The History of Hairless Vulvas

The History of Hairless Vulvas : From Razors to Rat Poison

Written by Lauren Klein

January 31, 2024

An illustration of a female human body, with emphasis on the torso

Most of us have heard it: “Beauty is pain!” Whether this directly came from our mothers, our grandmothers, or Cosmopolitan, the idea that beauty requires suffering is deeply entrenched in our culture. And nothing embodies this sentiment more than the practice of shaving and waxing. 

Whether or not a person identifies as a woman, many of those that were  assigned female at birth have probably been pressured to get rid of their body hair at some point in their life. The message that body hair is repulsive and even unhygienic is so ubiquitous that 99% of American women reported shaving or waxing. 

A survey conducted by the American Laser Centers found that women who wax or shave frequently can spend anywhere from $10,000 - $23,000 over the course of their life. Aside from the steep cost, hair removal — especially from the vulva — is extremely painful. 

But who is all this suffering for? And does body hair really need to be removed? 

Hairless Pussies Through the Centuries: An Overview 

To understand how we got to where we are today, we have to look at the history of hair removal. According to the Encyclopedia of Hair, hair removal first began in ancient Egypt around 3000 BC and became commonplace in Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire. Women in these regions used razors, sugar waxes, and tweezers to remove unwanted body hair and were expected to be completely hairless. Art from this time reflects this beauty standard, as sculptures of women are usually shown without any pubic hair. 

Men in ancient Egypt and India also removed body hair, but the expectation mostly applied to women. According to legend, King Solomon was repulsed when he saw that the famously beautiful Queen of Sheba was naturally hairy, and declared that hair was “an ornament to a man”, but a “disfigure[ment]” on a woman. Across many centuries and cultures, body hair removal has almost always been a gendered expectation associated with femininity.

In the pre-Victorian era, women in England started trimming their bushes. They would often give the trimmings to their lovers, who would wear them in their hats as a decoration or even join forces with other men to make wigs from the pubic hair of various mistresses. 

As fashion changed in the 1920s and dresses got shorter and lost their sleeves, hairy legs and underarms were deemed unsightly and unfeminine. During World War II, a shortage of nylon stockings caused more American women to start shaving their legs. 

As far as genitalia goes, a preference for hairless genitals (in the West) emerged over the course of the 20th century. A 2010 study of Playboy spreads from 1953 to 2007 shows that the amount of pubic hair on the models gradually dwindled until it disappeared completely. Just like that, the hairless vulva had taken over. 

The Costs of Hair Removal: Dangers of Removal Methods

The growing popularity of hair removal in the English-speaking world came at a price. In the early 1920s and 30s, American women used drastic methods to remove their pubic, leg, and armpit hair, including pumice stones, sandpaper, and modified shoemaker’s wax. 

They also used a cream called Koremlu, which was made from the rat poison thallium acetate and caused muscular atrophy, blindness, limb damage, and death. Thousands of women became permanently disabled and even died from this method. Women also utilized radiation to remove body hair, which resulted in cancer, scarring, and ulceration.

While hair removal methods have become significantly less dangerous, they still carry risks. Shaving is painful — it can result in razor bumps, ingrown hairs, and extreme itchiness when the hair starts to grow back. Aside from the pain, waxing is not always hygienic and can result in molluscum contagiosum, a kind of STI. 

Embracing Body Hair: Benefits and Natural Beauty

While scientists don’t know the exact evolutionary function of pubic hair, most agree that it serves protective purposes. Pubic hair can ease friction when running, playing sports, or even walking. It also reduces the likelihood of contracting STIs and protects against other bacterial and viral infections. Some believe that pubic hair might also trap pheromones to increase sexual attraction. 

Although widespread, a preference for hairless vulvas is not universal. Some cultures, such as the Kwoma people of New Guinea, consider a thick, full bush to be a sign of beauty. For the Kogi people of South America, female pubic hair is a source of life. In their creation story, the Creator (a mother) plucks out her pubic hair and plants it in the ground so that the first penis could grow.  

Maybe we have something to learn from this reverence for luscious bushes. These perspectives demonstrate that there’s nothing inherently unattractive about pubic hair on a vulva. The idea that vulvas must undergo a painful and potentially harmful process to become appealing to men is a socially constructed norm. 

The intention of this article is not to tell everyone to stop waxing and/or shaving. If a hairless vulva feels good for you, by all means continue. But if your shaving or waxing practice stems from the assumption that your body hair is disgusting and unattractive, it might be worth questioning whether this belief is your own or has been imposed on you against your will. 

In Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, Rebecca Herzig writes that the expectation of hairlessness is designed “to produce feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability,” as well as “the sense that women’s bodies are problematic the way they naturally are.” 

The pressure on women to maintain hairless genitals is unrealistic, costly, and arguably unsafe. It’s time to release the idea that vulvas must be hairless to be attractive and appreciate the beauty of female bodies as they are. A person does not have to be hairless to be sexy and definitely does not have to endure pain for the sake of beauty. 

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