Thursday, September 27, 2007

Body Hair Blues

The first time I attempted shaving my legs, I emerged from the shower, legs covered in a checkerboard of band-aids, to find my mom standing with her arms crossed and shaking her head in disapproval. "If you think you're old enough to shave your legs, I'm not going to stop you. But just know that you're only punishing yourself, because now that you've started, you're basically enslaving yourself to razor for the rest of your life. Your leg hair will never be so smooth or soft again. Besides, no one can see your hair, it's blonde and barely noticeable."

I took her wise words and did what most 13 year olds would do. I weighed them against the thought of all my friends dishing at lunch and in the locker room about their shaving habits, and wanting to fit in, ignored everything my mom said.

I'm a long, long way from being a parent myself, and I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what is or isn't appropriate behavior for teenagers, but when I read this recent New York Times article on how the depilatory brand Nair is now marketing their products to girls between the ages of 10-15, I was a little disturbed. Not so much at the idea that girls this age would use hair removal products, but by the suggestion that mothers were encouraging their daughters to begin shaving or waxing at such a young age.


More importantly, marketing to teens and tweens inevitably creates a trickle-down effect. If a company says a product is cool and a must-have for high school girls, it's middle schoolers who will want it (the high schoolers are too busy emulating college students and 20-somethings). Aiming the product at 10-15 year olds, it seems certain that even younger girls will see the ads and will want to use the product, to the point where pre-pubescent girls associate hair removal not just with much older girls, but with girls within their own age group.

Trends in body hair come and go, with the pendulum swinging far from the "the more hair, the better" attitude of the 1970's toward our current dislike and fear of body hair that borders on the obsessive. The bikini wax has lost its shock value, while men's body grooming products are a booming market. Try to name a young, hot actor who has chest hair... it's difficult because they all wax, from their eyebrows to their backs, chests and stomachs. It's rare in America to see a woman with unshaved legs or armpits, and those who don't shave are labeled dirty hippies.

While I enjoy how my legs feel after shaving and appreciate a guy who takes care of his unibrow and back hair, I feel like our bias toward hairless bodies is bordering on a body hair phobia. There's a lot of pressure from society (even on children, as the Nair campaign suggests) to shave, trim and manicure our body hair as if it's our front lawn, because simply ignoring it would be offensive. I don't know if it's just an extension of our preference for cleanliness, but I think it's unhealthy to be spending so much time obsessing about what our body hair says about ourselves, and feeling compelled to remove or shave every last hair.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I agree with your sentiments that targetting 10-15 year olds actually targets those much younger. I'm similarly witnessing that first hand with my teenage cousins who insist on dressing like 20 year-olds; it's disappointing. But what can be done?

My mum too forewarned me about shaving my legs, which had soft, blonde, barely-noticeable hair growing from them. Alas, I, like yourself, did not heed her warning. I still have the soft hair on my arms, thank goodness! ;-)

xo

Sabina

Engelfluglen said...

I totally agree- not to mention the toxic ingredients found in Nair shouldn't be on anybody's skin, let alone the skin of 10 year old girls!!
The other part of this that is disturbing is the fact that moms, under pressure from their girls, will buy into this marketing crap. And so the cycle goes...

Kelly Mahoney said...

Those are also some powerful chemicals that they're putting in the hands of kids. I'm not sure if that's even safe.

Anonymous said...

As a brunette who developed a little early, I can safely say that some young girls need to shave. Before my 12th birthday, my mother (who is the opposite of vain - doesn't wear makeup, dons "mom jeans" every day) took me aside and suggested I try shaving. Darker haired girls definitely don't have the soft blonde hair that some of you do!

Anonymous said...

I think I'm more concerned about their marketing tactics...I am beautiful, I'm going to make a difference...right after I get done conforming my body to societal standards.

Susan said...

Shaving does *not* make your hair more coarse. Girls do tend to start doing so before their leg hair gets coarser naturally, so it looks like cause-and-effect, but it's not. While the razor does create a blunter edge to the hair, it doesn't change the nature of the hair itself.

