First-hand report of a life of hair removal

Plucking hell

It’s politically indefensible, time-consuming and hurts like hell. Yet, over the last year, British women have spent £280 million removing their excess body hair. Polly Vernon grows her leg stubble out for the first time in 23 years

Sunday January 15, 2006
The Observer

I was 11 years old the first time I depilated. It was July, and I was staying in a guesthouse in Swanage with my mother and my younger sister, both of whom had gone off that particular afternoon in search of souvenirs . This was convenient, because my mother had expressly forbidden me from removing any hair from my body before I was 13. She thought I was too young to be bothered about those sorts of things.

But I was bothered. I’d watched the down developing on my lower legs for some months, and felt compelled to do something about it. It made me anxious. I didn’t understand about the gender politics of the desire to depilate. I didn’t know that body hair is the battle that feminism lost. I simply knew I didn’t like the excess hair - that it hinted at something messy and uncontrollable in my biology - and therefore, the sooner it went, the better.

I used 1980s favourite Immac, because I was scared of razor blades. Immac seemed like a gentler, less dramatic, less masculine option. We didn’t have an en-suite bathroom, so I performed the smear-on-scrape-off manoeuvre while perched on the edge of the bed, with my feet propped up against a well-placed chair. The Immac was gloopy and messy, and smelled very bad. (Nothing else in the world smells as unpleasantly odd as depilatory cream. What is it? Chemical egg, maybe?) I had to be very careful not to get any on the elderly rose-pink eiderdown that covered the guest-room bed. The process seemed to take ages, far longer than the 15 minutes I was instructed to leave the cream on for, mainly because I was terrified that my mother would return unannounced and catch me at it. But when I finally spatula’d off the potion with the plastic implement provided, and rinsed it and my baby hairs away down the plughole of the basin that served the room, I was wholly enchanted with the result. My legs were smooth and shiny and pure and strokable.

I can remember this interlude so vividly because, of course, it was a rite of passage, and early forays into the rituals of adulthood are always memorable; but also because it was the single act which launched me on to a long-term and increasingly exhaustive depilatory regime. Over the course of the intervening 23 years, I have: Immac’d some more (and following a change in branding, Veet’d some more), bleached, sugared, waxed, threaded, Epilady’d, tweazered, shaved, lasered, and had currents of sound shot into individual follicles on the promise that they would cauterise the root. I’ve had UV light treatments. I’ve had full-body rub-downs with special hair-removing mitts. I’ve had a Brazilian bikini wax. In fact, I’ve had many Brazilian bikini waxes. On one occasion, I had a Brazilian in Brazil. On another, I was filmed having a Brazilian, and the resulting footage (which showed my face only) was used in a pop video. I have spent thousands and thousands of pounds on the endeavour. I am by turns wildly excited by new developments in hair-removal technology, and disappointed that there’s nothing definitive yet on the market (it’s the biggest single way that science has failed me ). I’m not like this about any other grooming processes. I don’t get the hair society approves of (the stuff on my head) coloured often enough, I rarely have facials, and I never have manicures. But I am a compulsive, obsessive and, I like to think, an imaginative depilator.

I’m not alone. The UK hair-removal market is worth £280 million a year, and is growing staggeringly fast. Ninety-two per cent of women admit to shaving their legs, 58 per cent to plucking their eyebrows, and two per cent to removing hair from their feet and toes. (I, of course, have done all these things.) Hair-removal techniques get more violent and extreme by the day, and the areas we’re expected to depilate get more preposterous. One friend told me that she was surprised to discover, on relocating to Manhattan last year for her job, that she was expected to get her nostrils waxed. ‘It hurt like hell the first time,’ she added. ‘But now I wouldn’t dream of not having it done.’

On a more bog-standard and British level, when was the last time you saw a woman expose leg hair or armpit hair, or (heaven forfend!) an untended moustache, on the streets of the UK? The rare female celebrity who dares to venture in front of the paparazzi without first ensuring that every last trace of excess body hair has been plucked from her lithe form is roundly and publicly vilified. It’s seven whole years since Julia Roberts waved to her adoring public from the far side of a velvet rope, exposing a luxuriant bushel of underarm hair as she did and provoking much tsking and sniggering in the gossip columns. Yet still the incident is often cited as a defining redcarpet faux pas. Drew Barrymore caused similar bother when she exposed underarm sproutage during last year’s New York Fashion week. According to assorted fashion editrices who witnessed the moment first hand: ‘It was all anyone talked about.’

How has it come to this point? Why are women increasingly aspiring towards the Posh Spice archetype on body hair: loads and loads on the top of your head (augmented, if necessary, with costly extensions); reasonable amounts of well-tended hair in the eyebrow region (conversely, the days of the pencil-fine eyebrow line are far behind us); super-luxuriant eyelashes (amplified with two-coat mascara systems); and then nothing - not even a stray wisp - from the lower lash, down (give or take an evenly pruned landing strip in the pubic region). When was the entirely arbitrary model on acceptable body hair decided upon? And by whom? And more significantly yet, 35 years after Germaine Greer condemned the removal of body hair in The Female Eunuch, writing: 'Men cultivate it… women suppress it, just as they suppress all aspects of their vigour and libido… ’ How is it that we - enlightened, intelligent, liberated us - have become more squeamish about our excess body hair, rather than less? Cultural commentators believe that, as male and female roles become more and more interchangeable, so the desire to distinguish between the genders in other ways becomes more pronounced. For women, removing vast quantities of body hair is a straightforward way to do this. It’s true that depilatory demands have risen in step with women’s position in society.

