History of removal of leg and underarm hair in the United States

At the outset of the United States, leg and underarm hair removal was not a common practice for women.[1][2][3] In fact, body hair had been viewed as a boon by Caucasian people,[2] and therefore removal was not an imported practice from European settlers into the United States.[1] American women's new practice of armpit and leg hair removal began in the early 20th century when a confluence of multiple factors facilitated the change.

One cultural change was the definition of femininity. In the Victorian era, it was based on moral character. This shifted in the early 1920s when the new feminine idea became based on the body.[4] Women revealed more of their bodies in 1920s clothing; and at the same time they began using bras, makeup, and dieting.[4] Author of The Body Project, J. Brumberg, summarizes, "The body itself became the fashion in the 1920s."[4] In this context, hair removal was promoted as a gender norm requirement for women, to be attained through consumption and use of hair removal products.[1]

Underarm hair historyEdit

Advertisement for a depilatory powder named X Bazin

Developments in three industries enabled a heavy and effective advertising campaign beginning in 1908 to show American people that female underarm hair was offensive. These industries were the male hair removal products industry, which had become recently commercially successful and sought to expand its market; the women's clothing fashion industry, which began producing sheer and sleeveless evening gowns and rising hemlines; and the mass production of women's magazines.[1]

The market for female hair removal productsEdit

Men had already been shaving at barber's shops and later at home when a men's disposable "safety-razor" was introduced for home use in 1903. Quickly successful, Gillette sold 90,000 razor sets the next year. A female market for hair removal products, on the other hand, did not yet exist in the United States; that market had to be created.[1] According to Hansen, a researcher on the topic, "The practice of removing hair from the underarms and legs was practically unheard of." She goes on, "In fact, hair removal was such a novel concept when it was first introduced that companies had to persuade women of the benefits of hair removal, and demonstrate how to practice it."[1] The first razor marketed specifically to women came to market in 1915 from Gillette. From then to the 1930s, Gillette and dozens of other hair removal companies used the changes in women's clothing fashions as justification for the sudden need to remove underarm hair, and later leg hair.[1] The message was distributed primarily and heavily through the newly-born, popular and influential women's magazines.[1]

Rise of women's magazinesEdit

The Delineator, first published in 1873, was the first women's magazine. Five others appeared soon after, comprising what became known as the "Big Six": Ladies' Home Journal, Woman's Home Companion, Good Housekeeping, McCall's, and Pictorial Review.[5] The publisher of the Ladies Home Journal, Cyrus Curtis, told advertisers that the purpose of the magazine was to give manufacturers a way to market their products to women, not for the benefit of American women.[5] The goal of advertisers was to not only fulfill women's needs; it was to create new ones.[5] The amount of advertising for toiletries and beauty services were second only to advertisements for food.[6] Estimated advertising spends between 1890 and 1914 grew from $190 million to $682 million.[5]

Improvements in printing technologies, railroad transportation and postal services made mass circulation of these magazines possible.[1] The population of women increased by two thirds between 1890 and 1920 and the literacy rate jumped to 94% in 1920. Both of these demographic shifts increased the audience for women's magazines. The most popular women's magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, had 25,000 readers by the end of its first year. The reach of these women's magazines meant they were extraordinarily influential.[5]

The Great Underarm CampaignEdit

Advertisements suggesting that women remove hair under the arm, and explaining how and why to do so, were published as early as 1908,[1] and ran more steadily beginning in 1914.[7] The 1915 advertisement on the right ran in Harper's Bazaar for a depilatory powder called X Bazin is stereotypical of ads during this time in that it defines why underarm hair removal is necessary. It also shows an image of a woman in a sleeveless gown with her arm up and the caption "Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair."[1]

