The anthropology of hair: Body hair removal

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 Millie Elliott.
Millie Elliott
Millie’s bio: I am a first-year anthropology student from Brighton.

Humans’ hair follicles have the density proportionate of an ape of the same body size, yet human body hair is fine and short in comparison to the thick coverage of fur seen on other primates (Pagel & Bodmer, 2003). It is for this reason that humans are often referred to as relatively hairless, which is the sense in which I will be using this term throughout the remainder of this essay. Many biological anthropologists use theories of both natural and sexual selection to explain the sparsity of human hair, such as the ‘ectoparasite avoidance theory’ (Pagel & Bodmer, 2003) and the ‘naked love theory’ (Giles, 2010). Attitudes towards body hair vary between different cultures, and in many Western societies, people choose to further artificially remove hair from their bodies. It is common in Western cultures for body hair, particularly females’, to have connotations of uncleanliness and masculinity, meaning body hair removal can seem compulsory for one to correspond with social norms (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004). In this essay the biological factors that impact human body hair and the cultural reasons as to why many people choose to further artificially reduce the amount of hair on their bodies will be explored.

Having less hair can be advantageous because it is believed to reduce parasite infection. Many biological anthropologists suggest humans developed relative hairlessness due to natural selection, as having skin with less hair lowers the prospect of becoming infested by ectoparasites, which can potentially transmit diseases (Prokop & Fedor 2013; Weiss 2009). Parasites are typically confined to head or pubic hair in humans, suggesting that they are less difficult to eradicate from hairless areas, or simply are unattracted to skin with less hair (Pagel & Bodmer, 2003). The ectoparasite avoidance theory explains why females are less hairy than men; whilst inactive, humans are more prone to infection because parasites thrive when their host lives in a permanently inhabited den. Due to maternity periods and child-care, females spend more of their lives sedentary than males (Prokop, 2016). Cultural adaptions unique to humans make their relative hairlessness maintainable. By manipulating their resources and surroundings, humans can regulate their environment through the use of clothes, shelter and fire, thus making their survival chances higher. Ectoparasites can still infest clothes, but they can be cleaned or changed, unlike fur (Pagel & Bodmer, 2003). Furthermore, it is hypothesised that this hairlessness was then preserved through sexual selection – an ongoing preference for hairless partners. Darwin suggested that the reason humans have significantly more hair on their head and face is that this hair plays a pivotal role in mate choice and attraction (Pagel & Bodmer, 2003).

Other factors may have impacted why humans lack the dense coat of fur found on their primate relatives. The ‘naked love’ theory suggests humans’ lack of hair is due to both maternal selection and sexual selection (Giles, 2015). Giles (2015) presented the notion that due to humans’ evolution towards bipedalism, mothers needed to carry their infant to ensure survival, as the infant could no longer cling to the mother’s back. The desire to carry a child might have been strengthened for mothers containing a hairless mutation (of which would enable them to give birth to hairless offspring), as the satisfaction of skin-on-skin contact with their offspring would be prevalent. The hairlessness that appeared as a result of this maternal selection would then have been reinforced by sexual selection, to recreate the skin-on-skin intimacy of the ancestral mother-infant relationship (Giles, 2015).  Darwin argued that it is unlikely that the relative hairlessness of humans evolved solely by natural selection, as the lack of a reflective coat would leave humans unprotected from the potentially damaging rays of a tropical sun (Schwartz & Rosenblum, 1981). Many anthropologists have argued that humans were able to survive those rays with their thin coat of hair due to the ability to sweat (Schwartz & Rosenblum, 1981). When humans migrated from forest to grassland during the Pliocene, they would have had little radiant protection, but were able to make up for this by sustaining a ‘high relative heat loss in the form of sweating’ (Schwartz & Rosenblum, 1981).

Despite humans having significantly shorter body hair than other primates, there is still a desire to further remove hair in many Western cultures, particularly for females. According to Toerien and Wilkinson (2004), female hair removal is often performed in an attempt to conform to social norms, demonstrating the presence of an imperative for women to improve their bodies. In many societies, hairiness and hairlessness are constructed as negative and positive alternatives (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004). There are such high rates of depilation amongst women in countries like the United Kingdom (UK), due to the common connotations partnered with body hair. Toerien and Wilkinson (2004) collected data from 678 women in the UK and found that hair depilation is synonymous with cleanliness, attractiveness and femininity. In that same survey, multiple participants claimed having body hair made them feel “manly” (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004), which suggests that trends in depilation occur due to concerns regarding the blurring of gender boundaries. Higher rates of hair removal are consistently seen in younger generations in Western countries. For example, in the 1960s, Toerien and Wilkinson (2004) discovered that in North America, 98% of women aged 15-44 removed some form of body hair, whereas only 70% of those over the age of 44 did (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004). For pubic hair removal in particular, an increase in age is believed to correlate with a decrease in hair removal (Craig & Gray, 2018). One possible explanation for this correlation could be that Western notions of female attractiveness tend to equate beauty with youth, meaning older women are not subject to the same beauty ideals as younger ones.