Current trends in depilation truly kicked in to Western culture at the beginning of the 20th century, just as women were beginning to flex economic muscle. In 1915, Harper’s Bazaar printed an advert which showed a woman in a sleeveless evening gown which exposed her perfectly shaven armpits. It was the first commercial image of its kind. Simultaneously, Wilkinson Sword launched a marketing assault on the US designed to convince women that underarm hair was unfeminine and unhygienic. Within two years, the sales of razor blades had doubled.

The campaign to discredit leg hair began later, and was influenced less by economic concerns (although you imagine Wilkinson Sword had a hand in it somewhere) and more by the combined impact of fashion and war. The rise and fall of hemlines (dictated by the availability of fabric) and the rationing of stockings all contributed. Trends in depilation stabilised through the next few decades, until the 1970s, when feminism in general, and Germaine Greer in particular, condemned it as a betrayal of the sisterhood. Body hair became a politically loaded business.

Yet all of this seems oddly disconnected from the current state of play on depilation. For the past five years, women have been caught up in a rabid frenzy to remove as much hair as possible, as often as possible, and in newer ways all the time.

The current climate on hair removal is partly fuelled by a straightforward fashionable whim. We are getting more groomed according to contemporary diktats on chic, more proscriptive about what is and isn’t acceptable physically about the whole deal. Personally speaking, I am proud that I can now tolerate even the most invasive and extreme wax without breaking a sweat. I bear that pain willingly, I am a martyr to hot wax.

It’s also possible that we’re removing more hair, simply because we’re getting hairier. For a while, I’ve suspected that this might be the case. Friends, colleagues and sisters complain bitterly about increased hairiness. According to Shenaz Shariff , a depilation pioneer who does very clever things with light and sound treatments in her Harley Street clinic - we are getting hairier.

‘Absolutely. I mean, you see it in the over-45s, menopausal women and so on, of course, and that’s to be expected. But what I’m seeing is a major increase in much younger girls. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and the profile of our clients gets younger and younger, and hairier and hairier. I’m seeing girls as young as 12 and 13 years old, who are terribly upset about it. And just on a personal level, I notice that I’m hairier than my mother, and that my young nieces are hairier than me. I think it’s to do with the hormones and chemicals in our food.’

The Observer’s nutritionist Dr John Briffa agrees there’s a very convincing connection between contemporary eating habits and hirsutism - but believes it’s connected with carbs, not chemicals. ‘Over the past few years, there’s been growing evidence that the consumption of carbohydrates with a high glycaemic index is mirrored by an increase in diabetes, weight gain, and yes, hirsutism in women. A consequence of surges in insulin is higher androgens - ‘male’ hormones - which could well inspire hair growth. So if anecdotally you’re finding that women are getting hairier, then this is a very likely explanation.’

In the interest of understanding my personal urge to depilate, I let the hair on my legs grow for the first time in 23 years - for the first time since Immac and Swanage. It takes a week to reach the unseemly stage. Two weeks to get properly unpleasant. Three weeks to physically repulse anyone I show it to. It itches. I begin avoiding: communal changing rooms, swimming pools, skirts. I develop fetlocks, which mean I have to be increasingly careful about the kinds of shoes I wear, and where, exactly, my trouser hem hits my ankle. I start wearing pyjama bottoms to bed, even though it’s still too warm at night, because my partner can’t stand the look or feel of my leg hair.

Occasionally, bravely, I hitch up a jeans leg and let people have a look. They make disgusted faces. They think, without exception, that I look like a man from the waist down. I am a size eight, and my legs are quite definitely female-shaped. Yet all it takes is a few inches of hair to transform them into unequivocally masculine appendages.

No one hates my hairy legs as much as I do. I do not feel liberated from the shackles of shaving. In fact, I miss the ritual of it. I see nothing beautiful in my untended state. The longer I leave it, the worse it gets psychologically. I become constantly aware of the growth beneath my jeans. It starts to feel malignant, threatening. I can’t do a full month. Three and a half weeks into my experiment, I shave, and am elated after I do so. I rub my hands up and down my smooth shins repeatedly and blissfully.

What do I learn from the experience? That the desire to be hairless is so deeply entrenched in me, going ‘natural’ actually feels completely unnatural. That I care desperately about what other people think of my physical appearance. That I am destined to depilate until I die.

However, there are still pockets of resistance. Websites like fetishise hairy women, send out a clarion call for girls to grow. And Drew Barrymore, according to recent sightings, is persisting with the underarm hair. But I don’t believe this is the beginning of a real backlash. The rest of us aren’t going to ditch the Mach 3s. We’ve gone too far.

And yet, can depilation physically become any more fascist than it already is? There’s so little acceptable body hair left on women already. Where else - what else - can we pluck, or shave, or wax? In theory, nowhere, nothing. (Not unless we see a revival of the old Hollywood practice of raising a woman’s hairline. Which isn’t entirely beyond the realms of possibility.) But actually, I know there’ll be more to come. New stuff. Hairy areas we don’t even yet know we possess will come under scrutiny and be judged unacceptable before this year is out. More complex removal methods will evolve. It’ll all hurt more, too. And cost more. And of course, I already know that I’ll willingly comply. Source: The Observer