The anthropology of hair: Explaining the relative hairlessness of humans

In our first year Key Skills in Anthropology module, students are introduced to the fundamental academic skills necessary to succeed in university and post-university employment. As part of the course, students are asked to write an essay on the topic of hair from a social and biological anthropological perspective. This week we are featuring an essay by Victoria Stuebner.
Victoria Stuebner
Victoria’s bio: I am a first-year student from Reading, Pennsylvania. I have always been interested in human evolution and culture which lead me to pursue a degree in anthropology.

Hair is a part of everyday life, but is hardly thought of outside of mundane style and hygiene rituals. Since it often goes unnoticed, its role in human culture and adaptation is neglected. Anthropology is one of the few subjects that really delve into the topic of hair from a biological and cultural viewpoint. Culturally, hair has been identified as a key symbol of gender expression for many. This link between hair, gender, and sex also has roots in human evolution. Biological perspectives focus on how human hair evolved to benefit the species. For instance, humans, unlike most other mammals, have thin fur coats and appear almost hairless (Pagel & Bodmer, 2003).  Females also tend to have less hair than males (Pagel & Bodmer, 2003). Attitudes towards body hair often depend on a culture’s hygiene and gender norms. Both sexes have adapted to a certain level of body hair and pubic hair, but the cultural and biological reasons for this differ for males and females.

There are many theories that attempt to explain human hairlessness from a biological perspective. One commonly known theory referred to as ‘The Ectoparasite Hypothesis’ claims that Homosapiensevolved to be hairless as a defense mechanism against parasites (Pagel & Bodmer, 2003: S118). Organisms with less hair decrease their exposure to parasites since hair both shelters and conceals parasites. Human females carry less body hair than males, so this trait had a greater advantage for women (Pagel & Bodmer, 2003). Many explain this through sexual selection, which is when adaptations are influenced by mate preferences. Theories on hairlessness in females relate to the immobility they would likely face once they began raising children (Prokop, 2016). When humans are inactive, they become more susceptible to parasites, suggesting that women have a greater risk of hosting them during the maternal portion of their lives (Prokop, 2016).  Likewise, males may have maintained greater body hair as an adaption. For instance, beards and other forms of body hair could signal higher testosterone levels to competing males making these traits more beneficial (Puts, 2010). The adaptation of body hair acts as a symbol of dominance that wards off other males. The amount of body hair maintained by either sex have many possible evolutionary explanations like the ones referenced that do clearly distinguish the purpose of body hair in men and women.

Since hairlessness wards against parasites, one would expect women to prefer males with less body hair regardless of the relationship it shares with dominance. Research on straight women and gay men from Brazil and the Czech Republic analysed their preference for male body hair (Valentova et al., 2017). While many males in the experiment prefered men with body and facial hair similar to their own, the authors found little evidence that defined female preference (Valentova et al., 2017). The findings on women were too varied to draw a conclusion on their attitudes towards male body hair (Valentoba et al., 2017). Another example of a study conducted on women in Turkey and Slovakia centered on the parasite hypothesis (Prokop et al., 2012). In this study females were primarily screened for two things: a disdain for parasites, and preferences for male chest hair (Prokop et al., 2012). All women were presented stimuli of male chest with varying degrees of hair and asked their preference (Prokop et al., 2012). In the beginning, Turkish women were hypothesised to have a higher aversion to chest hair than Slovak women since they appeared more disease conscious. On the contrary, their findings were incongruent and instead showed no preference was held by either group (Prokop et al., 2012). These two studies seem to show a weak or non existent link between male hair and female parasite aversion. Other research conducted on Sri Lankan and British women enquired about male torso hair; this study discovered a higher preference for torso hair, as opposed to against it, but did not enquire about parasitic aversion (Dixson et al., 2003). This suggests that there is less pressure on males in these populations to adapt to hairlessness. These populations face less exposure to parasites than others, so the advantage of hairlessness could decrease.

If hairlessness is no longer a necessary adaptation in the males and females mentioned, then studies on males would be expected to yield similar results. Another study conducted by Prokop focused on Slovak male’s preference for female pubic hair against their disdain towards parasite contamination (Prokop, 2016). These males were requested to indicate their desire towards photographs of shaved and unshaved genitalia whilst being tested for parasite sensitivity and promiscuity (Prokop, 2016). The study not only showed that males with higher parasite sensitivity on average prefered women with shaved genitalia, but that this also correlated with their promiscuity (Prokop, 2016). It seems that those who have many partners are more concerned with contamination and therefore prefer shaved women. This study was conducted in the same country as the study done on female parasite aversion, but still showed a continued preference for females to have less hair than males. It has been suggested that women do not compete for mates like males do, but instead must focus on attracting males (Puts, 2010). If this is true, less hair appears to be more appealing to males, which would make hairlessness and hair removal adaptive. This does not explain males preference in populations with low risks to parasites desire for hairlessness in potential mates.

