From the Romans to Sex and the City: how body hair went out of style in the UK | Roman Britain

EEver since Roman texts warned women not to look “bushy as a goat,” body hair removal trends have come and gone, but historians say Britons now have less body hair than at any point in human history.

UK retail sales of shaving and hair removal products were worth £574.1 million in 2022, and with the advent of laser hair removal, the possibility of permanent body hair removal exists.

Since the 1990s, people have “removed more and more body hair,” says Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, a researcher at the University of Reading, with laser techniques becoming more common.

The interest in removing body hair goes deep into the past. A new museum exhibition opened this week at Wroxeter Roman City in Shropshire, showing how hair removal was an important ritual prior to communal bathing for men and women.

On display are some of the 50 tweezers found in the campsite’s bathing complex, where people paid for hair removal before exercising or bathing, and to distinguish themselves from the “barbaric” hairy British.

Wroxeter curator Cameron Moffett said Roman texts include recipes for homemade depilatory creams, or references to grinding away hair with pumice. She added that in the UK these customs disappeared as baths fell into disrepair and people started covering their bodies.

But while there is evidence of hairlessness 2,000 years ago, it happened for entirely different reasons. “The Romans didn’t remove body hair to look beautiful, they did it for cultural and religious reasons — men removed it as a sign of purity,” says Viren Swami, a professor of social psychology and an expert in body image at Anglia Ruskin University. .

The site of a bathhouse in Wroxeter Roman City. Photo: Courtesy of Light/Alan Spencer/Alamy

Swami said that cultural views on body hair have varied greatly throughout history – while most people would have been too poor to afford expensive tools such as tweezers, there was interest among wealthier people. For example, in the 14th century, aristocrats removed facial hair to make their faces appear more oval, which was considered a sign of status.

“We find examples of this throughout history [hair removal] in most different cultures, but whether it was widespread is more difficult to answer,” he said. “The evidence base historically suggests that it was relatively rare and associated with religious values ​​and status rather than embellishment, but a big shift before colonization, when Europe brought with it the idea that being hairy was barbaric, and hairlessness a sign of development and improvement.”

He added that body hair removal became mainstream in the UK in the late 1800s. “In the early 1900s, as clothing became freer and legs became more visible, we saw razor blades appear that told women that if they were hairy they wouldn’t be seen as feminine. Advertisements warned women that they would not find husbands.”

“Cultural pressure” to look feminine reached its peak in the 1950s, when youthfulness was co-opted as a feminine trait, he said. “There’s a deep sense of misogyny here — telling women to go hairless isn’t juvenile, it’s prepubescent.”

Although leg and armpit hair removal was popular throughout the 20th century, in Lesnik-Oberstein’s book on body hair, The Last Taboo, she points to the character Samantha Jones who spoke of Brazilian waxing in Sex and the City as the time when hair removal pubic hair went. mainstream.

The current craze for extreme hair removal reflected a growing societal interest in cosmetic surgery, “tweakments” and body modifications, combined with the “pornification of the wider culture,” she said. As with other long-term or permanent body changes, young women “may regret it,” she added.

She said it was almost impossible to discern where body hair removal trends were headed: “Body hair is so closely tied to ideas of sexuality, and sexuality is not subject to reason.”

Now Shiyan Zering, a beauty analyst at Mintel, said pubic hair removal was “on the rise,” with nearly half of adults choosing to get a haircut, and that it’s appearing in more advertising campaigns.

“Removing pubic hair is becoming less and less taboo and more and more seen as an act of self-care. The gap in hair removal trends between men and women is narrowing, especially in the younger demographic,” she said, noting that 49% of 16- to 24-year-old men remove armpit hair and 62% remove pubic hair.

Catherine Simpson, who wrote a book, One Body, that explored her relationship with her body after being diagnosed with cancer, said that despite learning not to worry about her shape or gray hair, she lost her “lifelong battle” with her body couldn’t let go. her, even though she found removing them painful and expensive.

“I’m a confident woman, but I don’t have the confidence to walk around with hairy legs. Even I don’t understand that, because I’ve thought so much about this topic, how ridiculous these standards are. I can’t outgrow this conditioning – it’s so strong. Hairy legs are seen as the opposite of femininity.”

From the Romans to Sex and the City: how body hair went out of style in the UK | Roman Britain

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