However, this year may be different. Most of us have been working from home for the past 16 months — the only scrutiny we have been exposed to is our head and shoulders on a Zoom screen. Along the way, many of us relaxed and grew out our body hair, perhaps for the first time.
We got used to fuzzy underarms and hairy legs. We asked ourselves if the expense and pain involved in returning to plucking, tweezing, threading, and waxing was really worth it? Had it even been a choice in the first place or was it one of the many beauty standards society imposes on women?
It’s a standard an increasing number of women are rejecting. At the time of writing, there are 138,562 mentions of #bodyhair and 33,045 of #bodyhairdontcare on Instagram along with photos of women flaunting their tufty underarms and furry legs.
It’s not just lockdown that’s driving the trend. The online Janu-hairy campaign started in 2019, urging women to grow out their body hair for the month of January and to post pictures on Instagram. The campaign currently has 40,800 followers.
Female celebrities are embracing the natural look too. Jemima Kirke, Willow Smith, Gigi Hadid, Madonna, and Miley Cyrus are just some who have recently displayed unshaven armpits.
Brands are even getting in on the act. A 2019 Nike advert showed a model with underarm hair while a 2017 Adidas advert featured a model with hairy legs. And Dove’s latest TV ad shows women with all sorts of underarms, from hairy to dyed, smooth to tattooed, all accompanied by the slogan “goodbye judgement, hello choice”.
Celebs aren’t the only ones ditching their razors. According to research carried out by Minitel in Britain in 2020, 51% of beauty and personal care consumers felt a reduced need to be groomed during lockdown.
This echoed research from beauty app Cosmetify which found that 45% of women stopped buying hair removal products such as razors and wax strips during the pandemic.
Millennials appear to be leading this trend. In 2017, another Minitel study found that one in four women under 25 no longer shaved their armpits, compared with one in 20 in 2013.
It’s a change sugaring specialist Lindsay Leggett, who runs The Sugarist in Dublin, has noticed in her salon. (Sugaring is an ancient form of hair removal which uses a paste of sugar, lemon juice, and water.)
“There’s been a shift in attitude since lockdown,” she says. “While a lot of clients have come back saying they’ve learned how important removing body hair is to them, others have said how much they’re enjoying their new hair. I think young people are the most flexible of all and are less invested in a binary system that assigns gender to random things.
Body hair and whether or not to remove it is a complicated issue. There’s the financial factor. A full leg and bikini wax will set you back an average of 35 while pubic waxing comes at an even higher price, with Hollywood treatments that leave you totally bare costing an average of 50.
Research carried out in Britain in 2017 found that women who wax can expect to spend around ￡23,000 (26,800) on it during their lifetime. Women who shave will spend around ￡6,500 (7,600).
There’s the time and bother involved too. The same research found that women who shave will spend eight weeks of their lives managing unwanted hair.
There is also the social stigma that surrounds female body hair. According to a survey carried out by MRNI Research in 2015, 72% of women interviewed in Ireland said they lacked confidence when their body was hairy and chose to wear clothes that covered their bodies at these times.
Research by the Veet hair removal brand in 2016 found that 51% of women resented the time such grooming took but 74% believed it was worth it in the end as they felt more attractive and feminine when their body was smooth and hair-free.
How did we get here? Hair is a natural part of the human body, so why do so many women feel they have to devote time, money, and energy to getting rid of theirs?
American academic Rebecca Herzig is the author of Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. “People in different times and places have removed hair from various parts of their bodies with all sorts of aesthetic preferences in mind,” she tells ‘Feelgood’. “What’s new is the idea that people might remove body hair to attract sexual partners. That is much more recent.”
Herzig dates the belief that body hair is unhygienic back to the ancient Egyptians. They believed it to be uncivilised and dirty. Cleopatra removed all of hers and set the trend for the women around her.
Fast forward to 1915 when Gillette introduced its first razor for women. It advertised in women’s magazines, most notoriously in Harper’s Bazaar. For four years, the magazine ran what is now known as the ‘Great Underarm Campaign’ which consisted of adverts urging the removal of what they called “objectionable hair”.
They succeeded and adverts featuring models with pre-pubescent armpits and silky-smooth legs became the norm. As fashions changed and hemlines rose, the pressure to remove body hair increased. According to Herzig, by 1964, about 98% of American women aged between 15 and 55 shaved their legs.
Back to our roots
Women first began to challenge this with the arrival of a new wave of feminism in the 1970s. Figures like Gloria Steinem lambasted the suggestion that there was anything wrong with women’s bodies in their natural state.
This attitude is what motivated Galway-born Emer O’Toole, associate professor at Concordia University in Canada and author of Girls Will Be Girls, to stop shaving her body in 2010.
“Body hair seemed to be to be a particularly potent symbol of the way girls are taught that the changes their bodies go through at puberty are shameful,” she says. “I’d been doing a lot of thinking about the ways girls and women are conditioned into performing in strictly female ways. I wanted to perform differently and create a different world for my hypothetical children.”
She wanted children to grow up seeing a range of female bodies, so that teenage girls wouldn’t automatically start shaving “because that’s what women do”.
“We’re not used to seeing beautiful women with leg hair,” says O’Toole. “If we grew up in a society where hair removal was a choice for women, you’d probably find people who like hairy legs and people who like hairless ones.”
She decided to grow her body hair for a year to see what she would learn. Her boyfriend at the time wasn’t thrilled but came to like her hairy legs. It was O’Toole herself who struggled, having internalised society’s messages about what it means to be feminine.
In her book, she describes a friend loaning her a maxi dress to wear on a night out. She loved it but didn’t feel brave enough “to be the freak with the armpits in the shouty dress”. Shame about her body made her choose an outfit that covered it up instead.