Advertisers were careful to use wording they felt would be more palatable to their audience, for example "smoothing" instead of "shaving"[8] and "limbs" instead of "legs".[9] The educational campaign on the benefits of and methods of hair removal persisted into the ads of the early 1920s and even continue today.[1] Underarm hair in these ads was called "objectionable", "unwelcome", "embarrassing", "unsightly" and "unclean"; and its removal indicated a person who had "charm" and "the last touch of ‘feminine loveliness'" and was "modest", "dainty and perfectly groomed"; the practice was for "refined women" and "women of fashion."[1]

Hair removal product manufacturers initially focused their marketing on the upper class. Beginning in 1934, a similar type of advertising showed up in the middle-class Ladies' Home Journal that had been running in upper class Harper's Bazaar for the past 15 years.[1]

Leg hair historyEdit

The 1920s extended the hairless ideal of the armpits to the legs as well. Hemlines rose on skirts and dresses from 1910–1927. Americans wore thick dark-colored stockings at first, which were taken over during this period by flesh-colored stockings to simulate the look of bare legs,[1] without actually being bare.

Then ads alluding to leg hair removal began. While ads between 1920-1940 do refer to legs, legs were not the focus in 90% of those ads.[7] The first ad in Harper's Bazaar that focused primarily on the legs appeared in 1929.[1] The ad campaign against leg hair was not as voluminous as the campaign against underarm hair had been.[7][1] However, writers for beauty magazines and books did reinforce the hairless-leg message. This had not happened in the Underarm Campaign.[7]

Leg hair removal gained popularity after one historical event. Hosiery production plummeted suddenly in 1941 by 97% when the US War Production Board curtailed silk and nylon stockings manufacturing. In response, American ladies applied decals or "liquid stockings" (leg makeup) to simulate the seam of stockings, atop of shaved legs. Between 1942–1945, the War Production Board imposed further limits on cosmetic manufacturing, including leg makeup, taxing cosmetics as much as 20%.[3] The norm to remove leg hair for women became very strong in the 1940s,[7] more specifically, it moved from fad to custom in a matter of months in the early 1940s.[3] A later survey, in 1964, indicated that 98% of American women aged 15–44 routinely shaved their legs.[3]

Modern practicesEdit

A century after these ad campaigns started, removal of leg and underarm hair by women in the U.S. is tremendously pervasive and lack of its removal is taboo. An estimated 80–99% of American women today remove hair from their bodies.[7][10] Celebrity unshaven armpit appearances started to make headlines. For example, this was the case with actress Julia Roberts who sported unshaven underarms at the Notting Hill movie premiere in 1999. Anne Robinson, a presenter British television show The Weakest Link, received a similar reaction after she revealed underarm hair on air in 2008.[10] [11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Hansen, K. (2007). "Hair or Bare? The History of American Women and Hair Removal, 1914-1934". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ a b Sherrow, Victoria (2006). Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Greenwood Press. p. 68.
  3. ^ a b c d Herzig, R.M. (2015). Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. New York University Press. p. 287.
  4. ^ a b c Brumberg, J. Jacobs (1998). The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. Random House. p. 98.
  5. ^ a b c d e Zuckerman, M. (1998). A History of Popular Women's Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995 (Contributions in Women's Studies vol 165. Greenwood Press). p. 114.
  6. ^ Piess, K. (1998). Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture. Metropolitan Books-Henry Holt).
  7. ^ a b c d e f Hope, C. (1982). "Caucasian female body hair and American culture". 5 (1): 93–99. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  8. ^ Adams, R.B. (1978). King C. Gillette, the man and his wonderful shaving device. Little, Brown.
  9. ^ Basow, S.A. (1991). "The Hairless Ideal: Women and Their Body Hair". Psychology of Women Quarterly. 15 (1): 83–96. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1991.tb00479.x.
  10. ^ a b Smelik, A. (2015). "A close shave: The taboo on female body hair". Journal of American Culture. 6 (2): 233–251. doi:10.1386/csfb.6.2.233_1.
  11. ^ Tiggemann M, Lewis C (2004). "Attitudes toward women's body hair: Relationship with disgust sensitivity". Psychology of Women Quarterly. 28 (4): 386. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2004.00155.x.