It’s A Hairy History Thing

This video from YouTube got me thinking about women’s body hair in books; it is rarely mentioned.  Today, we have choices about what we do with our body hair, but if you  read historical fiction you have to wonder.

By the way, I also learned that Amanda Palmer is married to Neil Gaiman!

In DRAGONFLY IN AMBER Jamie and Claire are in Paris.  Claire is undressing after visiting her friend Louise.  Jamie is shocked when she lifts her arm and sees she has no underarm hair having been waxed by Louise’s personal groomer.

“A little belatedly I realizes that none of the Scottish women I encountered employed any form of depilation.  Furthermore Jamie had almost certainly never been in sufficiently close contact with an upper-class Parisienne to know that many of them did.”
(Dragonfly in Amber, Dianna Gabaldon, page 173)

Claire goes on to explain that hairless armpits smell less and that she had her legs waxed as well. And, Jamie is further shocked to learn she had all her pubic hair removed as well, though she, Claire, had not gone that far.

There are always a lot of questions about whether women in different historical periods shaved their hair from below the neck.  As this excerpt points out different periods, countries, lasses, of course means different standards of beauty.

Here’s the thing: Renaissance art “reinvented the female body.” Some have thought this pressured women to conform to an ideal. Times are not all that different now.  But, different scholars believe women have and do practice depilation for different reasons.

A variety of depilation methods were disseminated by women’s “books of secrets” that provided recipes for women to create their own cosmetics.  Such methods included products that are much like depilation creams still employed today.

There’s evidence of recipes for this paste – which is called “rhusma” being used in Ancient Turkey from about 3000 BC, and the Trotula – a very popular medieval book of recipes dating from the 12th century, but reproduced frequently since, also includes this.

A 1532 book of secrets gives this version of the recipe:

How to Remove or Lose Hair from Anywhere on the Body

Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a
baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin
feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.


Another recipe compilation in Bologna from around the same time has an entire section called Treatise on how to remove hairs from the body in various ways, so that they never return, which advises that the woman “who delights in keeping herself neat, and adorning and gently cleansing her face will need a depilatory that cleanly removes the unsightly hairs in various places on a woman’s body”.
Jill Burke’s Blog



Lucy Worsely, in IF WALLS COULD TALK (2011 Walker Publishing, New York), also mentions these preparations (pp 137 – 139)  Jill Burke, cited above, points out that there was an understanding of hair as a form of bodily excrement and bushiness created filth and a location for vermin.  It was also thought that it was contrary to the ideal type of humors that a female should have and that an excess of body hair was a sign that a woman would be  masculine, muscular, and argumentative — a bad prospect for marriage.

In looking at pictures in researching this I found a slew of pictures that show Mary Magdalene as hirsute.   It seems to be due to several ideas wherein having this hairy body during her penitent period when she was living in a cave and the hair grew to cover her nakedness.  But it also had to do with a myth, after the crucifixion,  of a “wild woman,” tribes of which (with wild men)  were thought to be running around early Europe.  And, somehow hair and sin was involved. As you can see in one picture Mary Magdalene in all her hirsute glory stands in contrast to the Virgin Mary.

I also thought about the hair removing recipes being largely for people who could read one.  Not everyone could read. And even when most men could read, not all women could.  So, it further points to there being class differences in women’s practices of personal grooming.

Today, it’s a matter of personal choice and societal pressure, at least in western society. But in the past it is is apparent that the ideal woman’s body was more or less hairless.

Women’s bodies in paintings are largely hairless below that which grows upon the head until the twentieth century. It’s funny because as clothes became more revealing, depilation became the norm for legs and underarms. If you look at nudes through the twentieth century pubic hair is treated in a variety of ways.

Here’s a selection of paintings where women have no body hair at all. These are all from before the 19th century.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The 19th century brought in different aesthetics, but for the most part idealized women had no hair, but characters from everyday life began to have some. I am amused that both above and in the 19th century women not only didn;t have body hair but were not really anatomically correct.
There is a story of one art critic who on his wedding discovered that his wife’s body was not like the women in paintings. (Jill Burke’s blog)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Then the 20th century brought us a thousand ways to be, not all at once but clothes revealed more of the body and hygiene improved. Women began doing legs and under the arm but often went au naturel in the public region.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.