In European contexts, pubic hair commonly has connotations of uncleanliness. For example, Prokop (2016) conducted a study with 96 heterosexual Slovak males to examine male preferences for female pubic hair. Around 95.2% of the males showed a preference for shaved genitalia. There was a correlation between pathogen disgust and shaved genitalia, suggesting there is an association between pubic hair and risk of parasite transmission. This links back to the ectoparasite avoidance theory; from an evolutionary perspective, a preference for hairless female bodies would be beneficial because these individuals would not have suffered from as high parasite loads as their hairy counterparts. The results of this study do not represent global attitudes as the participants were all from Slovakia, and the sample was very small and restricted to a limited age group (age 19-38) (Prokop, 2016). Regardless, Prokop (2016) concluded that hairless genitalia is typically more attractive to males.

Besides male preferences, it is interesting to consider why some women choose to remove pubic hair. A survey done on 224 American undergraduates, conducted by Smolak and Murnen (2011), found that, unlike leg or facial hair, pubic hair depilation is not practised for the sake of social aesthetics but rather is commonly performed for personal gratification in intimate scenarios. The women who frequently remove body hair explained the behaviour in terms of sex appeal, social norms and femininity (Smolak & Murnen, 2011). These data might suggest that pubic hair removal is prevalent due to a desire to be seen as attractive to a potential mate in a sexual scenario. Sexual activity is believed to be positively correlated with pubic hair removal (Craig & Gray, 2018). This suggests that people feel more inclined to reduce their pubic hair when they are more sexually active, and then decrease their routine of hair removal as they grow older and possibly settle down with a consistent sexual partner. One might infer that a possible explanation for the correlation is that when sexually active, one is more at risk of transmitting sexually transmitted diseases, so they remove pubic hair in an attempt to reduce that risk. Many Western societies are becoming more sanitised, and therefore more wary of diseases and germs, which would account for the correlation between sexual activity and pubic hair removal. However, as Mary Douglas (2002) states in her book Purity and Danger, Western conceptions of purity and cleanness are products of culture, simply justified by hygiene. Consequently, pubic hair may often be seen as culturally unclean, but this is not necessarily the case. In her book, Douglas (2002) argues that “often our justification of our own avoidances through hygiene is sheer fantasy.” The belief that pubic hair is impure could be an example of this. The National Health Service (2016) suggested that grooming pubic hair could be linked to an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, meaning that the absence of pubic hair could be worse than the presence of it.

Natural and sexual selection are arguably the key contributors to understanding how humans adapted to have thinner body hair. Humanities’ sparsity of hair can be explained both biologically and socially. Biology can offer multiple possible explanations for the lack of human body hair in comparison to other apes. Social factors extend insight into different attitudes towards body hair and why in Western societies countless people, particularly women, feel hairlessness equates to attractiveness. It seems that the current abundance of depilation occurring in Western cultures is driven by multiple factors, namely fashion, consumerism, sanitation, and the social norm of attractiveness.

References

Craig, L. & Gray, P. (2018) Pubic Hair Removal Practices in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Cross-Cultural Research. 53 (2) pp. 215-237. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1069397118799298#

 Douglas, M. (2002) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Oxon: Routledge.

Giles, J. (2010) Naked Love: The Evolution of Human Hairlessness. Biological Theory. 5 (4) pp. 326-336. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1162%2Fbiot_a_00062

National Health Service (2016) Grooming pubic hair linked to increased STI risk. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/news/lifestyle-and-exercise/grooming-pubic-hair-linked-to-increased-sti-risk/ (Accessed: 01/12/2019).

Pagel, M. & Bodmer, W. (2003) A naked ape would have fewer parasites. The Royal Society Biological Sciences. 270 (1) S117-S119. Available at: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbl.2003.0041

Prokop, P. (2016) Male preference for female pubic hair: An evolutionary view. Anthropologischer Anzeiger. 73 (2) pp. 169-175.  Available at: file:///C:/Users/milli/Downloads/Prokop-AA-2016.pdf

Schwartz, G. & Rosenblum, L. (1981) Allometry of primate hair density and the evolution of human hairlessness. American journal of physical anthropology. 55 (1) pp. 9-12. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ajpa.1330550103

Smolak, L. & Murnen, S. (2011). Gender, Self-Objectification and Pubic Hair Removal. Sex roles. 65 (7-8) pp. 506-517. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-010-9922-z

Toerien, M. & Wilkinson, S. (2004) Exploring the depilation norm: a qualitative questionnaire study of women’s body hair removal. Qualitative Research in Psychology. 1 (1) pp. 69-92. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1191/1478088704qp006oa

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