Why Do Women Shave?


Image via Good Housekeeping

Kelsi Boone, Writer

The History of Female Depilation

Centuries ago, body hair, or the lack of it, was used both to show one’s economic class or ‘place’ in society, as well as keep up with fashion trends. Ancient Roman prostitutes would shave everything to signal their profession, meanwhile, in Egypt, royalty shaved every hair they had, except for eyebrows. In the 15th century, Elizabeth l set the trend of plucking eyebrows clean off, and even shaving back their foreheads, all in the name of beauty.

Throughout the 1800s, body hair removal was limited to men’s beards, likely because of how covering clothing was then. Women grew out their hair, everywhere. This all changed in 1914, when Gillette, the still prominent razor company, debuted the “Milady Decollete”, the first razor campaign aimed at women. These advertisements shamed women into buying their products. For example, one advert uses the phrase “embarrassing personal problem” to describe a woman’s armpit hair. Gillette and other razor companies were incredibly successful. (Fun fact: The Milday Decollete was 14k gold, and was priced at five dollars–about $151 today!) Since then, shaved underarms have been the new normal for women.

Naturally, the next target was women’s leg hair. This came around in the 1940s. Dresses were shorter than in the previous decade, but the real push was caused by WWll. Nylon was used up for parachutes and other war materials, so it became difficult for women to purchase stockings. In response to this new exposure, women promptly began shaving their legs, and by 1964, 98% of women and girls aged 15 to 44 reported removing their leg hair.

It’s true, that in the 1960s and 70s, there was some resistance to hair removal–both feminists and hippies ditched hair removal in exchange for a more natural body. This was short-lived, however, falling out of favor in the decades to come, when the Brazilian wax look was ushered-in–a practice not actually common in Brazil, by the way. Some ancient cultures, such as in Egypt, had removed pubic hair, but this was the first time in centuries it became popular again. 


Modern Shaving Practices

Women shaving their underarms and legs has become so standardized. It’s something that we, as a society, simply expect: that as soon as girls start growing body hair in puberty, it’s understood they will remove it. And they do. Today, it’s not a symbol of class or even a fashion trend. In fact, many people wrongly believe that not removing body hair is unhygienic–but only on women. It’s a sneaky, unscientific double standard that most people don’t blink twice about. Because if armpit and leg hair was truly unhygienic, wouldn’t men shave it, too?

There’s no actual research to back up the idea that armpit hair, or any body hair is unhygienic. In fact, evidence suggests that having armpit hair is actually beneficial, reducing sweat, and friction during running.

So, why do women shave today? The answer lies partially in female beauty standards, interwoven with sexism. Some argue in favor of these standards, saying that this was born from sexual dimorphism, which is the occurrence of superficial differences between sexes present in some species. For humans, this looks like differences in height, weight, and bone structure. This also includes body hair, as males typically have more than females. The argument arrests that women shave to subconsciously highlight these differences and thereby make themselves more attractive. But this ignores the fact that women’s body hair hasn’t always been considered unattractive. For example, in the Middle Ages, catholic women were expected to grow out their body hair as a sign of respectability. And in the 1800s, shaving was practically unheard of for women: it was no big deal. This hairless beauty standard is thoroughly modern. 

The other big factor is plain old capitalism. Depilatory companies would never have taken such an interest in women’s body hair; would never have prompted society to start shaming women for it if they weren’t making money. The waxing industry alone was worth 2.6 billion dollars in 2020. More shockingly is our personal contribution. The average American woman will spend $10,000 on shaving in her lifetime.



Women didn’t just start shaving for no reason–it was an overarching, societal pressure that brought the change, a pressure that is still alive today.

Some of this messaging may be explicit: someone saying body hair on women is “gross”, or snidely informing you, “You need to shave.” But most of it is implicit. It’s on television when you never see a speck of body hair on a woman, even when she’s lost on a desert island for months.  It’s the unspoken knowledge of a ten-year-old girl that she’ll soon ‘need’ a razor. 

I’d love to say that everyone has a free choice in what they choose to do with their body. But a choice isn’t truly “free” if only one option is socially acceptable. It’s nearly impossible to live in any society without conforming–just a little bit. Humans are social animals who crave love and validation from others. But, frankly, hair shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all in whether you like someone or not, and the way women’s body hair is treated both in media and real life is both cruel and absurd–I really don’t think there’s any female beauty standard so strongly conformed to as removing one’s body hair. 

What I heard most often about this topic, other than just, “women need to shave”, or “women weren’t meant to have body hair”, (which, I’m sorry, is just downright stupid), is that women should be given the choice on whether or not to shave. And I agree. But as I stated previously, a choice isn’t truly free when one option is looked down upon. There’s no easy fix to this, and I would certainly not shame someone for still choosing to shave. But I hope this article made you think more deeply about the subject. Do you feel you have a choice?