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depilation or the removal of body hair, is an extraordinarily ancient and widespread practice. As with the removal of teeth, foreskin, and other bodily substances, hair removal is usually performed in accordance with prevailing social customs. In ancient Greece, for instance, Athenian women reduced and shaped their pubic hair in order to increase their sexual attractiveness. In modern-day Turkey, where beards and moustaches are signs of political and religious sympathies, depilation often serves to identify villagers with particular fundamentalist, Marxist, or nationalist interests. Depending on the particular culture and historical period, depilation might be used to distinguish individuals by military rank, religious belief, political affiliation, occupation, ethnic or racial identity, sexuality, age, health, or economic standing. Hair removal is a relatively simple way to assert social distinctions.

Because such social distinctions have long been matters of intense preoccupation, different cultures have developed many ways to remove hair. Unwanted hair has been singed off through close contact with heat; scraped from the skin with abrasives such as pumice stone or with sharp implements such as razors; poisoned with depilatories made from sulphides, thallium acetate, or other chemicals; ripped out using string, tweezers, waxes, resins, or mechanical coils; and destroyed with electric needles, radium, or X-ray radiation. Significant effort continues to find the ‘one best way’ to remove human hair painlessly and permanently. In the United States, liposome-based gene therapies are under investigation as the next big step in depilation technology.

Depilation may be a universal human activity, yet modern Western societies have exhibited a particular fascination with ‘excessive’ body hair. Hair has a long history of connotations in the West, ranging from wolf-men and witches to ‘dog-faced’ boys and bearded ladies. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, however, a series of cultural, economic, and political transformations revised these conventional images of human hairiness. In the wake of Darwinism, body hair became more deeply invested with evolutionary and racial significance. As popular and scientific writings on hair began to emphasize the importance of ‘hereditary’ characteristics in determining the growth of body hair, excessive hair was reconceived as an indication of racial and ethnic difference. Shifting patterns of immigration further established the role of hair in comparative racial physiognomy. At the same time, body hair became a critical sign of sexual dimorphism. As greater numbers of white middle- and upper-class women entered public spheres traditionally reserved for men, ‘masculine hair growths’ among young white women provoked increasing public dismay. One typical beauty manual reported in 1874 that unwelcome hairiness in girls was brought on by ‘high living among middle-class people’.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, dermatologists had created a new medical term for the condition of excessive hairiness: ‘hypertrichosis’. Physicians defined hypertrichosis as ‘an unnatural growth of hair’, and diagnosed the disease when hair was determined abnormal in location, quantity, or quality. Abundant body hair, newly attached to fears of evolutionary atavism, transgressed sexual roles, and individual pathology, was suddenly perceived as a threat to public health. Beauty specialists, physicians, and ‘afflicted’ patients all began to seek new ways to ‘remedy the evil’ of unwanted body hair.

Anxiety over human hairiness still affects life in the West, where depilation products and services are now a massive and lucrative industry. Ironically, the history of hair removal in Western cultures has closely paralleled a rise in concern over hair loss. Technologies designed to ‘cure’ baldness are now nearly as widespread as those designed to remove ‘superfluous’ hair. The transformation of hair, ‘the human body's most versatile raw material’, continues to captivate.

Rebecca Herzig


Hope, C. (1982). Caucasian female body hair and American culture. Journal of American Culture, 5, 93–99.
Niemoeller, A. F. (1938). Superfluous hair and its removal. Harvest House, New York.

See also hair.