By 2012, she felt brave enough to appear on ITV to discuss body hair and proudly waved her arms in the air for the audience. She had a huge response, with media calling her from as far away as New Zealand.
“The reaction I got was so completely out of proportion that it made me see how deeply ingrained body policing really is,” she writes. “Performing your body differently is powerful.”
These days, O’Toole takes a more relaxed approach to body hair and dresses how she likes. “I’m at the point where I can choose to shave or not,” she writes. “I don’t like rules, but as a rule, I’m more comfortable hairy.”
It’s this idea of personal choice that Leggett promotes in her salon. Rather than body hair being associated with traditional gender roles or making a feminist statement, she would like to see it regarded as a simple grooming preference.
“Basically, our bodies exist to give us pleasure and make us feel beautiful and we should have a wide range of options to do that,” she says. “For me, feminism is about people having options available to them so they can make the choices that best suit their lives.”
She believes the standards around body hair are changing, especially regarding armpit hair. “Things are shifting and having armpit hair is increasingly regarded as a presentation choice, rather than being edgy,” she says. “We’re moving towards more personalised and flexible beauty standards.”
Leggett takes a similar attitude to her own body hair.
“I personally think armpit hair is sexy and normally have hairy underarms,” she says. “There are times when I’m very hairy and other times I’m completely hairless. I do it for myself and it really depends on how lazy I’m feeling.”
Women like Leggett and O’Toole, adverts showing hairy female legs, and women posting pictures of their furry armpits on social media may be shocking at first. But the more examples we see, the more the stigma around female body hair will be reduced and the freer we will all be to make our own choices.
‘I never thought to question the stigma’
Síomha Ní Ruairc, broadcaster. Photograph Moya Nolan
Síomha Ní Ruairc is a 28-year-old youth coordinator with Conradh na Gaeilge and a presenter/producer with TG4 from Drumcondra in Dublin. Her body hair used to be a source of embarrassment.
“I remember the shame of sitting on the grass on my estate next to my friend and my little leg hairs glistening in the sun next to her smooth legs,” she says. “So, I started robbing my mam’s razor when I was about 12, thinking that I couldn’t wear certain clothes if I hadn’t shaved.”
It soon became part of her routine. “No matter the time of year or what my social calendar looked like, shaving was a weekly thing for me,” she says. “I never thought to question the stigma regarding body hair.”
That was until three years ago. “I was in a relationship which had helped me feel more comfortable with my body,” she says. “I was more relaxed about body hair and shaving less frequently. One day, I realised my armpit hair was longer than it had ever been and decided to leave it as it was.”
This did not mean Ní Ruairc liked the look of it. “I had automatic revulsion at the sight of it,” she says.
It took time to adjust. “It was tough,” she admits. “When you’re told your whole life that something is disgusting through advertising, the media, and society, it takes a while to deconstruct that narrative in your own head.”
Now she loves her armpit hair. “I don’t think I could ever go back to removing it regularly,” she says. “At some point, it started looking good to me. I thought it suited me. As it should since it literally grows out of my skin.”
She cannot say the same about her hairy legs. “This is something I’ve struggled with,” she says. “I just haven’t been able to develop a fondness for leg hair. I managed to overcome that mentality with the pits, and I thought the legs would follow but I’ve come to accept that it’s my personal preference to continue shaving my legs.”
It all comes back to choice for Ní Ruairc. “I get my eyebrows done but let my underarm hair grow,” she says. “That’s my choice in how I look.”
Ciara Ní é is a bilingual spoken word artist and writer in residence at DCU. The 30-year-old from Clontarf in Dublin had a negative relationship with her body hair from a young age.
“I hated the dark hairs on my legs,” she says.
She was able to cover up at school as her all-girls school had a uniform of knee socks and long skirts. But going to discos was another matter.
“I would shave my legs and wear makeup,” she says. “I knew you were supposed to present in a certain way when going out.”
This started a decade-long pattern of shaving whenever she knew her body would be on public display. It only changed when her skin got dry in her mid-20s, and she was advised not to shave. “I was so self-conscious at first. It was so strange to see my underarm hair, how much of it there was and how dark it was.”
She didn’t like anyone else looking at it, to the extent that she wouldn’t raise her arms in public.
However, this changed with time. “One day, I noticed someone staring at me in the gym and couldn’t figure out why,” she says. “It took a few minutes to realise they were looking at my underarm hair. That’s how little I think of it now.”
The same cannot always be said of those around her. “Not shaving under your arms shouldn’t be a statement, but it feels like one,” says Ní é. “Whenever norms are challenged, it makes people uncomfortable, and their initial reaction can be rejection or even anger.”
Some friends queried her choice. “You’re hairy like a man is what they would say,” she says. “My response was that I’m hairy like a woman.”
She has had positive responses too. “A friend of a friend saw a photo of me on social media and decided not to shave as a result,” she says.
“That shows the power of representation. Once you see enough of something, it becomes normalised. Just think of bushy eyebrows. We all have them now and we didn’t ten years ago. People even pay money to have them drawn on.”
One of her ex-boyfriends is another example. “He told me the next girl he was with shaved her underarms and that it shocked him not to see hair there,” she laughs. “That’s how accustomed he had become to seeing underarm hair.”
Ní é believes more people are changing their attitude to body hair, especially underarm hair. “It’s beginning to be seen as feminine,” she says. “It’s having a moment.”
Like Ní Ruairc, she doesn’t feel the same is true of her hairy legs. “They’re a different matter,” she says. “I’m 5ft 10ins tall and have long dark hair on my legs. I feel that makes me look masculine and I don’t want that, so I shave them.”