I'm disturbed by this, though, because I do know people who've gotten minor chemical burns from Nair, and I don't know anyone who uses it regularly. It seems to be the sort of thing that every teenager tries at some point and then abandons, which is just enough to keep them in business...

RachelH said...

I've seen comments on this advertising campaign in a couple of places and I have to agree your reaction. While some young girls do need/want to shave (I was another of those dark haired girls who started shaving early), marketing a harsh chemical product directly to them just seems wrong.

Also, a random link: Slate posted an article on evaluation restaurant service. It reminded me a lot of a past post of yours - particularly the section on not using tips as the feedback for poor service.

Anonymous said...

To the commenter above: shaving not only makes a blunt, non-tapered hair (which makes it appear much thicker), but also throws off the growth cycle so that more than one hair might be found growing out of the same follicle at once, making it appear that you have even more body hair that it seemed before you started removing it. So, not really a myth at all.

Rae said...

I sort-of agree?

Most little girls definately don't need to be shaving, or anything along those lines, and shame on Nair for that. But I started when I was 13, because I've got dark hair, and very light skin.

On a side note, I was one of the lucky ones - since the day I started, I've never cut myself shaving!!

MyStarbucks said...

I don't remember how old I was when I started shaving but I can tell you that my 10 year old daughter has been begging me to let her shave since she was nine. Her dad is very hairy and so she has inherited some of his more "hairy" traits. That includes her legs that she was very self-conscious about. So I helped her and let her have at it. She doesn't keep up with it on a regular basis and now that the cooler months are approaching I'm sure she will let it all grow back out but I just figured, why fight it? BTW, she used a razor and no weird hair removal products.

Susan said...

Anon: Where do you get that? I've googled and can't find any references for it, and I've never heard that before. I've certainly not noticed that I have any more actual hairs on my legs than I ever did, they're just not the same texture they were when I was twelve.

But that's because I was genetically destined to be that way, not because I shave.

Rae: You won't believe how much I envy you. Just the other day, even with my pricy Venus, for some reason I managed to walk out of the shower and notice that I was bleeding all over the place from about a dozen different spots. Argh!

Kristi said...

My mother gave me Nair when I was 11 or 12. She figured it was better than me using razors. Of course she also had me plucking my eyebrows when I was 10.

Anna said...

I could not agree more, my Mum forbade me (and still nags about it now) about hair removal from my legs. I started tweezing my underarm hairs at 12 and now at 22 suffer with a bush and have to shave everyday. However, due to laziness, never removed hair from my legs until I was 17, and my legs are barely hairy because of it.

What I hate now is how to get a landing strip or brazillian wx is the norm. Who sets these standards? Porn stars? It is so painful and hard to maintain as well. When will the madness end?!?

One thing is for sure, as soon as I have a steady income, I'm going to IPL my underarms.

Anonymous said...

i don't know where the other anonymous (call me anonymas?) got hir facts, but i can attest that that certainly sounds like what's happened to me personally. i didn't start shaving until 14 or 15, and even then, i only shaved once before i cut myself and got bored of it. genetically, i'm very lucky, because i have little body hair, and what body hair i have is light brown (or on my arms, blonde), thin, and sparse. but a few weeks ago i got into shaving regularly and ever since, i've noticed that my leg hair at least SEEMS thicker and more noticeable.

i started getting my period at 10 or 11 so i don't know if that makes me a slow developer or not.

Anonymous said...

oh yeah - and on the pubic shaving... for serious... i mean, it's only polite to trim (pubes in teeth = bad), but i'm not too fond of the sphinx. frequent upkeep + ingrown hairs + getting itchy when it grows back - just not my scene. all the little shapes and landing strips and hitler staches and stuff you can do doesn't really make me happy either. too much trouble!

hally said...

first off nair is horrible, it smells disgusting, burns, and doesn't even work that well, plus if you accidently get it on your arms while applying it it removes patches of hair for a mottled look..

i think that hair removal at a young age isn't nessasarily a bad thing, especially if the girl is on the hairy side, as i was. girls who have noticable hair at a young age feel like freaks next to other girls their age who have none, so not letting them shave would be worse than allowing them.

