The Continued Weaponisation of Body Hair against Women of Colour

Artwork by Kayleigh De Sousa

‘Imagining a world where, instead of praising white women for having features that POC have literally been traumatised for, we uplift and give space to the POC.’

- Deba Hekmat

Women’s bodies have relentlessly been controlled, fetishised, sexualised and censored by men. Whether you are being told to shave, pluck, bleach or wax, there is an undeniable pressure for women to remain hairless saints to fit the stereotype of what a beautiful woman should look like. Body hair and the way it is viewed within society is one example of the way that the heteronormative gaze still asserts control over women in order to construct the notion that hairlessness equals supreme femininity. Feminine beauty has been transformed into an industry designed to keep self-esteem low and profits high, catering exclusively to the white, cisgender, heterosexual male gaze. White supremacy and gendered control – particularly the intersection of these two ideas - are still prevalent in modern society. This results in ideas of the conventionally attractive that are consistently in line with paedophilic and racist ideals due to an affiliation with hairlessness and Eurocentric features.

For many women of colour, the decision to keep body hair doesn’t just raise questions and judgement from the patriarchy but also challenges racist prejudices within society. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was an unprecedented effort to make body hair removal mandatory for women in the US. As many white men became fixated on controlling women’s beauty regimes, hairlessness became synonymous with racial progress and superiority. Dr. Rebecca Herzig writes in her book ‘Plucked: A History of Hair removal’ that 19th century European thinkers argued that hair was a marker of racial difference. Darwin’s evolutionary theory transformed body hair into a question of competitive selection. So much so, that hairiness was deeply pathologized, “rooted in traditions of comparative racial anatomy, evolutionary thought solidified hair’s associations with ‘primitive’ ancestry and an atavistic return to earlier, ‘less developed’ forms,” Herzig writes. The Trichometer, an instrument designed to quantify hair differences among races, was used to support the racist notion that hair was a marker of animality and degeneracy. An important distinction in this evolutionary framework was that men were supposed to be hairy, and women were not. Scientists surmised that a clear distinction between the masculine and the feminine indicated “higher anthropological development” in a race. Therefore, hairiness in women became indicative of deviance, and researchers set out to prove it. Herzig cites an 1893 study of 271 cases of insanity in white women, which found that insane women had excessive facial hair more frequently than the sane. Their hairs were also “thicker and stiffer,” more closely resembling those of the “inferior races”.

By the early 1900s, unwanted hair was a significant source of embarrassment for American women, they desired smooth, sanitised, white skin. They wanted to be seen and classed as feminine, in order to be viewed in this way they felt as if they must remove their body hair. “In a remarkably short time, body hair became disgusting to middle-class American women, its removal a way to separate oneself from cruder people, lower class and immigrant,” writes Herzig. Many Jewish, Italian and Eastern European migrants were targeted by advertising for x-ray epilation, under the idea that body hair removal would allow them to integrate into Anglo-dominant whiteness. This led to hundreds of women dying from such procedures.

In the late 19th century, when a wave of immigrants came to the U.S. from Southern and Eastern Europe, there was a parallel effort to demonise excessive body hair. Immigrant women from these countries had different features and more body hair, affirming the modern beauty standard as part of the anti-immigrant reaction. Similar personal hygiene and beauty anxieties rose when migrants came from Asia, including South Asians, in the early 20th century. The 1950s and the 1960s brought another rise in immigration from Asia and Latin America, and the popularity of hair removal shot up with it. A plethora of new anxieties about personal hygiene, personal care, personal beauty, were becoming synonymous with ideas surrounding whiteness and race.

Herzig also writes about her research based on interactions with South Asian women, from which she has learnt to appreciate the depth of harm that has been caused, and that from attributing the white standard to women of colour leaves lasting damage. ‘’It's important to understand that it's part of a white supremacist system, that it's not just psychological, not just about women internalizing and being damaged from these harmful messages, " she writes that there’s also whole legal, economic and social structures which support that psychological harm predominantly being the institutionalised racism that exists within society. Furthermore, she writes that the demonisation is further heightened for trans women of colour who are shamed for having body hair. Consequently, they are often ostracised when they seek to have it removed professionally. For any trans woman, how they choose to tailor their appearance is absolutely vital to ensure their safety in a society that marginalises and oppresses trans women on how they present themselves. For many trans women, they may feel that ‘passing' as cis women gives safety from severe judgments. Therefore, they may feel as if they have no other choice but to remove their body hair in order to fit into the idea of patriarchal desirability.

