Plucked: A History of Hair Removal

Cover image for Plucked by Rebecca M. Herzigby Rebecca M. Herzig

ISBN 978-1-4798-4082-3

“The whole topic of body hair, I have learned, strikes many people as not merely tedious, but also uncouth, even downright repulsive. Several previous reviewers of this work suggested that hair removal is simply too repellent to merit scholarly attention.”

Body hair might seem like a frivolous topic, but Bates College professor Rebecca Herzig is quick to drive home the fact that she takes the business of hair removal seriously; her introduction discusses the forced shaving used as a tool of coercion on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. But while that was torture, Americans throughout history have voluntarily removed much of their hair, though some of the consequence have been no less serious. From Guantanamo, she turns to Native American men, whose very right to self-determination hinged on whether or not they were fully human, a fact which European settlers called into question due to what they viewed as the unnatural lack of a beard. Far from frivolous, the implications of body hair throughout history have been deeply consequential, and at times the source of severe emotional distress. The fact that x-ray hair removal was painless and tidy lead millions of women to continue to seek it out even after the ill effects of radiation exposure became common knowledge. Herzig delves into these ever-shifting attitudes and beliefs which have driven Americans (yes, particularly women) to extremes in the quest to be free of superfluous hair.

Herzig limits the scope of her history to the United States, beginning with the attitudes of European colonists towards the apparent beardlessness of Native American men, and going right up to speculating about future genetic methods of manipulating hair growth. Although Herzig excludes the rest of the world, and covers only four centuries, she still has a wealth of material to work with. She is concerned not only with the methods of removal—as varied as waxing, plucking, shaving, lasering, and yes, even x-raying—but also with “how and for whom body hair became a problem in the first place.” The development of science and medicine has had a profound effect on attitudes towards body hair, particularly the field of evolutionary biology and endocrinology. While today rhetoric about hair removal tends to revolve around hygiene and sexual pleasure, too much body hair has been linked with everything from atavism to sexual deviance to criminality at various points in history.

Published by New York University Press, Plucked is an accessible academic history of a subject that is simultaneously mundane and esoteric. It is a history that is both bizarre and contradictory, with body hair and its removal being variously saddled with positive or negative connotations, often depending on the gender or race of the subject. The process of removal has been a constant tug-of-war between medicalization and cosmetology, and Herzig charts this course, capably explaining fields and terminology as various as laser physics, endocrinology, and genetics. Race and transgender issues are at least acknowledged if not dealt with in depth, and Herzig also draws attention to the physical labour of those workers (often women of colour) who must deal with the intimate and emotional business of removing someone else’s body hair. This balanced and informative account elucidates how we got to where we are today, and where we might go from here.

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More strangely specific history:

Cover image for On Paper by Nicholas A. Basbanes On Paper by Nicholas Basbanes

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3 thoughts on “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal

  1. I love microhistories like this! With ones from academic presses, I feel like there is always a risk that they’ll be too dry or theoretical, so I’m glad to hear that this one is an entertaining story.

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