Far from a new phenomenon, hair removal has been around since the Neanderthals, who used stones and finely cut glass to depilate. Though previously more practical than aesthetic, cavemen removed hair to survive fights with enemies and avoid lice (in striking contrast to the hairy image we have of these early humans).
Sugaring, another ancient process of hair removal, is very similar to waxing, except the ‘wax’ is made from a sugar paste. It was used by the ancient Egyptians, who are also said to have used an early type of tweezers, made from seashells, as well as abrasive pumice stones. Women often removed all of the hair from their bodies, including their heads, in ancient Egypt, as hair was considered altogether uncivilized. This applied to men, as well: men with facial hair were considered to be part of the servant class.
Greeks and Romans also used many practices of hair removal, most commonly abrasives, such as stones and glass. Any form of body hair on Grecian women was considered to be lower class. Alexander the Great required his men to keep their hair short and their face clean-shaven for battle (perhaps Steinbrenner’s inspiration for the Yankees’ controversial facial hair policy?).
Threading is a technique that has been around for thousands of years, as well, practiced in the Middle East and India, and recently becoming popular in the US. For Middle Eastern women, the removal of female body hair was considered the hygienic thing to do.
Most western women did not engage in body hair removal until Queen Elizabeth I, who set a trend of removing all facial hair, including the hairline at the forehead, which was a beauty fad to make your forehead appear larger. Women at the time apparently did this by obtaining ammonia from cat urine or with the use of vinegar. They would then apply the rags soaked with the ammonia or vinegar to their faces.
The Renaissance of Hair Removal: 1700s-1800s
The first straight razor was invented in France in the 1700s. At this time, it was mostly used by men. The first relatively modern depilatory cream was invented around the mid 1800s, and the modern razor was invented in the late 1800s. Early electrolysis was also invented at this time, as well, by sticking a small metal probe into each hair follicle. We have since replaced the metal probe with a laser. American and European women did not start removing their leg hair until hemlines required it in the 1920s. 1915 began the sale of women’s razors, initially aimed at armpit hair, because of the recent popularity of sleeveless dresses.
There are many modern forms of hair removal, from the razor to depilatory creams. However, laser hair removal is one of the most modern achievements in the field. Based on the same idea as early electrolysis, laser hair removal has become increasingly common and preferred for its permanence (hair removal can be a pesky chore).
Today, “manscaping” is also culturally significant. Earlier in history, from cavemen to Alexander the Great, male grooming was just as important as female grooming. However, in recent Western history, men did not follow women as body hair removal came ‘back in style.’ Why did it experience a comeback? Some attribute it to the prevalence of porn or Hollywood images like Brad Pitt in Troy (and every other movie).
But while the manscaping trend is on the rise, some cling to the manliness associated with hairiness. The comeback of the beard is largely based on hipster culture (a sort of “urban lumberjack chic”). The mustache was very popular in recent decades, as well. (i.e. Tom Selleck. As you can see in a picture above, the manscaping of the chest was not yet back in style).
Like male facial hair, the bikini line seems to be in constant flux -- from the wild and free days of the 1970s, to the bare Brazilian, to the popular “landing strip.” While this trend is largely aesthetically-driven, it isn’t completely devoid of practicality: the prevalence of pubic lice is down -- and for all you animal activists out there, it’s become downright endangered (a serious issue the Daily Show recently tackled).