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, the same companies hoped to convince women they needed hairless legs, but hemlines dropped again in the early 1930’s so most women ignored (briefly) advertiser’s advice 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 the real deal was 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, began the no-win-for-me fight to retain that smooth feel for more than a few hours.
I am among the lucky ones. I boast long, nearly black, ringlets. With a little gel, the hair streaming down my back bounces and sways like a Pantene model’s mane. Due to the same genetic “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.
Adding to my leg-hair-removal challenge was razor burn. Shaving turned my legs to scratching posts for finger nails that tried (and failed) to relieve near constant itching and burning. Between red streaks, razed bumps that caused itching in the first place and late-afternoon stubble, I wasn’t reaching the American goal of pretty lower appendages.
I remained under the spell of this fashion trance into my early twenties. Not being one to go along, I eventually decided to brave other people’s snap judgment and surrender, 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).
Since my reasons for going natural were practical rather than to make a statement, before our family went south in our RV seven years ago, 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.
While still in “Progressive Midwest town,” shortly before we took to the road, I ran into a friend at the Farmer’s Market. Instead of “Hello” she grilled me before an audience of handmade jewelry. “Why did you shave?!” She was not comforted by the report that I had actually waxed.
“You are an inspiration to those of us not courageous enough to go natural!” I understood her consternation and she accepted my reasons for the surprising change.
For our first extended stay, we parked our portable home on a beach in Gulf Shores Alabama. While my then three year old son played in the sand and his infant brother slept, I meditated about life. On sunny days this looked like a young mother sitting on a park bench, tweezers tweezing, head bent in search of missed and fast-growing leg hairs. One afternoon an inquisitive child approached me.
“Mom, what are you doing?”
“I’m removing leg hair.”
“As a courtesy to people who find leg hair on women to be… well, who don’t like it. Since I don’t care one way or the other, I’m trying to make making friends easier.”
“NOOOO! Don’t take it off! That’s mean of those people! Don’t do that for them!”
“Sweetie, I really don’t mind, it’s okay.”
“Mom, stop! Stop taking the hair off your legs!”
I understood his upset. Too many changes all at once. New brother, new home, new area of the country. He could safely focus his frustration on something more tangible than location and family size. He earned a hug and a smile.
A few months later, we settled for a year in an apartment in Northern Mississippi. Our younger son, then nine months old, showed us he could literally climb the walls. We decided he needed more than a 32 foot home to explore.
Southern style, our neighbors were kind and generous, but only to a point. I remember the day we stopped casually visiting over our patio rails. I had not re-waxed or tweezed once the first hairs started growing back. I didn’t think too much about this until one afternoon when my neighbor carried on a tense conversation with my legs while I tried not to smile knowingly. She was clearly uncomfortable.
From that day on, chit chat among our building neighbors stopped whenever 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.
We’re preparing to live on the road again come July. Many details must be tended to, not the least of which is keeping my legs socially acceptable. I am quite furry as I write this, but before we begin rolling to our first stop, I will wax. Some will react in indignation like my son or our friend at the Farmer’s Market, while others will cheer, believing I finally got with the program. Many, like me, don’t care either way. In reality, I’m going to strive for hairless legs so we have more opportunities for making friends as we wind our way around the USA, though I really wish hair on a woman’s legs was a non-issue.
This post may seem familiar. I published this article last fall. Last night I revised it and added a couple stories.