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 Megan Goodwin.
Megan’s bio: I am a first-year student from South London. I am very interested in human culture, as well as our evolutionary history, which led me to study anthropology.
In the Western world, there is an abundance of advertisements in the media promoting the newest hair removal methods, aimed at both men and women. This raises questions about why hairlessness is preferred, as well as the differences between men and women’s reasons for body hair removal. However, hairlessness is not a new topic of discussion. Biological anthropologists have long debated the reason that we evolved to be relatively hairless in comparison to other apes. A preference for hairlessness and the subsequent removal of body hair can be explained both biologically and socially. Here, I look at evolutionary and cultural explanations for this phenomenon.
There are many evolutionary explanations for why humans are relatively hairless. One is the ectoparasite avoidance hypothesis, which claims that humans evolved to be this way in order to reduce ectoparasite loads (Pagel and Bodmer, 2003). The ability to create fire and clothes meant that humans could afford this hairlessness without the costs, such as sun exposure, being too harmful (Pagel and Bodmer, 2003). It is proposed that this hairlessness is maintained through natural selection, by the advantage of reducing disease, and through sexual selection, by mate preferences for hairless partners (Pagel and Bodmer, 2003). This would also explain why people today may choose to remove body hair – to be more attractive to mates.
This hypothesis can also explain the evolution of differences in body hair size and distribution between men and women. Females were more sedentary than males as they took care of children, which meant they were more exposed to some parasites that thrive within sedentary populations (Prokop, 2016). As a result, females evolved to have thinner and less body hair than males (Prokop, 2016). From this hypothesis, we would expect to see a universal preference for hairless partners in both men and women. There is evidence of this for male preference; Prokop (2016) found that males in showed a strong preference for shaved genitalia over hairy genitalia, especially those with higher pathogen disgust. However, there is some contradictory evidence for female preference. Rantala, Pölkki and Rantala (2010) found that Finnish women’s preferences for male trunk hair were different depending on what phase of their menstrual cycle they were on, showing that preferences can differ. Additionally, Dixson et al. (2003) found that women in the U.K. thought both mesomorphic and endomorphic figures were more sexually attractive when trunk hair was present. Thus, in some cultures it seems women do not prefer hairless partners; an inability to explain this is a limitation of the ectoparasite avoidance hypothesis. Nevertheless, it is still worth considering the role parasites might have played in the evolution of human hairlessness.
Body hair removal practices are common in all Western cultures, especially among women. While this is often seen as a conscious decision, several studies on female body hair suggest that women may not remove it solely by choice, but also out of a cultural obligation to do so. Basow and Braman (1998) found that in the U.S., women with body hair were seen as less sociable and less intelligent than those without, and suggested that they may have been seen as unfeminine. This concept of body hair being unfeminine has been shown in other studies. In another study in the U.S., women who grew out their body hair for an assignment were told that not shaving was unfeminine by those around them (Fahs, 2011).
Looking outside North America, an Australian study found that ‘femininity’ was one of the main reasons women chose to remove their body hair (Tiggemann and Hodgson, 2008). This suggests women may engage in body hair removal practices to maintain their identity as a woman, despite the fact that women are not naturally hairless. Similar studies show that women can also face backlash if they choose not to remove their body hair. Fahs (2014) showed extremely negative reactions from family members, partners and co-workers of U.S. women who grew out their body hair; these included disgust, anger and homophobia. Though many women may believe that removing their body hair is their choice, the reactions received when they do not suggests that there is actually great societal pressure to do so (Fahs, 2014). Consequently, women may be pressured into removing their body hair for fear that failure to comply will lead to criticism and harshness from those around them, whether this is a conscious fear or not.
Although body hair removal is more common in women, many men also engage in these practices. For example, a study of Australian men found that the majority of men, both heterosexual and homosexual (though homosexual men to a greater extent), engage in body hair removal or have done in the past (Martins, Tiggemann and Churchett, 2008). If one main reason that women remove body hair is to be seen as feminine, it raises questions about the cultural reasons why men remove body hair. The answer may, in fact, be similar to the reasons behind female body hair removal; though not sharing the connotation of unfeminine, there is evidence of male body hair now sharing some of the other connotations that female body hair does (Terry and Braun, 2016).
A study conducted in New Zealand shows that there has been a cultural shift in attitudes – where male body hair was once considered masculine and natural, it is now considered by many to be unpleasant or even disgusting (Terry and Braun, 2016). As a result, the reason men engage in body hair removal practices may, like women, be to avoid negative reactions from those around them. However, there are still differences between men and women concerning how much pressure there is from society to remove their body hair. Though men may now face some pressure to remove body hair, a similar study in New Zealand shows that they still have a higher degree of choice over their body hair and its removal than women do (Terry and Braun, 2013). Even so, with connotations becoming increasingly more negative and more similar to those of women, it is unclear whether this degree of choice will be as high in the future, or whether men will come to share a similar pressure to women.
In conclusion, both evolutionary and cultural explanations are essential to understanding a preference for hairlessness and why people choose to remove body hair, as well as the differences in body hair and its removal between men and women. It is worth noting that though both men and women are now coming under some social pressure to remove body hair, body hair removal is still largely a female issue, as evidenced by the fact that acceptability of body hair on males remains much higher than that of females (Terry and Braun, 2013). However, increasingly negative connotations of body hair for both means that the number of people and engaging in body hair removal practices are rising and will most likely continue to rise. Thus, patterns of body hair removal and body hair preferences may continue to change in the future.
Basow, S. and Braman, A. (1998) Women and Body Hair: Social Perceptions and Attitudes, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 22(4), pp. 637-645.
Dixson, A. F., Halliwell, G., East, R., Wignarajah, P. and Anderson, M. J. (2003) Masculine Somatotype and Hirsuteness as Determinants of Sexual Attractiveness to Women, Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 32(1), pp. 29-39.
Fahs, B (2011) Dreaded “Otherness”: Heteronormative Patrolling in Women’s Body Hair Rebellions, Gender and Society, 25(4), pp. 451-472.
Fahs, B (2014) Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women’s Body Hair Growth, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38(2), pp. 167-180.
Martins, Y., Tiggemann, M. and Churchett, L. (2008) Hair today, gone tomorrow: A comparison of body hair removal practices in gay and heterosexual men, Body Image, 5(3), pp. 312-316.
Pagel, M. and Bodmer, W. (2003) A naked ape would have fewer parasites, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 270(1), pp. 117-119.
Prokop, P. (2016) Male preference for female pubic hair: an evolutionary view, Anthropologischer Anzeiger, 73(2), pp. 169-175.
Rantala, M. J., Pölkki, M. and Rantala, L. M. (2010) Preference for human male body hair changes across the menstrual cycle and menopause, Behavioural Ecology, 21(2), pp. 419-423.
Terry, G. and Braun, V. (2013) To let hair be, or to not let hair be? Gender and body hair removal pratices in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Body Image, 10(4), pp. 599-606.
Terry, G. and Braun, V. (2016) “I think gorilla-like back effusions of hair are rather a turn-off”: ‘Excessive hair’ and male body hair (removal) discourse, Body Image, 17(1), pp. 14-24.
Tiggemann, M. and 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), pp. 889-897.