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Embodied: Our Tangled Relationship With Body Hair

More than 90 percent of American women remove at least some hair from their bodies. Standards for hair removal are based on ideas of white, cisgender femininity from the 1800s.
More than 90 percent of American women remove at least some hair from their bodies. Standards for hair removal are based on ideas of white, cisgender femininity from the 1800s.

Women’s war with body hair has claimed many casualties since hair removal and femininity became linked in the late 1800s. 

Host Anita Rao talks about the history of body hair removal and its ties to gender and race with Rebecca Herzig, professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College, and Sharan Dhaliwal, founder and editor of Burnt Roti Magazine. Visual artist Marilyn Minter also talks about portraying body hair in art.

Scientific studies and advertisements elevated hairless, white women as society’s beauty standard, and the expectations took hold. Hundreds of years later, those standards still influence the decisions cisgender women, trans women and gender non-conforming people make about their body hair.

Studies show the majority of American women remove some kind of hair from their bodies — one 1998 study found that 92% of American women removed hair, most frequently by shaving. Heightened pressure falls on women of color, as they seek to match their bodies to standards made with white femininity in mind.

Host Anita Rao digs into when we started caring so much about body hair and the evolution of hair removal practices with Rebecca Herzig, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College and the author of “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal” (NYU Press/2015).

Rao also talks to Sharan Dhaliwal, founder and editor-in-chief of Burnt Roti, about coming to terms with being a hairy Indian woman. And Marilyn Minter joins the conversation to look at the portrayal of body hair in art. Minter is a visual artist and faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Interview Highlights


Dhaliwal on conversations about women of color and body hair:

When you do see, I guess, representation of body hair in the media or in adverts — for example, of shaving creams and so on — it tends to be white women and it tends to be like small, blonde wisps of hair … which most women of color that have excessive body hair can't really relate to it. It seems like another step backwards more than anything, because there's no real representation there. There's no real discussion about body hair.

Herzig on why talking about body hair is important:

One of the things that I've found most fascinating about the whole subject is it's pretty easy for people to dismiss: Oh come on, you know, body hair? Aren't there bigger issues right now?

  And I was really interested in how these sorts of daily, seemingly minute practices add up into large-scale structures like gender binary, like racial hierarchies.

Dhaliwal on the process of “unlearning” standards of beauty for body hair:

When I was younger, I would shave my legs. If there was a tiny bit that I missed, I would have a panic attack and run home. Whereas now I would just go: Oh well, missed a bit. That unlearning isn't an easy process. It's not just you sitting there going: Oh, I should stop doing that. It's realizing that it's out there, like that pressure is going to be out there. And that's probably not going to change in our lifetimes. But through that understanding, it's kind of slowly accepting yourself as a person.

Minter on turning body hair into art:

I noticed that I had more pubic hair than anybody I've ever seen in any paintings and art history. And that's really where I think the jump off point was. So my thought was: I'm going to make pictures of pubic hair that are so beautiful that people can put them in their living room. I started with photographs, and then I ended up making a lot of paintings.

Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio

Anita Rao is the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content. She has traveled the country recording interviews for the Peabody Award-winning StoryCorps production department, founded and launched a podcast about millennial feminism in the South, and served as the managing editor and regular host of "The State of Things," North Carolina Public Radio's flagship daily, live talk show. Anita was born in a small coal-mining town in Northeast England but spent most of her life growing up in Iowa and has a fond affection for the Midwest.
Kaia Findlay is a producer for The State of Things, WUNC's daily, live talk show. Kaia grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in a household filled with teachers and storytellers. In elementary school, she usually fell asleep listening to recordings of 1950s radio comedy programs. After a semester of writing for her high school newspaper, she decided she hated journalism. While pursuing her bachelor’s in environmental studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, she got talked back into it. Kaia received a master’s degree from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism, where she focused on reporting and science communication. She has published stories with Our State Magazine, Indy Week, and HuffPost. She most recently worked as the manager for a podcast on environmental sustainability and higher education. Her reporting passions include climate and the environment, health and science, food and women’s issues. When not working at WUNC, Kaia goes pebble-wrestling, takes long bike rides, and reads while hammocking.