Shave your legs? Why?

I woke up this morning wondering about the history of leg hair removal for women in the U.S. I did a brief google search, “history of leg shaving.” From what I can tell, popular opinion lays responsibility for grown, female human’s (primarily Anglo-Saxon at the time) extra grooming “needs” at the feet of razor companies who thought to cash in first on unsightly underarm hair visible once sleeveless dresses hit the scene around 1915. Apparently selling razors was a snap after that. Only a few years later, when hemlines rose a bit, the same companies hoped to convince women they needed hairless legs, but hemlines dropped again in the early 1930’s so most women ignored the advertiser’s call to be free of unsightly hair. Leg shaving as the norm did catch on by the mid 1930’s and took firm hold of our collective idea of female beauty.
I’m not yet 40 so have no memory of when women left their leg and underarm hair alone. My husband’s great aunt Louise was born in the 1920’s. I called her to see if she remembered a time before generally smooth ladies legs. She started shaving at 16, but says her mother, who had soft, light hair never shaved. Louise also remembers applying special tanning paint to her legs, letting it dry, then drawing a black “seam” on the back of her legs. From 1942-45, this was common practice at a time time when nylons were fashionable but in short supply.
I was an early shaver, giggling with my 11 year old friend as we dared to lather ourselves with shaving cream and whisk away dark, baby-fine hair from our skinny legs. Thus, the fight began.
I am among the lucky ones. I boast long, nearly black, ringlets streaming down my back. With a little gel, my hair bounces and sways like a Pantene model’s mane. As a result of the same luck, when I shave my calves at 7am, I’m sporting a 5 o’clock shadow at 3pm. When I had last period gym class in high school, I was mortified that my lower legs were speckled black and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
Another challenge was razor burn. Shaving turned my legs to scratching posts for finger nails that tried (and failed) to relieve the itching and burning. Between red streaks, the razed bumps that caused itching in the first place and my black speckled calves, I obviously wasn’t reaching the intended goal of pretty appendages.
This fashion trance lasted into my early twenties. Not being one to go along just because everyone else is, I decided to brave other people’s snap judgment and give up the battle. No statement of my natural femininity or retro look intended. Mostly I’ve lived on the north side of Chicago and a small, progressive university town so having hairy legs, though not common, is not looked at sideways (at least not openly).
When we went south in our RV, I waxed. I figured I stood a better chance of making friends with our temporary, mostly older neighbors if I didn’t sport a lower mane. Not too long after hitting the road, we settled for a year in an apartment in Mississippi when our younger son, then nine months old, needed more than 32 feet to climb around in.
Southern style, our neighbors were kind and generous. Still, I remember the day we stopped casually visiting over our patio rails. I had not re-waxed once the first little hairs started growing back. I didn’t think too much about this until one afternoon when my neighbor carried on a tense, casual conversation with my legs while I tried not to smile knowingly as she was clearly uncomfortable. From that day on, chit chat between our building neighbors stopped when we came up the walk with groceries or returned noisily from an afternoon at the park. These poor people could only stare at us, almost forgetting how to say, “Hello.” Unexpectedly, their generosity continued. They still brought over boxes of toys, a tub of school supplies (since we home school), a toddler bike and random furniture, but they no longer accepted my invitations to afternoon coffee and their children stopped coming to play after school.
I’m guilty of assuming all non-shaving women are intelligent. I’m curious. When you see a grown woman with hairy legs, what is your first thought?

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4 Responses to Shave your legs? Why?

  1. Leigh says:

    Yay! Another woman like me!
    I’m like you, if I shave in the morning, I have that 5 o’clock shadow in the afternoon. My hair is blonde, so not easily noticed at that stage. However, if shaving is for having smooth skin, what’s the point?
    I remember when I made the decision to stop shaving. Several co-workers freaked out. I don’t remember their exact words. However, it was along the lines of how unclean it is. I said “Excuse me! I still take showers! What does shaving have to do with being clean?” They didn’t bother me about it after that, but were clearly uncomfortable with it.
    I had not been able to be fully comfortable with it until I moved to Champaign, and met lots of other women who do not shave.
    I won’t force the decision to not shave on my daughters. But I will make them understand how much of a waste of time it is!

  2. heidi says:

    Nonshavers unite!
    You could have asked your co-workers if their boyfriends/husbands were dirty for being hairy.

  3. Maya says:

    I have never really liked shaving, it was stressful when I was a teen, and is still stressful for me now. I think I am scared I will slip in the shower and slice myself open. Not sure how much I am influenced by society, but I still shave under my arms (although not daily) because I wear a lot of tanks (no a/c), I also feel less sticky. Probably once a month I shave my legs. I do it for the purely selfish reason of the smooth feeling when I rub my calves together.

  4. heidi says:

    Maya and Leigh, I posted this to my other blog too, which is part of an online writer’s community. The response has been fascinating. Here’s the link if you’re interested. I’m always surprised by how many people, especially women, are opposed to body hair. On us, not men so much.

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