The beginnings of summer and the throwing off of winter clothes can bring a sense of freedom to some but, at times, a sense of shame and embarrassment to others. A number of letters have come from females of all ages concerned with body hair. Whilst older women have registered shame and fear about the thinning, greying or loss of hair on their heads, young women and girls have been concerned about “superfluous” hair on arms, legs, pubic area and face.
Further down the list of “hair” concerns was why some women want to change the colour or shape of their hair. There can be many reasons and some include denial of origins (straightening or curling) denial of ageing (colouring) or, alternatively, a positive wish to transform, to have control over one’s external appearance. It can come from an identification with a female family member or an attack on one.
Janet, aged 62, has waist-length purple hair kept straight by regular perms. “My mother had short frizzy white hair. She never let me grow my hair or colour it. She had me late in life- much too late, I think. I swore that I when I grew old I would have long coloured hair. I get enormous pleasure each day at having kept my word to myself.” Whilst we know from the story of Samson and Delilah, as well as from the fairy tale of Rapunzel, the way that hair cutting, as Freud showed, could be experienced as an act of castration, very little attention has been given to centuries of body hair removal by women of nearly all cultures and races.
Why are chemist shops filled with different chemical and physical means for getting rid of hair? What is so difficult about hair that is not on the head that has made it so unacceptable? Mrs L.A. from Nottingham writes “As a feminist I find it particularly upsetting that this subject has had such an impact on me. For my husband, my body hair has no negative connotations but my daughters (16 and 13) and I always get waxed before a holiday and use shavers or creams the rest of the time. My daughters were proud when their periods came and when they first got pubic or under arm hair but once it began to grow they could not stand it. My youngest, B, is the worst. Since her 13th birthday she has refused to sit in a sunny room in case the light shows up what she calls the “disgusting fuzz” on her face, arms and legs. She wants me to pay for a whole body waxing but I draw the line there”.
Periods are a major female rite of passage and the beginning of secondary sexual characteristics can also be a moment of great pride. However, whilst growing breasts or penis can cause some embarrassment for some, it is more likely to be of a temporary nature compared with the negative feelings concerning hair. Why is B so distressed? As the youngest daughter has she picked up both her mother and her older sister’s fears and is she expressing something on behalf of all of them or is there a specific meaning to her fears? At 13, is she finding the process of sexual development painful with hair providing a useful focus for self-doubt and self-hatred? Sometimes difficult feelings about pubic hair can be transferred on to public hair. Indeed, school teachers are well aware of the humorous potential of the one letter “l” that separates those two words. Without further information it is not possible to know but the issue of shame in this context is very important.
Sira Dermen, a psychoanalyst at the Portman Clinic comments “Whilst some women might dislike the signs of ageing in their hair-such as thinning or greying or whitening I feel the shame associated with body hair is of a different order and inherently linked to or resulting from a shaking of one’s sense of feminine identity. It seems that body hair, and especially facial hair, is experienced as masculine in our culture”.
Indeed, John M. from Liverpool wrote to ask advice about his sixteen-year-old son who was deeply depressed that he did not need to shave yet. “He spends ages looking in the mirror each day in the hope of seeing hair”. 30 years older, Mr A from Norwich said that he was 46 and found it deeply depressing that he was growing a bald patch. This made him feel sexually unattractive and useless.
It can be seen that having or not having hair is a powerful primitive issue for both sexes. Whilst Yul Brunner had an enormous impact in showing that a baldhead could be beautiful there remains in Western culture a wish for men and women to show their difference through hair. Given that gender issues are so significant could there be an evolutionary component in our aesthetic attitudes?
Darwin thought sexual selection affected hair; both beards in men and long hair in men or women might have begun as sexual ornamentation. He stated that in tribes where men had long hair it was a crowning glory whilst in other groups women were encouraged to grow their hair long. Whilst female ancestors acquired a new character of nudity i.e. less body hair than men on the whole, they nevertheless passed on that characteristic to both male and female children so that hairiness or lack of it has not been solely determined by age or sex.
However, the level of shame or disgust is equal in all cultures at being in a minority so that where the men are largely hairless the sign of hair is seen as odious and eradicated by them whilst in races where men have more hair the greatest pride is felt by it. Could these hypotheses of Darwin’s be correct?
Male and female foetuses have equal facial hair (with a moustache in the third month) which is then replaced by hair called lanugo which covers the whole body. Around the fifth month the lanugo is shed and disappears before birth. Whilst a baby’s sex is determined at the moment of fertilisation in the first few months of foetal life male and female foetuses look similar and it is at 4-5 months that differences show externally.
It is curious to consider why it is that sex organs alone are not considered to be adequate differentiating signs between maleness and femaleness. It seems, as with other species, that some gendered kind of ornamentation is required to aid sexual selection. However, whilst there is likely to be a biological as well as a cultural component in the powerful feelings hairiness or hairlessness produce that are less amenable to change, there is always the psychological possibility for us to accept, improve or modify our genetic inheritance. Parents have to consider carefully which of those alternatives most aid their children’s emotional experience.