Not long ago, a 20-year-old woman was admitted to an emergency room in Australia with a high fever, rapid pulse rate, low blood pressure, and badly swollen genitalia. Diagnosed with life-threatening bacterial infections, she spent 10 days in the hospital and three weeks out of work. Her injuries began when she used hot wax to remove all the hair from her mons pubis, vulva, and anus.
In Japan, a 49-year-old woman was seriously injured when a compound of soymilk, lemon, and ethanol she’d been mixing combusted on the stove. The woman had been following a recipe for homemade depilatories reported on a popular television program.
In the United States, a 20-year-old Coast Guard cadet sought to remove his unwanted back hair through laser therapy. At the outset of the second of three scheduled laser treatments, he received a muscle relaxant and a skin-numbing cream to manage the discomfort of the treatment. He vomited before slipping into unconsciousness, and was later pronounced dead due to anaphylactic shock.
To be sure, such cases are unusual. They make headlines because most people (and it is most people in the industrialized world) remove their unwanted hair so habitually and unremarkably. Against the backdrop of the utterly banal, the unexpected calamity stands out.
Yet, by making headlines, these exceptional injuries and fatalities help draw attention to the everyday routines that otherwise slip beneath our notice. Why were these people trying to remove their body hair in the first place – from their genitals, faces, and backs? Why do so many of us remove our hair – in medical offices, in spas and salons, and in private showers and baths? And, perhaps most important, why might it matter?
I studied those routines in the United States, where most adults, across genders, report regularly removing hair from their bodies. What I found is that the norms of body-hair removal now dominant in American popular culture – basically, smooth skin everywhere but the eyebrows, eyelashes, and head for women, along with increasing demands for hairlessness for men – are scarcely a century old.
When European colonists first reached the North American continent, they described the smooth skin of the “Indians” with shock, if not open contempt. Early ethnologists and natural philosophers debated whether indigenous peoples were hairless “by nature,” or whether they repeatedly removed all visible hair. But their evaluations of the result were uniform: They used terms like “deficient,” “debilitated,” and “weak” to describe Native Americans’ smooth, hairless bodies.
Those norms began to change in the late 19th century, with the confluence of several wider currents. The dissemination of Darwin’s landmark Descent of Man increased interest in “man’s” connection to other animals – and in removing reminders of that animal ancestry. The rise of organized scientific and medical professions gave fresh authority to diagnoses and treatments of “excessive” hair. The proliferation of print media and, later, radio expanded the reach of the growing personal care and beauty industries. And the development of increasingly sophisticated tools of hair removal – from electric needles to X-rays to mass-produced safety razors – gave consumers fresh options for managing their hairy bodies.
The effects of changing ideas of physical normalcy on individual experience have been widely discussed: Activists representing feminist, disability rights, queer, and minority ethnic communities often point out the psychological damage wrought by narrow notions of the “normal” or the “beautiful,” and the pleasure and power to be found in resisting them.
Far less widely recognized, however, are the wider effects of those norms – effects that reach far beyond the empowered or damaged individual at hand. Consider the numberless others who make modern practices of hair removal possible: the mice and miniature pigs that serve as laboratory models for new techniques, the factory workers who assemble laser equipment or disposable plastic razors, and the estheticians who remove globs of hair-filled wax from clients’ genitals and anuses.
Consider, too, the effluvia of our seemingly private, solitary rituals: waterways filled with depilatory chemicals, and landfills piled with discarded bottles, crumpled wax strips, and obsolete mechanical devices.
Even our most banal habits, generally practiced quietly and out of sight, can exacerbate existing social stratifications and ecological vulnerabilities. Paying closer attention to those habits can be revealing.