From the Romans to Sex and the City: how body hair went out of fashion in the UK

Ever since Roman texts warned women against appearing “bristly like a goat”, body hair removal trends have come and gone, but historians say Britons now have less body hair than ever before in human history.

The UK retail industry for shaving and hair removal products was worth £574.1m in 2022, and with the advent of laser hair removal, there exists the option to remove body hair permanently.

Since the 1990s, people have removed “more and more body hair”, said Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, a researcher at the University of Reading, with laser techniques becoming increasingly prevalent.

The interest in body hair removal extends deep into the past. This week, a new museum exhibition opened at Wroxeter Roman City in Shropshire, which looks at how hair removal was an important ritual before communal bathing for men and women.

Exhibits include some of the 50 tweezers found in the site’s bathing complex, where people paid for hair removal before exercising or bathing, and to distinguish themselves from the “barbarian” hairy Britons.

Wroxeter’s curator, Cameron Moffett, said Roman texts include recipes for homemade depilatory creams, or reference grinding hairs away with pumice stones. She added that these habits disappeared in the UK as the baths fell into disrepair and people began covering their bodies.

But although there is evidence of hairlessness 2,000 years ago, it was done for very different reasons. “The Romans didn’t remove body hair to look beautiful, they did it for cultural and religious reasons – men removed it as a sign of purity,” said Viren Swami, a professor of social psychology and an expert in body image at Anglia Ruskin University.

Swami said cultural understandings of body hair varied widely over history – while most people would have been too poor to afford expensive tools like tweezers, there was interest among wealthier people. For example, aristocrats in the 14th century removed facial hair to make their faces appear more oval, considered a sign of status.

“Across history we find examples of [hair removal] in most different cultures, but whether it was widespread is more difficult to answer,” he said. “The evidence base suggests historically it was relatively infrequent and associated with religious values and status rather than beautification, but a big shift occurred in colonisation, when Europe brought along the idea that to be hairy was barbaric, and hairlessness was a sign of development and improvement.”

He added that body hair removal went mainstream in the late 19th century in the UK. “In the early 20th century, as clothing became more liberal and showed legs more often, we saw the marketing of razors telling women if they were hairy they would not be perceived as feminine. Adverts warned women they wouldn’t find a husband.”

“Cultural pressure” to look feminine reached its apex in the 1950s, when youthfulness became co-opted as a feminine trait, he said. “There’s a deep sense of misogyny here – telling women to become hairless is not youthful, it’s prepubescent.”

Although leg and underarm hair removal was popular throughout the 20th century, in Lesnik-Oberstein’s book on body hair, The Last Taboo, she points to the character Samantha Jones talking about Brazilian waxes on Sex and the City as the moment that pubic hair removal went mainstream.

The current fad for extreme hair removal reflected a growing societal interest in cosmetic surgery, “tweakments” and body modification, combined with the “pornification of wider culture”, she said. As with other long-lasting or permanent body changes, young women “may find they regret this”, she added.

She said it was almost impossible to discern where body hair removal trends were heading: “Body hair is so intimately bound up with ideas of sexuality, and sexuality is not subject to reason.”

Now, Shiyan Zering, a beauty analyst at Mintel, said that pubic hair removal was “on the rise”, with nearly half of adults opting to trim, and it features in more advertising campaigns.

“Pubic hair removal is becoming less taboo and is increasingly being viewed as an act of self-care. The gap in hair removal trends between men and women is closing, especially in the younger demographic,” she said, noting that 49% of 16- to 24-year-old men remove underarm hair and 62% pubic hair.

Catherine Simpson, who wrote a book, One Body, exploring her relationship with her body after receiving a cancer diagnosis, said that despite learning not to worry about her shape or grey hairs, she could not let go of her “lifelong battle” with body hair, even though she found its removal painful and expensive.

“I’m a confident woman but I haven’t got the confidence to walk around with hairy legs. Even I don’t understand that, because I’ve thought so much about this subject, how ludicrous these standards are. I can’t outgrow this conditioning – it is so strong. Hairy legs are seen as very the antithesis of femininity.”