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A Brief Cultural History of Hairy Legs

Unshaved legs are a natural state, but for some they're also a statement.

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Nicki Meier, 29, felt pressure to shave their legs from a young age.

“When I was in third grade I started getting teased. My mom sat my twin sister and I down and taught us how to shave. If I went a few days without shaving, friends would tell me it was gross,” said Meier, who is an advocate and community organizer. “By the time I was in college I began to resist that pressure. I thought it was unfair that women, girls, and femmes that don't shave are seen as dirty and disgusting, yet boys and more masculine folks are allowed to stay hairy. I stopped keeping up with shaving. When I injured two fingers on my dominate hand when I was a junior in college, I decided to quit shaving all together.”

Meier is like a lot of women and femme-identifying people in the United States — one day your leg hair is just hair, and the next it’s “unnatural” for you to have. The precedence for leg-shaving in the United States only goes back about a hundred years, but the idea is so entrenched in our culture that until recently 92 percent of women shaved.

Today people are redefining what it means to be female and have leg hair. Though women and femme-identifying people who have hairy legs are still a minority in the United States, the statistics are shifting. A 2016 Mintel study reported that between 2013 and 2016, the percentage of women who shaved their legs fell from 92 to 85 percent. Mintel cited several possible reasons for the change, including the popularity of the wellness and natural-beauty movement and a desire to buck societal expectations. Celebrities who don’t shave, such as Monique, Julia Roberts, Madonna, and Bella Thorne, have also given the phenomenon more visibility.

Sarah Allbritten, a 29-year-old caregiver, was influenced by an article a friend suggested to her.

“My friend shared an article about being a hairy woman that mentioned a book called Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole,” said Allbritten. “She has a chapter in her book about being hairy, and I just decided to try it out. I first started with six months. October will be two years since I shaved. Needless to say, I really like being hairy. I like the way it looks and feels. I find it pretty, it's soft, and I enjoy being different and kind of standing out in this way.”

Hairless trends for both men and women have ebbed and flowed throughout history for a variety of cultural and socioeconomic reasons. Mainly, hairlessness has been about control — control of nature, our bodies, class structures, race, women, the status quo. After all, it’s a lot harder to fight the patriarchy when you’re busy spending your time and money on the Sisyphean task of taming hair growth.

The alternative — hairiness — began picking up negative stereotypes in the United States sometime around the 1840s. This attitude derived from popular culture, the eugenics movement, mass immigration (of people from Southern and Eastern Europe, who were often hairy), and pseudoscience, all of which linked hairiness to disease, violence, insanity, and “primitive” ancestry. Prior to that, early Europeans living in America traditionally saw hair as an asset, and beards in particular as an indication of wisdom. Which is why they were perplexed by Native American men’s habit of plucking their facial hair, according to Rebecca Herzig’s Plucked: A History of Hair Removal.

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The modern razor industry was born in 1880, with Gillette coming out with an inexpensive disposable razor for men. In 1915, Gillette decided women deserved their own razor, informing them that they needed to shave their armpits.

Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine aimed at upper-class women, backed up the claim by featuring the first razor ad, which proclaimed, “Fashion says evening gowns must be sleeveless or made with the mere suggestion of gauzy sleeves of tulle or lace. The woman of fashion says the underarms must be as smooth as the face." Capitalizing on the popularity of sleeveless dresses and dresses with sheer sleeves, and the idea that hairiness is disgusting, marketers gave women a reason to shave. Two years later, the message filtered down to the middle class via razor ads in McCall’s Magazine.

As fashion trends revealed more skin, they also revealed more hair. Legs were targeted next, but leg-hair removal didn’t become ubiquitous until World War II, when a nylon shortage made women give up stockings.

If you chose to defy the social norm and not shave in the 1960s, you were labeled a hippie. Now hairy armpits and legs on women are associated with feminism and the political left. The slow shift away from hairlessness, however, suggests more people are willing to defy the stereotypes and deal with the potential negative consequences of not shaving. They’re also more likely to find others who don’t remove their leg hair, and who think that natural is beautiful — and that hair removal requires too much time, effort and money.

Benét Wilson, a 54-year-old freelance journalist and blogger, hasn’t shaved her legs since 1983.

“In my junior year of college, I was shaving and got a particularly nasty cut on my leg, and my then-boyfriend said, ‘Why don’t you just stop?’ After thinking about it, I agreed and never looked back,” she said. “The hair on my legs has always been very light and fine, so it was never a big issue. But I’d have to say, considering the pain when I did shave my legs, if the hair were longer and more visible I’d still make the decision to not do it.”

Most women and femme-identifying people with hairy legs, however, have felt pressured to remove their leg hair. Family, friends, or significant others may have made comments. They’re also well aware of the stereotypes associated with hairy-legged women, so they may be more cautious when it comes to showing their legs at work.

Nadia Ayoub’s family has made a lot of comments about her legs.

“My family hated it for a long time. It was just absolutely alien to them that a woman could display her legs without shaving them. One family member asked me repeatedly how my other half felt about it. Didn’t he mind? I told her they were my legs and I didn’t care whether he minded or not,” said the 28-year-old self-employed Etsy crafter.

Ruby Reihana-Wilson, a 26-year-old film and TV producer who is of Maori descent, struggles with her leg hair.

“I'm as hairy or hairier than a lot of my male friends… My whanau (family) is mega-hairy. I think I will find my hairy legs attractive eventually, though. I hope so,” said Reihana-Wilson. “I feel like with the current rise of feminism, hairy people in general will be much more accepted — we can only go up [from here]. I do have many moments when I feel sexy and sassy, but then I get those weird backhanded compliments from others exclaiming ‘Oh, I wish I could do what you do and not shave’ like it's their actual job to remain 'clean.' I can't believe being radical is just letting your body exist as it is made to.”

It’s also important to note that people who are already marginalized for their race or class risk further marginalization when they deviate from the norm. Since hair-free legs are usually associated with cisgender women, trans women risk being misgendered when they don’t shave, which can be dangerous and put them at risk of being targets for violence. In terms of visibility, it’s also quite different to be a white cisgender woman with light-colored leg hair versus a woman of color with dark hair all over her body.

For Hobbes Ginsberg, a 23-year-old queer photographer, filmmaker, and model, it’s important to make a conscious effort to breakdown cis/white/hetero normative ideals like leg shaving or waxing.

“With the idea of leg or body hair, for example, thin/cis/white women are given so much more leeway with what's considered acceptable, so it's really easy for someone who in most other ways fits within standard ideas of beauty to do something like not shave and call it feminist while facing relatively little repercussion,” Ginsberg said. “Whereas women of color, and trans women in particular, who more often have thicker/darker body hair, are much more highly scrutinized for their appearance.”

For Alaina Leary, who is disabled, it’s about conserving energy.

“My disability makes shaving somewhat difficult, and I use energy on every single thing I choose to do, including something sedentary like shaving,” said the 24-year-old editor. “I'm also queer and non-binary, so having hairless legs doesn't matter to me; I don't identify as a woman, but I also don't think women should have to shave, either.”

Almah Rice-Yorkman is 41, a grant writer and bookkeeper, and has never (!) shaved her legs.

“As a black girlchild being raised in Kentucky, I understood shaving your legs was something that only white women did. One of my relatives had long leg hair — I remember seeing it proudly evident even when she wore pantyhose — and said that men in her life found it sexy… I have never been pressured to remove my leg hair, and I am completely cool with my hairy legs,” she said.

The more we talk about and see leg hair on everyone, the more normal it will become. When we challenge the status quo and set our own expectations, we can redefine the way we see beauty and body hair.

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