“Why the butt did we start shaving our underarms and legs?” I often wonder in the midst of winter as I stare at my bank account and the price of the good razors and say, “Fuck it, no one is going to see my pits or legs anyway.” There are many gendered double standards in this world but then there are ones that stare us right in the face everyday. I do not enjoy shaving my legs or underarms. I do not know any woman who does. Yet, just about every woman I know does, including myself. I am not saying there aren’t good reasons to shave your arm pits, it gets less smelly—point blank. Still, these aren’t the reasons presented to us when we’re young. There has never been any explanation at all for female grooming. Honestly, it was simply that at a certain age everyone else was doing it and if you didn’t they’d call you gross, so we did.
However, nothing happens in a vacuum—there is a reason why women started shaving their pits and it’s as dumb a reason as you might have imagined. It all began in 1915 when women began to wear sleeveless dresses. This had previously been unheard of and the word “underarm” was considered crass because it was located near other “naughty bits.” According to a 1982 article in The Journal of American Culture by Christine Hope called “Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture,” Harper’s Bazaar magazine ran an ad that same year with copy next to a woman wearing a sleeveless dress and hairless pits saying, “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.”
Essentially a fashion magazine decided that underarm hair had suddenly become objectionable because it was visible. Within three months of this campaign the word “underarm” had become commonplace because, “The Woman of Fashion says the underarm must be as smooth as the face.” Anti-armpit hair campaigns took the nation by storm the following years and by 1922 Sears began to sell disposable razors along with their sleeveless dresses.
Similarly leg shaving correlated with more leg visibility. When the hemlines of skirts began to raise significantly in the 1940s and WWII pinup girl Betty Grable sported hairless legs, removing “objectionable hair” became patriotic and the trend took off.
It appears that with women and with women only removing body hair has always been in direct correlation with how visible it is. Even today, ladies like to joke about how we shave less during winter. Nevertheless it’s painfully clear just how arbitrary this all got started: Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine that targeted society’s upper-crust, decided it was cool and like sheep we said, “OK.”
At the end of the day culture is culture and while it’s necessary for us to question the reasons why we do the things we take for granted, enough time passes where the gesture is wholly meaningless. Basically, shave or don’t, it really isn’t a statement anymore, it’s nobody’s business but your pits’, it’s just your personal preference. Even if I know the historical reasons are kind of silly, I’m not going to stop because I like the look and feel of shaved arms and legs. I don’t enjoy brushing my teeth or having to go potty everyday but somehow I know the pay off is worth it. Leeeeeet freeeeeeeeedom riiiiiiiiing.