th. The reason is counterintuitive. Shaving the hair off meant that there was less chance of pubic lice. However, in a world where venereal disease could not be treated, luxuriant hair was a sign of health - hence the pubic wig. It also meant that signs of disease were hidden. The merkin hid a litany of horrors, which men often took back to their unsuspecting wives.

The hairy body was celebrated by many men in the 18th century, despite a fashion in hair removal in the upper classes, who wanted to be distinctly different from their lower class contemporaries. Again, the hair was seen as a sign of animalistic appetites and a sign they were free of disease, and as such, hairy serving women were seen as fair prey to upper class rakes. Robert Burns, the Scottish national bard, wrote beautiful songs and poems, but he also created risque verses designed to titivate 18th century males at private parties. Whilst looking at historical porn and dirty poems may be seen as prurient, they really give us an insight into a mindset from the past, and Burns makes it clear that activities like 'mowing', finding a 'magpie's nest' were very much in favour. There is also currently debate about whether or not his writings depict rape, or were just wistful boasts of a performer. To the modern eye, the behaviours described are unacceptable. We do know that 18th century women had little protection, and even fewer rights. The Merry Muses of Caledonia certainly reflect attitudes of the time. Burns is currently being examined in a new light; but was certainly a man of his time, and a product of his time. He is therefore an excellent barometer of male tastes and practices of the time.

And we now come to the 19th century, and Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It popularised the theory that the less hairy a woman was, the more attractive she was; a corruption of the scientific theory, as it related to the reduction of fur in humans due to less hairy mates being selected. By the 1900s upper class women, particularly in America, were fixed on the idea that smooth hairless skin related to femininity. Sleeves became shorter showing armpits, and as hems rose, the need to remove of hair from the legs became more pressing. Especially as corporations saw it as a way to make money. A whole new industry grew up providing hair removal by a whole range of methods, and magazines promoted them, making money from the advertising revenue. The pressure on women to conform to a hairless template increased.

Harper's Bazaar (yes, you can blame them ladies) was the first to carry an advert for a razor specifically designed for women in 1914. Gillette's, the Milady Décolleté, was just a safety razor, but was more expensive than the male version, a trend which still continues to this day. Before long other magazines were producing articles about unsightly, and problem, hair. The marketing method is as old as the hills and still in use. Sell the customer a problem, and then sell them the solution.

By WW2 women were going bare-legged in Europe due to a lack of nylon. They painted their legs with gravy browning, and got friends and family to draw a seam down the back of their legs to create the illusion of stockings. To complete the picture, the legs had to be shaved. By the 50s it was normal for women to shave, just in time to prepare us all for the miniskirts and hot pants of the 60s.

A brief counter-reaction from feminists never really caught the public imagination beyond a few. It didn't with me, having dark hair and Celtic genes, which tends towards the hirsute and a thick head of hair. I got my legs lasered a long time ago and never regretted it. It wasn't long before easier travel saw people taking more foreign holidays and those bikini lines had to be perfect. The swimming costumes with legs, and even elbows, were long gone. The smaller they got, the more hair had to be removed. The regular wax, gave way to the French, then the Brazilian, and finally the Hollywood took it all away. We have gone full circle. Those Ancient Greeks and Egyptians would have approved. We are becoming more tolerant of people doing their own thing, and I thoroughly approve of 'live and let live' as a philosophy to live by.


     “So, you want to pretend you’re a Pinkerton? As a female?” His eyes darkened. “I’ve questioned one before, although he didn’t know who I was. They’re trained real well on being both sides of interrogations. You don’t want to do this. Not as a woman. He had a real hard time. You’ll have it even harder.” 

     She sat staring ahead once more, her face impassive and stony.

     “You’ve nothing to say?”

     Her eyes flashed. “Beating the hell out of me won’t change anything but my view of you.”

     Nat reached out and entwined a hard fist in her hair and dragged her backward until the chair balanced on the back legs. He brought his face close to hers, his hot breath burning into her cheek.  “Think harder, lady. This isn’t a game. Who are you?”

     Abigail felt the dragging pain at the back of her head as shards of pain lanced across her scalp. He held her, balanced between his painful grip and a clattering fall to the floor but her stubborn nature wouldn’t let her acquiesce.

     “Others will come after you, no matter what you do to me.” She darted her eyes to meet his, unable to move her pinioned head. “I won’t be the last.”



  1. Isn't research fun and amazing what one learns. I never knew removing hair went so far back to Egyptian times. That kinda explains why Yul Brynner perhaps was picked to play the part of Ramses in The Ten Commandments because he was bald (had a rope of hair attached). Even his son's head was clean-shaven (or made to look bald) in the movie. Now I understand, too, about Elizabeth I who had such a high forehead and painted eyebrows. Thanks for a wonderful and interesting blog, Christine. And the excerpt is equally good.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. It's the silly, mundane things of life which interest me. I remember my mother and granny sharing wartime recipes for the makeup they couldn't buy due to rationing. They said the gravy browning stunk and streaked in the rain.

  2. I remember my mother wearing nylons that had that dark line/seam up the back. Try keeping the stocking straight! I can't remember anymore if I wore nylons like that in my late teens. I think I missed that frustration. And wearing garters, what a nuisance they were.

  3. Well, this hairy blog was certainly an eye-opener, and a shocker. What I want to know is ho the heck was checking pubic hairs on men and women.
    I guess Dwayne Johnson, "The Rock", would have been unpopular back in the days when baldheadedness was bad. How terrible for so many men who could not prevent their genetic makeup of pattern baldness. I'd prefer baldness over those horrible comb-overs. Ick!
    I hate it when men think they can tell women what to do and shame them for physical flaws. Women who are now pressed to wear high heels to work is a very bad thing and, in their older years, they will have foot problems all because men (and some women) think heels make a woman's legs look longer.
    This was a very original blog with so much thought and research in it, Christine. All the very best to you.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comments. Oh, yes. I have to agree about those horrible comb-overs. They fooled nobody. I remember one of my police inspectors who had a comb-over getting his hat knocked off in a disturbance. He plonked it back on, but the comb-over was hanging down the back. As he had curly red hair it looked like he had a squirrel under his hat. He was a very lovely man though, and it's one of many find memories I have of working with him - but you'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh out loud at that, when someone is trying to be an authority figure.

  4. Not shaving my legs all winter is all that keeps my socks up... bwahahahaha

    Oh, I remember the days of purposely enduring discomfort in the name of fashion: 4 inch spike heels, tight skirts, panty hose (ugh), sleeping on brush rollers and I look back and ask myself WHY? haha

    1. Lol! Oh, yes. The bliss of covering up. I could never sleep with rollers in!

  5. That desire to fit in, be accepted has been the ruin of so many. A very good look at how we came to be here. Excellent. Doris

    1. Thank you so much. You are so right. We all reflect our societies in some way, even if it's by being covered in tattoos and piercings as we reject it all.