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A close shave: The taboo on female body hair

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In the past two decades body hair has fast become a taboo for women. The empirical data of sociological and medical research reveal that the vast majority of women remove most of their body hair since the beginning of this century. Body hair is typically a marker that polices significant boundaries: between human–animal, male–female and adult–child. Removal or refusal to remove body hair places the female body on either side of the boundary, thus upholding and displacing binary oppositions between fundamental categories. The new beauty ideal requires techniques of control, manipulation and self-improvement. This article first assesses how empirical studies map and confirm existing trends of body hair removal, and then explores indepth the cultural reasons for the development of the normative ideal of a hairless female body. While body hair functions socially as a taboo, it refers psychologically to the realm of the abject. One line of argument places the taboo in the realm of abjection, while another argument attempts to demystify the Freudian anxieties surrounding the visibility and invisibility of the female sex organ. While the hairless body connotes perfected femininity, it simultaneously betrays a fear of adult female sexuality. The hairless body may be picture-perfect, but its emphasis on visual beauty runs the risk of disavowing the carnality of lived life. The hair-free trend of today’s beauty ideals affirms that the twenty-first-century body is a work in progress.
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Keywords: abject; art; beauty ideal; body hair; fashion; female body; hairless body; pornography; sexuality; taboo

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Radboud University Nijmegen

Publication date: December 1, 2015

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  • Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty is the first journal dedicated to the critical examination of the fashion and the beauty systems as symbolic spaces of production and reproduction, representation and communication of artifacts, meanings, social practices, and visual or textual renditions of cloth, clothing and appearance.

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