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Why Do We Hate Body Hair?

May 24th 2010 06:00
My hair like Jesus wore it, how I adore it
April 11, 2010

When did hirsuteness become so unacceptable?
Beth Wilson ponders why we loathe our follicles.

girl underarm hair
I'M READING the biography of Rufus Wainwright, There Will Be Rainbows. I'm not so much interested in Rufus who, talented though he is, is far too young to have a biography written about him. I'm more interested in his family, the wonderful McGarrigle sisters Anna and Kate (sadly, Kate died recently) and his father, musical satirist Loudon Wainwright III. Loudon, who had only one hit record, Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road), is quoted in the book as saying: ''I was in love with Maria Muldaur She was the first woman I ever saw who didn't shave under her arms. I remember at the Newport Folk Festival 1963 looking up around the fence and seeing the Kweskin Jug Band. She was 23 years old. Had this shirt on with nothing up her arms and she kinda leaned up to scratch her head and I saw this incredible tuft of black hair. Aaargh. Most erotic thing I ever saw in my life.''

So what has happened since 1963? Why has body hair come to be seen as such a problem? Girls and women, and increasingly men, are paying huge amounts of money to denude themselves of all body hair. A cameraman told me his friend, who is in his late 30s, has ''never been with a woman who had any hair on her body''. Treatments to remove hair include creams, buffers, shaving, lasers, IPLs and waxing. Most treatments hurt like hell and many clients are burnt and scarred. They also inflict deep wounds on purses and wallets.

Media images of the perfect woman, hairless, curve-less, airbrushed and artificial, have been influential in making women dissatisfied with their bodies. The deluge of beauty propaganda begins with children, and I don't think Barbie ever revealed any short and curlies.
Roberta Honigman and David Castle in Living with Your Looks document how body image is adversely affected by idealised figures of beauty in the media. Body image is described as ''the picture of the size, shape and form of our bodies that we see in our mind's eye''. While it might be considered ''normal'' to be concerned about our body image, contemporary Western society seems obsessed with trying to achieve physical perfection and this in turn distorts body image.
Ironically, while women are being told to remove body hair, balding men are being urged to replace it. Back in 1991, dermatologist Peter Berger warned in his book Skin Secrets: ''Artificial hair implantation is another method which I, however, strongly discourage. It consists of single synthetic fibres being implanted into the scalp using a fine needle. Each 'fibre' has a loop at the end around which tissue grows because of the irritation it causes, thus holding the ''hair'' in place. The problem with this method is that an allergic reaction to the artificial fibre is usually set up in the scar, resulting in inflammation, infection and frequently scarring around the fibre.'' Other surgical methods of hair transplantation are more successful, but are also expensive and painful; a fruitless fight against ageing and, frankly, plugs look like plugs.
During the Christmas break I was walking with a friend in his 60s and a seven-year-boy named Liam. Liam was prattling away happily as children do, skipping over a number of subjects, when he suddenly said to my friend: ''You've got a comb-over. My dad says comb-overs always look ridiculous. My dad says if you're going bald and you don't like it, you're better off just shaving your head.'' Fair comment, Liam.
A beautician once told me she had given ''Sally'' a complimentary Brazilian as a wedding present. Sally had never previously had any hair removed from her body. When the beautician uncovered Susie's lower body she screamed, ''What have you got down there? A dead possum?'' The offending pubes were vanquished and who knows what happened on the honeymoon. While the beautician's intentions were well meant, perhaps Susie's new husband wouldn't have minded and might have loved her just as she was. We'll never know.
When I was a youngster learning about sexuality I read, in one of those sex manuals, that body hair is an extremely sensitive transmitter of sexual sensation. Susie dipped out on that score too.
When did hair become so loathsome? Remember the 1970s rock-musical Hair, which celebrated political activism and sexual revolution? Could it be that today's society can't handle the eroticism that Maria Muldaur's sleek, hairy underarms generated in Loudon Wainright III all those years ago? Lady Gaga, on the other hand, would be even scarier if she sported a bit of groin kelp or hairy armpits. Have we been conned by the advertising industry and capitalism into denouncing our own sexuality? Perhaps someone should write a radical rock musical called Hairless. Nah, doesn't do anything for me.

Beth Wilson is the Health Services Commissioner for Victoria.

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