Historical fiction and body hair

I started doing some reading awhile ago on the history of body hair acceptance and removal, for both feminist reasons and historical fiction research. While the removal of body hair has long been considered part of good hygiene in places like Egypt, India, and certain parts of the Islamic world, in the West (and particularly America), it’s only been in vogue since about World War One. And as I read somewhere quite some time ago, a lot of people don’t realize the women in the average historical romance would’ve had full body hair, even though nowadays most people would cringe at the thought of the female lead in a romance novel having hairy legs and armpits.

Women didn’t, and weren’t allowed to, expose their legs or arms until the hemlines and sleeve lengths started shrinking around the First World War. Women could even be arrested in some places for just showing their ankles. When it became socially acceptable and normal for women to show their legs in public, and to wear short-sleeved or strapped dresses and tops, the shaving industry started a campaign to convince them to shave their legs and armpits. It was considered just as indecent, flaunting female sexuality, to show hairy legs and armpits. Body hair, until very recently, was considered a potent symbol of adult female sexuality, something separating the real women from the prepubescent 1o-year-old girls.

So the women in my Russian novels would’ve had full body hair, and been considered normal, real women by their husbands. Lyuba, Eliisabet, Kat, Lyuba’s mother and aunt, the older Lebedeva sisters, and Granyechka all would’ve had hair on their legs and armpits, and not been recoiled from when their lovers touched them there and discovered the hair. Kittey, Viktoriya, and the younger Lebedeva sisters probably would’ve shaved, just because they were of the younger generation and wearing the new clothes more often. Possibly even the younger Soviet characters like Georgiya and Inessa might’ve shaved their legs, just because they’re modern women of the new era.

Anastasiya, even though she still routinely goes around in ankle-length hemlines, would’ve been shaving for no other reason than because it’s the in thing to do, and she can’t let anyone think she’s unfashionable and behind the times. Katrin, the most radical character, would’ve been sugaring her legs in the era just before the invention of the safety razor, or razors for women period. As she shockingly admits in her paean to hospital birth (published in the Estonian, Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and English radical papers she writes for), she already shaves her pubic hair, so the prepping nurse had one less step to do. To Katrin, removing body hair is a matter of good hygiene, and she would’ve been doing it even before it became something women were socially pressured to do.

Until very recently, the idea of a woman voluntarily removing her pubic hair would’ve been considered bizarre. Girls used to look forward to getting it, since they knew they were becoming real women. Full pubic hair on a woman used to be considered very sexy and normal, and a guy making out with a girl wouldn’t have been at all shocked to find it when they rounded third base. Now there are apparently lots of men who have never seen female pubic hair in spite of having had lots of partners, and people of both sexes who think it’s gross, dirty, or even unnatural for a woman to have pubic hair.

The girls in my Atlantic City books are very pro-shaving, and are even shaving their pubic hair. The guys similarly shave their chests, both to please their girls and because they don’t like excess body hair. I know now that a normal girl coming of age during the Forties wouldn’t have even thought about shaving her pubic hair, even though it’s meant as a social satire and spoof. But I still need to have a basic historical foundation behind the satirizing.

My female Shoah characters past puberty (such as Jadwiga, Eszter, Marie, Caterina, Aranka, Klaudia, Csilla) would’ve been thrilled to see their body hair coming back. Their hair had all been shaved as part of the plot to rob them of their female appearance. Emaciated, hairless, and not menstruating, they were reduced to ageless, sexless hags. It would be bizarre to depict any of them as shaving off body hair as soon as it finally started growing back. Women in Europe also aren’t as hung-up about body hair as Americans. It’s still considered normal in many places in Europe to see a woman with hair on her legs and under her arms, no rude comments or accusations from strangers.

A lot of people nowadays have the tendency to forget, or not realize, that history does not begin and end in America, and within the last 10-20 years. What is now considered normal would’ve been considered bizarre, mentally ill, confusing, or laughable 50, 100, 300 years ago. For example, it was considered normal and not dangerous or goofy for all of human history, until relatively recently, to sleep in the same bed as your baby, nurse past two years, birth with a midwife, push in positions other than flat on the back, without counting to ten and holding one’s breath, carry your baby in a sling instead of pushing it in a pram, and immediately attend to your baby when s/he cried.

Then men took over childcare and developed obstetrics, and the woman to woman chain of wisdom was effectively severed, as men convinced women that a baby would be spoilt if it were held against the mother’s body, immediately picked up when crying, nursed, and kept in the mother’s bed instead of put in a crib in another room. Only recently have we begun to discover the common sense wisdom of our ancestors. So too with body hair. Until about 20-30 years ago, normal adult women were expected to have pubic hair, and women changing for the beach or public baths a hundred years ago wouldn’t have been shocked to see other women with hair on their legs or called mocking attention to it.

2 thoughts on “Historical fiction and body hair

  1. Pingback: Anachronisms to watch out for, Part V | carrieannebrownian

  2. We were watching ‘Life of Brian’ with a friend. When there was a full frontal female nude scene, he was so startled and horrified that he leapt up from the sofa, pointing and laughing. Apparently he thought the splendidly flourishing hair was supposed to be a joke, not the normal appearance of a naked woman. He didn’t accept that at the time the film was made, a full frontal nude was supposed to show pubic hair and having her appear shaved would have been grotesque. The friend in question is 40.

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