History of Single Life

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A series about hooking up through the ages.

As anyone who’s into retro porn can tell you, our collective taste in personal grooming has changed a lot in the last decade or so. The rise of the Brazilian wax has been well-documented, of course, but what’s new is that acomoclitism (that is, the preference for hairlessness) isn’t only a feminine beauty standard any more. My friend Jeff, who came of age in the ’80s, thought he’d seen everything until his twentysomething girlfriend asked him to shave his pubes as if it was no more remarkable than clipping his nose hairs. It’s an international phenomenon, too: My friends from Edinburgh were astounded that I didn’t shave. It’s also a bit of a hairball for trichophiliacs: When I was writing girl copy for a porn magazine a few years ago, my managing editor, who grew up in the ’70s, went ga-ga for the all-too-rare photo set where the model looked as if Tarzan should be swinging from her crotch. And forget about it if you have a thing for girls with hairy armpits — while sexual perversion is usually considered to be that which goes against nature, these days, liking our sexual partners as God made them is considered an outré fetish.


    Biologically, body hair is there for a reason. Not only does it protect against friction when you’re bumping uglies, as well as signal that the person whose ugly you’re about to bump is sexually mature, but the fact that it’s located in the most odoriferous parts of the body is no coincidence. Your body hair provides ample surface area for bacteria to break down the fatty material secreted by the apocrine glands in your crotch and armpits, thus producing the delightful scent we know as BO. “In the old days, you could really smell your mate, and smell is the animal sense that inspires you. It got you hot,” as Norman Mailer said in praise of pheromones in a Nerve interview earlier this year. “The kinkiness now. . . it’s all in search of a lost smell.”
    Of course, humans have been messing with nature ever since we climbed down from the trees and started chucking spears at wooly mammoths. Upper-class men and women in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt shaved everything except for their head hair, a beauty ideal adopted by the Greeks and Romans. “Let not your armpits reek of wild goat, nor your legs bristle with harsh hair,” the poet Ovid warned young girls in his Ars Amatoria. While the medieval church saw too-fastidious hygiene as a gateway to sin, causing Roman-style baths, and the depilation associated with them, to fall out of favor in Europe, shaving has persisted in the Muslim world. The twelfth-century Syrian writer Usama Ibn Munqidh, for instance, relates an amusing anecdote about a crusader discovering the way the Muslims did things and forcing an Arab bath attendant to shave his and his wife’s nether regions (probably to get rid of lice). While the Renaissance revived classical learning, it didn’t revive classical fashion: Michelangelo’s David differs from its ancient antecedents in the addition of some awkwardly sculpted pubic hair, and the “merkin,” or pubic wig for prostitutes unlucky enough to have lost theirs through disease or to get rid of lice, first appeared in the English language in 1617.
     Prostitutes’ need for merkins highlights another very important thing about body hair: It’s considered dirty, in both the hygienic and moral senses of the word — our hidden animal nature, exposed for public view. European aesthetes could deal with any number of classically hairless nudes hanging on their museum walls, but Francisco Goya was called before the Inquisition in 1815 for painting The Nude Maja, arguably the first depiction of pubic hair

Pop star Nena shocked the British public with her hairy pits when she performed “99 Luftballoons” on Top of the Pops.

in Western art, and The Origin of the World, the full-frontal crotch shot Courbet painted for the Turkish diplomat Khalil Bey in 1866, was considered so shocking that it wasn’t publicly displayed until 1981. Similarly, “Walter,” the anonymous author of the pornographic classic My Secret Life, details his fascination with the sight and smell of forbidden, unshaven nineteenth-century female armpits and crotches.
    It’s probably because of the connection between hair, dirt, and sex that decency mandated shaving once women’s dress grew skimpier in the 1910s and 1920s. Not surprisingly, the trend began in the cleanliness-obsessed USA, the nation that also circumcises the vast majority of its male children in the name of hygiene. Conversely, armpit-shaving didn’t catch on until the mid- to late ’80s in Germany, which is why the pop star Nena shocked the British public with her hairy pits when she performed “99 Luftballoons” on Top of the Pops.
    According to an article by historian Christine Hope published in the Journal of American Culture in 1982, the sustained marketing assault against the female armpit began in the May 1915 issue of Harper’s Bazaar with an ad that informed the reader that “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.” Depilation shortly became mandatory. “All unwelcome hairs on arms or face removed instantly with one application of this famous preparation,” declared an X-Bazin advertisement in the December 1916 issue of the decidedly middlebrow McCall’s, appearing alongside the magazine’s usual content of stories about young people in love. “Fashions demand hair-

Hairlessness became associated with youth and beauty.

free arms,” concurred the manufacturers of Sulfo Solution in McCall’s January 1917 issue — the dreaded word armpit was still verboten, but the ad, which shows a woman standing, triumphant, her arms raised gracefully over her head, left little to the imagination of even the dullest reader. Another ad for X-Bazin in the May 1917 issue took advantage of young moderns’ passion for the automobile by showing a lady motorist signaling for a turn. “Turn right — this is the direction,” the ad reads, implying that bushy pits are definitely the wrong way to go, and possibly a road hazard. One of the “six simple beauty lessons” in an ad in the June issue actually mentioned the dread word: “Removal of superfluous hairs from the face, arms, hands, arm-pits, etc., seems to be a tremendous problem to many women. . . .A hair-free skin is a wonderful improvement to beauty.”
    Early motion pictures such as Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauty shorts contributed to the trend by showing women sporting skimpy bathing costumes and classically nude underarms, and by 1922, even the Sears catalog was carrying female shaving supplies. When bathing suit lines retreated upwards and stockings disappeared due to war rationing in the 1930s and ’40s, leg-shaving became mandatory. Not to do so was publicly embarrassing, unhygienic — and, worse, old-fashioned. Conversely, hairlessness became associated with youth and beauty.
    As the Sexual Revolution progressed and it became acceptable to venture outdoors in less and less clothing, we had to remove more and more hair to be decent in our undress. Bikinis demanded the bikini wax, and thongs mandated the Brazilian wax. Not shaving became tantamount to a political statement. The last

One could argue that depilation is the ultimate in nudity.

decade has seen the smooth look become the norm for women and men alike, with gay men and the porn industry being the leading trendsetters — the former setting the standard for male beauty, and the latter, with its insistence on obstruction-free view of in-and-out action, setting the standard for female. Like the nineteenth-century British art critic John Ruskin, who supposedly fled from his marriage bed because he couldn’t stand his wife Effie’s pubic hair, we’re horrified by hair.
    True, there’s a lot to be said for depilation. Besides the controlling-BO argument and the no-picking-hairs-out-of-your-teeth argument, one could also argue that it’s the ultimate in nudity: You’re never more naked than when you’re shorn of your natural covering. Finally, there’s the market value: Sex has become more than a matter of desire — it’s also a commodity and a signifier of sophistication. When we take our clothes off, we’re performing — and we want to look good on stage. By manscaping the growth whose appearance first marked the change to adulthood, the body is civilized and controlled. Ironically, though, if “body hair” equates to “sex,” the smoother we are, the less sexual we are, too. Behind the current fashion for smoothness is the fact that even at our most liberated, we remain fundamentally frightened of our animal natures.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and

Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.