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Poor Things 1.jpg

Why is Pop Culture Still So Terrified of Women’s Body Hair?

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | February 27, 2024 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | February 27, 2024 |


Poor Things 1.jpg

Much of Poor Things, the surreal satire by Yorgos Lanthimos, is centred on the heroine Bella Baxter’s journey of self-exploration. Revived from certain death by a mad scientist who transplanted her unborn fetus’ brain into her own skull, Bella is essentially going through childhood and adolescence in an adult body. Once she discovers sexual pleasure, she embraces it with gusto, unabashedly shaking off the societal scorn that accompanies women’s happiness. It’s a role that requires Emma Stone, nominated for Best Actress for her work here, to be naked for quite a lot of her screen time. The focus is on her body and how she utilizes it to achieve pure satisfaction. Stone does a great job, and I know there’s no way for me to say this without sounding like a weirdo, but it’s a glaring issue with Poor Things that Bella doesn’t have much body hair.

Bella has long jet-black hair but silky smooth legs and armpits. Her pubic hair is neatly trimmed and you get the sense that Bella, a character who is shown repeatedly eschewing society’s beauty and style standards for women, spends a weird amount of time removing her body hair. At one point, we’re told that the hair on her head is growing two inches a day, so why is she smoother than a Barbie doll everywhere else? How is it that, even in a film about the supposed liberation of femininity from the confines of patriarchy, body hair is still a no-go?

It’s not just Poor Things, of course. Seeing any kind of body hair on a woman in film or TV has become a rarity, like seeing a unicorn or an actor with their original teeth. I’ve lost count of the number of stories set in dystopian landscapes where the heroines are without armpit hair or even an aura of peach fuzz on their legs. The same goes for historical stories. The problem extends to eyebrows. Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out on Twitter that you can date certain films by the actress’s eyebrow styles because they’re seldom changed to fit the actual era the story is set in. Verisimilitude has never been an agenda of strident commitment for cinema, even in its most realistic setting. Yet it cannot help but feel especially glaring when such care is shown in every other aspect of a performance or styling and women’s body hair remains forbidden.

Evidence of female hair removal dates back several millennia. In ancient Egypt, razors were fashioned from shells and sugaring, a technique still used to this day, were popular with nobility. Often, the removal of all hair, not just below the neck, was seen as a ritualistic move or symbol of one’s status. But it took until the early 20th century and good old-fashioned capitalism to turn it into a societal demand for the masses. In 1915, Gillette, the razor company that is still the biggest name in the field, released the first women’s safety razor, named Milady Décolleté. Early ads in women’s magazines talked about how the fashion of the era — lots of gauze, sleeveless dresses — demanded a smooth underarm. As the ’20s rolled along and the flapper era brought with it shorter hemlines, smooth legs became the new fashion, and that has stayed the case for almost a century. Body hair was scorned in ads as ‘unsightly’ and an ‘embarrassment.’

As Gillette changed the game, cinema emerged as an undeniable force in entertainment and enforced new standards of beauty. Whether it was the svelte flapper girl, the pinup bombshell, or the androgynous allure, the evolution of feminine beauty remained united in its rejection of body hair. No hairy legs, no upper lip fuzz, nothing in your armpits, and the full Hollywood down below. Moreover, any presence of hair in these areas was seen as something to scorn, a symbol of one’s lack of beauty. How often has the ugly stepsister trope been dependent on showing someone with a unibrow or chin hairs? The issue is also racialized, especially with Latina women. Rita Hayworth’s ‘transformation’ from Margarita Cansino involved painfully pushing her hairline back to make her seem ‘whiter.’ It’s not merely seen as a topic of beauty but of cleanliness, with decades of marketing reinforcing the utterly bullsh*t idea that a natural part of being human is a symbol of poor hygiene. The removal of hair is so reinforced by society that even ads for body hair removal products don’t actually show any hair. Gillette just has these models running razors down smooth legs. We cannot even look at it, for it is so scandalous! All that AND our razors cost more than the men’s ones? Thanks, pink tax.

The rigidity of the gender binary in pop culture is dependent on strengthening tedious and damaging assertions about what is acceptable for women but not men and vice versa. It takes a lot of work to subvert this status quo, and any pushback is likely to be met by a lot of outrage, fake or otherwise, by the ‘culture warriors’ lot. Just check out the Fox News frenzy when any cis man wears nail polish or when Kristen Stewart donned a jockstrap for Rolling Stone. Women have broken away from the smooth bodies restrictions over the decades. Julia Roberts showed off her hairy armpits on the red carpet. Mo’nique revealed unshaven legs under her awards season dress. Salma Hayek grew out her own moustache to play Frida Kahlo. Some actresses wear merkins to more fully embody a character, including Kate Winslet and Rooney Mara. Yet we still seldom see, for example, a casual moment where a heroine just waves to someone and reveals the hair that naturally grows from the spot under her arm. Even a film about a woman’s self-empowerment through her body cannot break through this barrier.

I wonder if actresses just don’t feel like they can be the one to push the button first. When you’re under such endless demand to be super skinny, pore-free, have blinding white teeth, and stop aging once you hit 28, perhaps this issue is just another cudgel for which the industry can tell them they’re not pretty enough. Just as everyone is told to get a nose job and veneers, I imagine a hell of a lot of women are instructed to have everything from their nose downwards lasered into oblivion. When merely dipping a toe into other options inspires think-pieces and hatred, why would you bother? We can do so much better by expanding our vision of beauty and body positivity well beyond the commodified shadow it now embodies. Getting there, however, will take more than one or two movies that acknowledge the obvious.