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From hair to bare: The history of shaving

If you think that summer is the main season for shaving and waxing among women, think again. Many of this fall's hot designer looks — like the ultra-high hemlines of Zac Posen's flirty party dresses, or the long-sleeved minidresses at Emilio Pucci and Balmain — don't skimp on skin, and as far as fashion and American cultural norms go, that exposed skin is usually hairless.

Female wearers who don't toe this stringent beauty line sometimes become the butt of jokes.

Take actress/comedian/talk show diva Mo'Nique at the Golden Globes this year. Her au natural legs became nearly as newsworthy as the best supporting actress in a drama award she won for "Precious."

Or Ren, a contestant in "America's Next Top Model," who arrived at the competition in March with hairy armpits. "This is the first top model underarm makeover ever!" exclaimed judge J. Alexander, scissors in hand.

But why do we recoil at the sight of a few follicles? When and why did women begin to strip hair from their bodies?

Historians are unable to pinpoint the first group of women to remove body hair, said Victoria Sherrow, author of "Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History." Women in ancient Egypt used beeswax and depilatories made from an alkali, like quicklime, to remove leg hair, she said. Ancient Romans and Greeks used pumice to remove body hair.

"Some cultures regarded it as uncivilized, since body hair appears on animal bodies," said Sherrow. "The idea of a hairless body for American women developed between 1915 and 1945."

Many attribute the kickoff in 1915 to Gillette's Milady Decollete, which was "the first razor designed and marketed specifically for women, and was billed in the extensive national advertising campaign as the 'safest and most sanitary method of acquiring a smooth underarm,' " according to author Russell B. Adams Jr. in "King C. Gillette: The Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device."

The movement also took hold as sleeveless dresses and sheerer fabrics became fashionable and hemlines rose. Safety razors were also produced en masse.

"As the middle class grew, women's lives increasingly became defined by spending power and habits," wrote Jennifer Scanlon, professor of gender and women's studies at Bowdoin College, in her book "Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies' Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture."

It was the perfect storm for advertisers as magazines like Ladies' Home Journal and Harper's Bazaar flooded homes, not only informing, but shaping women's concepts of beauty.

"You see this kind of transformation of the female body — that women are increasingly to be looked at," Scanlon said of advertisements at the time. "There's sort of the promise that more and more women can gain access to beauty if they engage in these practices (like) shaving their armpits."

While engaging in such practices was synonymous with femininity, during the 1970s and 1980s, not engaging in them became the "litmus test of feminism," Scanlon said.

But since that time, "going bald below" gained more steam as bikinis became teenie weenie. Brazilian bikini waxes are "the most popular service" at Chicago's Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa and are "much more popular now than ... four or five years ago," according to Red Door esthetician Mirela Munteanu.

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