Summary: In her lifetime, the average American woman will spend $10,000 to rid herself of body hair, from many different places and in many manners. However, American women are not alone in their pursuit. Sixty percent of American men regularly groom or remove body hair below the neckline, through laser hair removal or other means.
The advances that have helped to make laser hair removal the safe and effective treatment it is today begs the question: When did our beauty regimen first include depilation? Surely our long-ago ancestors had neither the leisure time nor the resources to concern themselves with hair removal, and instead focused their energy more towards survival. At what point in the history of Western culture did the practice of hair removal emerge?
The New World
The Mayflower brought to the ‘New World’ a boatload of hair-loving pilgrims, who soon discovered that indigenous Americans were obsessed with hair removal, plucking their beards as soon as hair appeared. This practice perplexed both pilgrims and the colonialists that soon followed, because for them beards were symbols of wisdom.
However, as settlers continued to spread across North America, homemade depilatories became increasingly common. A manual dating back to the 17th century catalogs nearly forty hair removal recipes. The efficacy of these recipes is doubtful, otherwise more modern hair removal treatments would include ingredients such as eggshells, ant eggs, frog’s blood, burnt leeches, or cat excrement.
By the early 19th century, homemade remedies took a backseat to more marketed trends in hair removal, with advertisers admonishing women that “the greatest disfigurement of female beauty” was unwanted hair.
The Industrial Revolution
With the advance of the Industrial Revolution and the mass production of meat came the discovery of chemicals that were effective in removing animal fur. These chemicals soon did double-duty as depilators. A Boston newspaper from 1804 tells of one unfortunate woman for whom such chemicals were all too effective, removing both unwanted facial hair as well as several layers of skin.
Indeed, some packaged hair removal creams were nothing more than a combination of corrosive substances that resulted in considerable skin damage. It was one particularly fraudulent and dangerous product by the name of Koremlu, which was essentially rat poison, that ultimately led to the creation of The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, passed by Congress in 1938.
Better Living through Science…?
Despite the rocky history of marketed hair removal, the early 20th century saw middle class American women even more concerned with the issue of unwanted hair than their predecessors had been. Visible body hair was tantamount to being vulgar or crude.
Though the Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938, X-rays were still being marketed as effective treatments for hair removal. Despite doctors’ warnings regarding the dangers and disastrous health effects, many women in pursuit of hair removal suffered radiation burns, disfigurement, or worse. Not until 1940 was the practice of using X-rays for hair removal federally banned, though women still sought the treatment through illegal back-alley operations.
Thank You, Uncle Sam
A glance at the past several centuries of American history reveal a gruesome tale of snake oil salesmen hawking risky remedies to women in pursuit of beauty. Thanks to eventual federal oversight, including the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission’s focus on truth in advertising, we don’t face the same dangers our forbearers did.
Today’s women benefit from the technological innovations that have resulted in the gentle, minimally-invasive science of laser hair removal, which allow for a positive laser hair removal experience while harmlessly removing unwanted facial or body hair.