i also call bull on the whole "shaving doesn't make hair thicker or grow back more". as we speak i have about 4 thick hairs per follicle sprouting out of my legs because i shaved them. i usually wax, which i feel makes them grow back finer and 1 hair per follicle and use shaving for emergencies. in fact i have a friend who was far hairier than anyone i've seen who's mother started waxing her at 8 and now she barely has anything. my mothers been waxing so long she can skip shaving & waxing & no one notices.

the whole waxing "down there" trend is horrible though nobody should go through such pain but now people are starting to expect it. i've heard girls who couldn't be in highschool talking about getting bikini waxes, ew!

Anonymous said...

i just started to get laser hair removal 'down there' and i love it - no more waxing hooray! and i have to admit i love being bare especially since there is np more pain:)

becka said...

I totally agree that hair removal products should not be marketed to such young girls. Nair (and other similar products) are very harsh chemicals, smell bad, can be painful, and for people with dark/thick hair, doesn't even really work.

I shave all the time. Not because I'm concerned about what people think, (though i do give it a little more attention when I'm going to be seen in private... ;-) I do it because it makes me feel sexy.

I've tried doing at-home waxing, but either my hair is ridiculously resistant, or i'm wax-impaired. If I had the money, I would go for professional waxing and/or laser removal.

And, on the matter of hair growing back thicker... I don't think that the hair itself changes, but I know that some of my hair follicles definitely have more than one hair growing there.

Just my 2 cents. Or maybe its more like 5 cents...

Beauty Marked! said...

Love the food for thought. As a mother of 5 girls some of which I have had to cross this brige with, I must say that making decisions of this stature are difficult and are certainly not undertaken lightly. But when one approaches parenting and the decisions that need making with love as the overwhelming guiding factor...not marketing, they do become much easier to make. Promise.

KiKi said...

Completely shaving/waxing/lasering the pubic area (i.e., the sphinx or "hollywood" style) was something I only became aware of like a year ago. If woman and young girls do this because *they* like it, that's cool -- to each her own (I personally wouldn't want to deal with upkeep). My concern is when it's done for a partner because. I think it raises the question: Why do they want a woman to look like a little girl?

Ana said...

I used regular nair from the age of 12. I smelled of chemicals regularly and for some reason, that was okay. 10 is a bit young, but if pre-teens will use it anyway and the chemicals are not quite as toxic as the grown-up formula, why not?

http://whoseamerica.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

i understand that it's upsetting to some people that Nair is marketing this product to really young girls, but some of us DO need to shave when we're that young. i had to start shaving under my arms when i was 10, because my hair was just growing in too thick and causing me discomfort and itching. shaving has always given me ingrown hairs and razor burn under my arms, and trying something like Nair when i was younger might have actually been a better option: you don't have to use Nair as often as you have to shave, and you don't cut yourself. some girls DO need to shave when they're younger, so it doesn't offend me when Nair markets to 10-15 year olds. (and every girl i know started shaving before she turned 15...who are these girls that can get away with a razorless lifestyle until high school?!)

Anonymous said...

girls are menstruating earlier because of all the hormones in our food supply, so they're probably needing to shave earlier for the same reason. i wouldn't go within 15 feet of a bottle of nair or whatever other chemicals would dissolve hair, though. scary.

i guess i'm relatively lucky with the shaving -- i need to shave only the front of my legs, because the hair on the backs is pretty much invisible.

sunshowers said...

I WISH someone had shown me how to get rid of body hair at an earlier age. I was a gymnast, so being constantly half-naked, my hairiness was always on display. I remember when my armpit hair started growing in, I didn't know what to do with it. My mom never shaved... ANYTHING. Now that I look back on it, it's quite horrifying. She would go swimming with two huge bushes under each arm, and lemme tell ya, she really could have used a bikini wax. There's nothing more unattractive than seeing someone's pubes sticking out every which way. I actually got more ingrown hairs before I started shaving my legs than I do now, because shaving exfoliates your skin regularly.