Janu-hairy: Why are we so obsessed with body hair?

Simon Johnson

Waxing, shaving, plucking and lasering – hair removal has been a common part of lives for centuries.

From the ancient Egyptians tweezing fuzz with seashells, to Queen Elizabeth I setting the bald brow trend while letting everything else below the neck sprout free. Whether we’re growing, tidying or removing completely, as a society we are obsessed with body hair.

According to Professor Rebecca Herzig, author of Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, “more than 99 per cent of American women voluntarily remove their hair, and more than 85 per cent do so regularly, even daily”. It’s no wonder then that the hair removal business is booming – worth a staggering $880 million (nearly £685 million), the Skin Health Alliance predicts that this figure will continue to increase in coming years.

Closer to home, the average waxing fan is forking out a hefty £23,000 in their lifetime, while those more likely to grab the nearest razor are spending around £8,500 and a whole eight weeks of their life removing hair. It’s costly, time-consuming and, frankly, quite a lot of effort to keep ourselves hairless, so why do we bother?

Jess Pardoe is a digital PR executive based in Manchester; her aversion to hair causes her to shave every single day and she doesn’t restrict the razor to just legs and pits. “It’s just become a habit now more than anything. I don’t like body hair, not for any particular reason, I just don’t like how it looks or feels on me,” she explains.

“I do get taunted for being a little OTT sometimes, including shaving my belly hair, arms and my feet,” she says. “Body hair tends to make me cringe, I often wish my boyfriend would shave his legs (though I don’t think I’ll ever convince him!). But I do understand those who don’t want to shave.”

In contrast, Rosie Khandwala, co-founder of Sugar Strip Ease, a company specialising in natural sugaring, a chemical and cruelty-free alternative to waxing, has seen a decline in the number of women seeking body hair removal and believes it’s because attitudes are changing.

“Women have shown confidence in owning the nature of their bodies and not being afraid of it,” she explains. She attributes this confidence to body hair beginning to appear in popular culture - Adidas’ 2017 campaign, for example, featured Arvida Byström putting her hair on full display.

Despite such a demonstration of body positivity, Byström was subjected to a slew of abuse, including rape threats, as a result of her daring to bare her fuzzy legs – this abuse is something that fellow model and YouTuber Fenella Fox knows all too well.

“The reaction to my armpits online was overwhelming at first,” she explains. Photos she posted showing her hair were inundated with vitriolic comments and it began to take its toll on the model. She was even losing work as a result of her hairy choices. “It felt like I was killing my career every time I [posted a picture] but recently it’s taken a turn. Things are picking up and the comments are full of love instead.”

While Fenella admits she’s considered removing her hair “to get ahead in my career”, she says that being honest and showing her “reality” online is more important. She’s joining many others in ditching the razors and wax strips this month as part of Janu-hairy, a campaign aimed at empowering women and raising money.

Started by 21-year-old student Laura Jackson, Janu-hairy celebrates the body by breaking down stigmas surrounding hair. “When I first started growing my body hair my mum asked me, ‘Is it you just being lazy or are you trying to prove a point?’ Why should we be called lazy if we don’t want to shave? And why do we have to be proving a point?” She writes on Instagram.

Whether religious, psychological or for sports, there are countless valid reasons for removing body hair but the expectation that you should is a problem.

“The perception that body hair is somehow unhygienic or unnatural is a fallacy, and actually compounds the psychosocial burden placed on women and, increasingly, men too,” says Nina Goad for the Skin Health Alliance. "Hair is entirely natural and removing it should be a personal preference, not a societal requirement."

Despite the negative press and intrusive comments, many people are trying to normalise the idea of body hair. The likes of Miley Cyrus, Bella Thorne and Rihanna have shared photos and walked red carpets proudly displaying hairy underarms and prickly legs. Brands such as MAC are rejecting beauty norms by not editing out the peach fuzz on its models because, surprise, surprise, women also have facial hair.

By sharing more natural photos of our bodies, seeing actual hairy legs in adverts and embracing movements such as Janu-hairy, maybe younger generations won’t feel the same pressure to hide their hair under tights and t-shirts until they’re handed a razor. Maybe they won’t enter into relationships and romantic endeavours feeling embarrassed that they’re a little prickly.

We still have a long way to go before a hairy underarm on the Tube won’t draw looks throughout the carriage but the more we see it, the more acceptable it will become and the more choice we’ll have to do what we want with our body hair.