The ongoing preference for female hairlessness could be explained culturally. In many cultures the amount of body hair maintained tends to signify norms for each gender and is associated with hygiene. This is evident in an outdated physical anthropology article on female hirsutism from the late 1980s referring to those with hirsutism as ‘abnormal’ (Lunde & Grøttum, 1984: 307). The article even goes so far as to describe their hair growth as ‘masculine’ (Lunde & Grøttum, 1984: 310). While insensitive, the article characterises the social bias of the time that shaped modern opinions of hirsute females as odd or unattractive. Studies on women in Australia, the UK, and US report that a vast majority of women remove their body hair and associate this act with femininity and belonging (Tiggemann & Hodgson, 2008). Furthermore, surveys given to female Australian university students ask them to reflect on their feelings towards hair removal and reported similar associations with femininity (Tiggemann & Hodgson, 2008). Women in these studies reported that their body and pubic hair shaving started in their early teens and was done to feel more attractive (Tiggemann & Hodgson, 2008). Research conducted in the United States included women expressing their hypothetical feelings towards body hair, and another group of women required to grow out their body hair (Fahs, 2013). The first group believed that shaving was a choice, while also expressing disgust towards women who did not shave because it defies cultural norms (Fahs, 2013). The second group, who was required to stop shaving, expressed feeling dirty, noting partner and familial disapproval (Fahs, 2013). Visible female body hair communicates a message of hygiene or normality in these cultures which makes it a ‘public symbol’ (Leach, 1958:2). Many cultures appear to have specific attitudes directed towards body hair particularly in women by prescribing hair as masculine and hair removal as feminine.

Biological factors affect how both men and women have adapted thinner body hair, but culture seems to impact attitudes towards body hair and its removal. From a biological perspective, few of the cultures examined were at great risk of carrying parasites, so it would be unnecessary for men and women to adapt a preference for hairlessness, and this was reflected in studies conducted on males. This may indicate that the results found in male chest hair studies reflects cultural preferences rather than biological. Culturally, many societies equate body hair with masculinity, forcing women to remove their body hair to express their gender in a socially acceptable manner. This association may perpetuate female hairlessness even if it is no longer adaptive for survival.

Reference List

Dixson, A.F. Halliwell, G. East, R. Wignarajah, P. Anderson, M.J. (2003) Masculine Somatotype and Hirsuteness as Determinants of Sexual Attractiveness to Women. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 32 (1) 29-39.


Fahs, B. (2013) Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined vs Lived Experiences of Women’s Body Hair Growth. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 38 (2) 167-180.


Leach, E.R. (1958) Magical Hair. the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 88 (22) 147-164.


Lunde, O. & Grøttum, P. (1984) Body hair growth in women: Normal or hirsute.American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 64 (3) 307-313.


Pagel, M. & Bodmer, W. (2003) A naked ape would have fewer parasites. The Royal Society Biological Sciences. 270 (1) S117-S119.


Prokop, P. (2016) Male preference for female pubic hair: An evolutionary view. Anthropologischer Anzeiger.73 (2)  169-175.


Prokop, P. Rantala, M. J. Usak, M. Senay, I. (2012) Is a Woman’s Preference for Chest Hair in Men Influenced by Parasite Threat?.Archives of Sexual Behavior. 42 (7) 1181-1189.


Puts, D.R. (2010) Beauty and the beast: mechanisms of sexual selection in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior. 31 (3) 157-175.


Tiggemann, M. & Hodgson, S. (2008) The Hairlessness Norm Extended: Reasons for and Predictors of Women’s Body Hair Removal at Different Body Sites. Sex Roles. 59 (11-12) 889-897.


Valentova, J. V. Varella, M.A.C. Bártová, K. Štěrbová, Z. Dixson, B.J.W. (2017) Mate preferences and choices for facial and body hair in heterosexual women and homosexual men: Influence of sex, population, homogamy, and imprinting-like effect. Evolution and Human Behavior. 38 (2) 241-248.


4 thoughts on “The anthropology of hair: Explaining the relative hairlessness of humans

  1. I do wonder at the continuing absence of consideration of body hair’s function as a principle sensory mechanism of skin when looking at the evolution of our peculiar patterns of hairiness. It seems to me it matters directly to evolution because of how hair touch sensitivity impacts parasite (and parasite bourne disease) susceptibility (through improved detection) and the impacts on health.

    W. Montagna in “Evolution of Human Skin” (1985) notes that “All human hair follicles, regardless of size and location are richly innervated and comprise the principal anatomical unit of cutaneous sensibility.” ie hairs are the main way the skin feels things. If you feel a bug on you, chances are you feel it via the hairs rather than from direct skin contact – I can for example feel the air vibrations from flying insects flying nearby without them actually touching skin or hairs. Very sensitive.

    Montagna notes that richness of nerve supply – likening ordinary human hair follicles with dedicated feeler hair follicles of related apes. It looks like we gained sensory sensitivity by the changes that made us (misleadingly misnamed) “hairless” and that is not small matter to be passed over without consideration.

    Coming back to the fashion of body hair removal – I speculate that because the most noticed sensations body hairs provide (even though most people don’t appear to distinguish between what hairs feel and what skin feels) are those of irritation, that trigger subconscious urges to make those sensations stop (swipe, swat, scratch) – that may subconsciously contribute to a desire to rid oneself of that “annoying” body hair, to make the sensations stop.

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