However, with the ever-expanding growth of fourth wave feminism, the ‘radical rebellion’ to grow out body hair has been sweeping over Instagram. Searching trends such as ‘#Januhairy’ or #Armpits4August pulls up numerous aesthetically pleasing pictures of predominantly white women showcasing wispy strands of blonde and thin armpit hair. The #UNIBROWMOVEMENT founded by Cypriot Sophia Hadjipanteli also demonstrates the continued white washing of features attributed to many South Asian and Middle Eastern faces. For these women the unibrow is not just a trend or a fashion statement but something deep rooted in cultural history which often faces stigma. Underneath these photos of white women is endless praise and adoration, with many complimenting the bravery and radical rebellion against the ideal notion of what it looks like to be female. Initially what can be viewed as empowering takes on another meaning when white women are being praised for something that on black and brown bodies is viewed as dirty, shameful and deeply criticized. Dazed Digital featured Sophia Hadjipanteli as the face for their editorial on 2021 beauty trends rather than allowing a POC to be presented on a mainstream publication. South Asian beauty influencer Linasha aka @linnygd takes issue with the blatant white washing of the ‘unibrow’ movement, writing ‘I found this claim tone-deaf, self-serving, and racist. I am appalled that Dazed beauty chose a white woman to be the face of a whole movement that she never started or had any involvement in, to begin with. I found her responses to be self-victimising and she continuously ignored Brown people’s voices, which made me realise that there’s no doubt that she used the ‘unibrow movement’ to make a quick profit and name for herself.’

Celebrities and influencers showing ‘barely there’ patches of underarm hair seen dyed with pinks, greens and blues are praised, suggesting that they are the epitome of feminism and that they are battling the patriarchy. The trend of dyeing body hair itself is marketed towards white women, marginalising POC for the fact that first to get the vibrant colours white women achieve easily the black hairs would have to be bleached first. Dyeing armpit hair has once again become a symbol of commercialisation of women’s bodies, with brands such as ‘Betty Beauty’ selling hair dye specifically designed for use on body hair. Is this product a celebration of body autonomy or does it capitalise on patriarchal rebellion and market it for economic gain? Traditionally what is viewed as gross and undesirable on POC’s bodies is deemed as beautiful and socially acceptable only when it fits into the norms and conventions of a Eurocentric society. As the trend predominantly showcases white women dyeing their armpit hair, they are enabled to fit into society’s expectations of a traditionally attractive woman, therefore feeding into the notion of patriarchal desirability. It is women of colour who are noticeably absent from mainstream media advertising and campaigns celebrating body hair.

Patriarchal desirability means that those who have historically been praised by the heteronormative gaze –white, thin, fair-haired women- can deviate from this supposed norm and face less criticism from the patriarchy because they adhere to the desirable features in other areas. By being conventionally attractive the choice to grow out body hair and refusing to conform to this aspect of patriarchal desirability is less stigmatised than when a POC decides not to bleach their arm hair or remove their upper lip hair. As these thin white influencers carry enough currency in the world of patriarchal desirability and adhere to traditional beauty standards in other areas, they are enabled to get through without fully conforming. These familiar patterns of appropriation are played out in front of us repetitively.

For many young girls of colour who have naturally thicker and darker hair from an earlier age, the relentless internalised racism is continuously enforced by peers in school. Many will feel self-conscious about a monobrow, pull their sleeves down to hide their arms. Coarse locks and fuzzy face hair creates a sense of otherness apparent from such an impressionable age. In a sociological study by Fahs and Delgardo (2011) it was found that women of colour and working-class women were the groups most negatively affected by failure to conform to the hair removal norm. For such women, being ‘too’ hairy added an extra layer of bodily oppression to the stigma they already experienced as marginalised women. Moreover, for some women of colour, body hair can be dark, coarse, and so more noticeable than is the case for white women. Thick hair often makes women feel dirty, less desirable, and less feminine. There is a noticeable lack of representation in the media due to the marginalisation of people of colour which continues to ostracise women with thicker and darker body hair. The feminist movement must learn from past mistakes of white washing and allow a space for women of colour to be celebrated for their hair- whether their choice is to have it removed or not.

To achieve equality for all women of colour around the world, we first must address the internalised misogyny and racism that is evident within society today. By weaponising a woman’s choice to conform to patriarchal standards of femininity, the view that a woman's physical appearance has bearing on her worth is upheld. Women are punished for learning how to survive in a patriarchal society. The choice to keep body hair or remove body hair should not be questioned, or weaponized by anyone. While the issue of body hair may seem trivial for some, it represents something much larger and it is this choice to take ownership of your body whether that choice is to grow it out or shave it off, it doesn’t matter! By striving to understand individual cultural practices and norms, we strive to ensure that we create a more positive world for all women to make choices freely.

Article by Emma Randall