Why women are growing out their body hair and what razor companies are doing about it
Here’s a question many young women have asked lately: “Do I really need to remove my body hair?”
This summer, a growing number of millennials have found their answer: “Nope.”
As beauty trends have gradually become more inclusive — with makeup offered in more natural shades than ever before and bras made available in an expanding number of custom sizes — women are also giving themselves more leeway when it comes to personal grooming.
Body hair has been embraced by celebrities who speak proudly of their unshaven underarms and influencers who post unapologetically about their visible leg hair. The movement has especially taken off on Instagram and even affected the marketing of a product that once had ads labeling leg hair “objectionable”: Razors.
Emily Ratajkowski recently posed in Harper's Bazaar with unshaven underarms. She wrote in the magazine about why she embraces her body hair. (Photo: Michael Avedon)
Some ‘hate’ the idea of hairy women
Photographer Ashley Armitage has made body hair one of the focuses of her Instagram account, which includes portraits of feminine women combing their wispy underarm locks. Her interest began more than five years ago when she noticed her friends were letting the hair on their armpits and legs grow. It made her question her own hair-removal habits.
“I was grappling with it: ‘Why do I have to shave?” she says. “Why do I have to deal with these terrible razor burns under my armpit and also get a five o’clock shadow?’”
Armitage, 25, started to share imagery amongst friends she thought was missing in the media: Photos she took of women she knew with armpit fuzz, happy trails and unshaven bikini lines. A photo of the latter subject went viral a few years ago. Online, trolls attacked the image and Armitage.
“There are people in the world who hate (the idea of hairy women) and don’t want a woman going outside of the (hairless) beauty standard,” Armitage said. “There were people who were sending death threats.”
It may sound extreme, but women who have had their body hair visible in photos on the internet are all too familiar with trolls yelling from a computer that they ought to shave. Actress Lola Kirke (“Mozart in the Jungle”) wrote on Instagram that she, too, got “death threats” after having “awesome” hairy armpits on the 2017 Golden Globes red carpet.
Actress Lola Kirke had armpit hair at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards, and she was ridiculed online for it. (Photo: Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY NETWORK)
For Armitage, the negative reaction was outshined by fans commending the photographer for giving confident, hairy women more visibility. Almost overnight, she went from having a few hundred Instagram followers to garnering 10,000. Today, she has 131,000 followers and a mission to push for more body hair visibility.
There are certainly still negative commenters, but the angry cohort of mostly men outraged at the sight of female body hair below the neck has quieted some and “now I see body hair on Instagram pretty regularly,” Armitage says.
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For some reason this photo always seems to gross some people out. That shows me that there is still a fight to be fought, and that we still have a ways to go. Body hair is totally natural and totally acceptable for any gender ❤️
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Celebrities embrace body hair, too
Years after Kirke had furry pits on the red carpet, actress Emily Ratajkowski became one of the loudest voices to celebrate body hair this summer when she shared a personal essay in the September issue of Harper’s Bazaar. She posed for the magazine in a black bralette with her dark armpit hair on display.
“If I decide to shave my armpits or grow them out, that’s up to me. For me, body hair is another opportunity for women to exercise their ability to choose — a choice based on how they want to feel and their associations with having or not having body hair,” she wrote. “On any given day, I tend to like to shave, but sometimes letting my body hair grow out is what makes me feel sexy.”
“Bachelor” personality Bekah Martinez also shared her thoughts on body hair last month, when she walked a red carpet with her brown leg hair showing under a minidress.
“I’ve finally gotten to the point where I feel (almost) totally comfortable like this,” she wrote in an Instagram post about the event. “I stopped shaving my legs and armpits about a year ago as a practice of self-love. I grew up HATING the hair on my body.” She continued: “It’s not about ‘not believing in shaving’, it’s about believing I AM BEAUTIFUL, ATTRACTIVE AND “FEMININE” NO MATTER WHERE I HAVE HAIR ON MY BODY.”
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Actress Amandla Stenberg, YouTube personality Ingrid Nilsen and musician Maggie Rogers have also talked about body hair and delighted in growing out their own.
Can shave companies smoothly adjust?
The famous females aren’t alone: A growing number of women are relying less on razors these days. According to market research company NPD Group, the beauty industry category “shave body” has dropped 5% in sales over the 12 months ending in June. Meanwhile, the category “skincare” is up 8% for the same time period. Body haircare company Fur Oil saw revenue grow three times per year since starting in 2016.
Razor company Gillette has clearly taken a hit. Though the brand primarily sells men’s razors, it is also famous for selling Venus razors with ads of shiny-legged women singing the Bananarama lyrics “I’m your Venus // I’m your fire, your desire.” Gillette had a 3% drop in organic sales in the last quarter. Meanwhile, women’s razor startup Billie, which launched in 2017, has raised $35 million in funding. The brand is known for its pro-body hair message. Counterintuitive, no?
“We wanted to be a body brand for women, and we sell razors, but we didn’t want to tell women that they had to be hairless,” Billie co-founder Georgina Gooley tells USA TODAY. “I think that has been the consistent message for over 100 years to women.”
The company Billie sells razors, creams lotions and body wash. (Photo: Courtesy of Billie)
To her point: Christine Hope writes in “Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture” that razor ads starting as early as 1915 told women that body hair was “superfluous,” “unwanted,” “ugly” and “unfashionable.”
Ads for razors starring women with body hair
One of Billie’s videos — both of which Armitage directed — features a diverse group of women on the beach in bathing suits, with varying levels of body hair. The models aren’t frolicking as the white-swimsuit-clad women in the Venus ads of yesteryear. They are boldly standing on the sand, sitting spread-eagle on chairs and lying on floats, with some hair peeking out from their bikini bottoms and underarms.
The first Billie video of a similar style, published in June 2018, went viral with “24 million views across 23 countries,” according to Gooley. Gillette released their own video with hairy models of different ethnicities, a voiceover about not “conforming to conventions,” and new song lyrics “I’m a Venus” months later, but the commercial didn’t catch fire in the same way.
This summer, Billie’s new beach video “got 1.4 million views in 24 hours, and 2 billion impressions,” says Gooley.
It’s a trend about choice, not politics
The move to embrace body hair today isn’t so much the political statement it once was, says Armitage. It’s more about women’s desire to feel in control of their own grooming habits and definitions of beauty.
“It’s less like the 70s wave of feminism where you’d have to burn your bras,” she says. “It’s more about choice and ‘I just have a casual and loose relationship with my body hair.’”
Nilsen puts her thoughts on body hair this way in a video about not shaving: “Now when I look down in the shower, instead of being grossed out by my body hair … I think, ‘I did that, my body did that and that’s pretty cool.’ That’s a huge shift for me and that feels like a real personal accomplishment.”
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