Goddess V often tells me I think too much. I smile at her and say, “Ya think?” She’s right, mostly, but the deal is, I enjoy thinking. It’s part of who I am. I can sit quietly alone, with no TV, no radio, no distractions, and think—about all kinds of things. After writing my last post about gender roles, I’ve been thinking about socialization in general, and about how it defines us in many ways we don’t readily consider. Take women’s underarms for example ☺

The practice of eliminating body hair, both for men and women, is evident throughout the ages as far back as 3000 years B.C. and has ebbed and flowed from one culture to another. Men have concerned themselves with body hair on again and off again, and to a much lesser extent, so have women. Historians generally agree that shaving for American women began in 1915 with an ad in the up-scale magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. The ad featuring a photograph of a young woman dressed in a slip, a robe covering one shoulder, with her arm raised above her head to reveal a hairless underarm. At the time the term underarm was considered objectionable and unfit for print, so the ad copy was skillfully crafted and began: “Summer dress and modern dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.” Within a few months however, ad men through caution to the winds and began writing ad copy like, “The Woman of Fashion says the underarm must be as smooth as the face.”

The HB ad was the first in an onslaught by male marketeers to convince high-society women it was time, in fact, “necessary” for them to deal with not-so-feminine tufts of hair that someone, presumably the opposite sex, ostensibly found to be “objectionable.” An altruistic motive? Hardly. American women represented an untapped market for razors and assorted other toiletries the marketers themselves had yet to fully envision. Yes, American women had more than hair under their arms. They had big dollar signs. In the eyes of consumer marketeers, they were little more than juicy, low-hanging plums just ripe for the picking. By 1915 McCalls was running similar ads directed at middle class women. Bolstered by sheer and sleeveless dresses that were gaining popularity in women’s fashions, the movement toward redefining femininity in America was well under way.

Women’s razors and depilatories made their debut in the Sears Roebuck catalog in 1922, the same year the company began offering dresses with sheer sleeves. By this time however, the underarm battle had been largely won. Advertisers no longer felt compelled to explain the need for their products and could concentrate on distinguishing themselves from their competitors. The anti-leg hair campaign was less intense with the volume of leg ads never reaching the proportions of the underarm campaign. At the time there was little practical need for smooth legs. Hemlines that had risen during the Roaring Twenties plummeted in the 1930s. It wasn’t until Dr. Wallace Carothers at DuPont invented nylon in 1938 that an affordable alternative to silk stockings became available to the masses. Nylon stockings first went on sale on May 15, 1940, selling 780,000 pair the first day and 64 million the first year. Presumably, women rushed home to try on their first pair of nylons and decided it was time to start shaving the legs too.

According to one major razor manufacturer, a female who begins shaving at age 12 or 13 will do so about 6,336 times throughout her life. This equates to the average western woman dedicating approximately 32,000 minutes, or 533.34 hours, or 22.22 days of her life denuding her legs and underarms of unsightly hair. When I compare this to how I spend darn near this much time in my car each year just traveling to and from my job, I suppose 22.22 days in a lifetime is not that big a deal.

Then again, when you multiply 22.22 days by the number of shaving women in America: that’s many hundreds of years worth of otherwise productive woman hours that are wasted balancing on one foot in the shower! Next, consider how just one particular model Gillette razor recently earned $400 million in sales during its first year in the marketplace. It’s easy to understand why Proctor and Gamble was willing to plunk down $57 billion to acquire Gillette in 2005. In our age of global marketing, countries in which women still do not shave represent an opportunity for huge additional revenues, which is why companies like P&G are presently engaged in campaigns designed to convince those ladies they need to get with the program. The impact then, of cultivating women as consumers of razors, is massive--on our time as individuals and on our economy. But that’s not the half of it.

Shaving underarms and legs has become part of our western socialization and has helped to define our expectations for the female gender. When we see a woman raise her arm, men and women alike expect to see her armpit to be clean shaven. When we don’t we are taken aback, repulsed even. Stop for a moment to consider the true power in this: something as natural as underarm hair, which was given by Nature to every female on the planet, is now seen as being unnatural and decidedly unfeminine. Perhaps even more importantly, this has helped to defined how many women think of themselves as females. I dare say there are few women in America, sporting more than a few days’ growth under their arms, who could look at their image in a mirror without grossing themselves out.

For the most part, media advertisers must first persuade us to entertain a negative self image, simply because this affords them the best opportunity to present their products as solutions for correcting that imagined negativity. Make no mistake. This means there is a direct (and critical) correlation between our investment in negative self image and our investment in advertisers’ products. Witness Gillette’s TV and print ads for the premium-priced Venus razor for women that “brings out the goddess in you.” The logic is elementary, and damned insulting if you ask me. You know you’re a goddess wannabe. But you don’t use a Venus razor, so you’re not. What’s more, you can’t look like the mile-long-legs-to-die-for model in our ads. But never fear, ladies, Venus shaving system for women to the rescue. Simply shell out the bucks for one and voila, problem solved.

Dr. Rita Freedman, nationally known author, speaker and women’s psychology expert, writes in her book, Beauty Bound, “Body hair signals sexual maturity as well as dominance. Females are socialized to censor body hair, just as they are taught to repress their sexuality. The silky legs and hairless underarms of a child-woman connote her sexual innocence, even as they make her more sensuous… part of a social myth of female beauty which serves to keep women in their place as ‘the fair sex,’ powerless, weak and properly submissive.”

This is not a call to ban the blade among women. It’s just a shame shaving has been foisted on females when it should be a matter of choice. It’s equally a shame men and women alike have been condition to grimace at the sight of female body hair. Nonetheless, despite rising female authority, and despite a 2004 European study* that may indicate an increased incidence of breast among women who shave and use deodorant, I doubt women will toss out their razors the way feminists discarded their bras in the 1960s. Not any time soon anyway. Smooth legs and hairless armpits may or may not be good things, depending on your point of view. As Rita Freedman states in her more recent book, Bodylove: Learning to Like Our Looks and Ourselves; a Practical Guide for Women, “Good looks are a real source of women’s social power and can be useful in a variety of situations. There’s a difference between pursuing beauty joyfully and pursuing it desperately. Looking attractive is part of the game of living. But playing with your image should feel like fun, not a contest in which you always wind up on the losing side.”

Speaking of contests, below is a European ad for breast cancer awareness (the English version) that won an award in an advertising festival in 2005. Had this billboard appeared on an interstate in the United States it probably would have stopped traffic.

*The US study, by Chicago doctor Kris McGrath of Northwestern University, and involving over 437 women with breast cancer, suggests that deodorants or antiperspirants might be linked with breast cancer, but only together with underarm shaving. It is the first evidence of such a link but is far from conclusive. The study found that the more zealous the underarm regime, the younger the women were when diagnosed with cancer. Those who shaved at least three times a week and applied deodorant at least twice a week were almost 15 years younger when diagnosed than women who did neither.
This issue first gained publicity in the 1990s when a hoax email was widely circulated. It claimed that underarm shaving creates tiny nicks, allowing chemicals from deodorants or antiperspirants to enter the body and trigger tumors.