Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hairy Heroines

I was performing my morning ablutions recently, those that I have done for what seems my entire life, when I made the sudden decision, “I’m not shaving my legs! Nope, I-am-not!!” Why not? I have no real idea, but it did start me down the path of wondering when the concept of hairlessness became chic, sexy, and necessary.

Me being me, I went looking for insight into the mystery of shaving and hair removal. I was spurred on by the knowledge that never have I read an author who has written, “He gently held her face in his hands and delighted in feeling the prickle of chin hairs.”

I got a real giggle when I imagined Elizabeth Bennett, (the heroine in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen), having really hairy legs under her chemise. The thought of silk stockings matting down hair made me wonder if conventions had allowed for it, whether Jane Austen might have written:

Whilst attempting to come to terms with the embarrassment and potential ridicule that her sister Lydia had brought upon her family by provoking Mr. Bingley to host a ball, Elizabeth assisted in the preparations of the depilatory supply for her family. Being of lean means, it had taken some time for their father to procure the necessary items, but now having done so, the Bennett women set about, with Hill’s assistance, the process of chopping smoked oak into white French wine, to be digested in a hot water or vapor bath for 24 hours. Though she was alone in her preference, Elizabeth preferred another recipe which called for distilled water and celandine roots, and walnut oil which was then applied to the hair directly. She could contrive no purpose or reasoning for wasting the perfectly palatable white wine.

It turns out that many websites are dedicated to the history of hair removal. Ancient Neanderthal man removed facial hair with tweezers made from clam shells, volcanic rock and flint stone. Ancient Greeks used fire to singe the hair off and during the Middle Ages women in Europe wore very large and outrageous headdresses, so they removed all hair from their heads including eyebrows and eyelashes in order to be chic.

To be honest I was hoping for a different history. I enjoyed the idea that hairlessness was a contemporary focus and that we had applied our ideals liberally. I liked thinking that Cleopatra actually had bushy armpits (Nope! Depilatory cream was made out of dung, arsenic, and olive oil), and that characters from pre nineteenth century literature were hairy beings which we had idealized into sleek and slippery creatures. I find it quite curious that humans instinctively sought to remove body hair and that we have now taken it to a level where we airbrush it off in photos. We no longer even have hair follicles.

Whether portrayed by Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen I go back to musing about Elizabeth Bennett and wonder what Mr. Darcy would say upon glimpsing her hairy legs for the first time, “Dearest loveliest Elizabeth, would you like me to get you a pumice stone?” (Oh yes they did.)

As for me, the last time I made a major hair statement was the year I was 23. I played hours and hours of Ultimate Frisbee and hung out with the disc throwing, tie dye wearing, and grunge music listening employees of Microsoft. Being sweaty, hairy and dejected held a certain lure for me. It was a new look; one that allowed me meld into my new boyfriends life.

I went one year without shaving my legs! One year! To cut the saga short, I decided that I was over having hairy legs, shaved one and then I remembered why I had quit shaving. I then kept one leg shaved and had one leg hairy for about six months. This received more notice than when I had two legs as hairy as Sasquatch. Finally I worked up the enthusiasm and shaved the other and have kept to the once a day habit until recently.

I wouldn’t mind losing the hair follicles!