Body Hair Removal in History and in Feminism: An interview with Dublin-based sugarist, Lindsay Leggett

The Sugarist logo: drawing of woman with golden underwear
The Sugarist sugar-waxing salon, Dublin -- Photo Credit: The Sugarist
The Sugarist logo: drawing of woman with golden underwear
The Sugarist sugar-waxing salon, Dublin — Photo Credit: The Sugarist

Sugaring, a method of body hair removal that originated in ancient Egypt and uses a cooked paste of sugar, lemon juice and water, has recently regained popularity in the Western body-waxing scene. Lindsay Leggett, originally from Seattle, Washington, began sugaring in Ireland in 2013 and now owns one of the few salons offering sugar waxing services in Dublin.

In an interview exploring body hair removal and feminism, Leggett explains that “grooming and adornment are hard-wired into us; the desire to appear attractive to our mates isn’t bad or wrong, nor does it mean you’re shallow. Although, telling us our appearance is the most important thing we have to offer, then shaming us for believing in and acting on it – that we save for women.”

Though various forms of body hair removal have been documented for centuries, it became a feminist issue in the 1970s when the Equal Rights Amendment coincided with the diminishing amounts of pubic hair seen in pornography and Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal, a pornographic publication depicting 18 year-old nude women. Perhaps as a backlash to women’s acquisition of equal rights, pornography began to infantilise its models (e.g. the emergence of ‘school girl fantasies’), and fetishise a pre-pubescent look. Thus, feminism viewed the removal of body hair as indulging patriarchal standards of beauty and the synonymy of ‘submissive’ and ‘feminine.’ As a result, body hair became symbolic of feminist membership, while women who didn’t identify as such may have taken up shaving merely to distance themselves from radical feminism.

I haven’t removed my underarm hair since 1996 and […] it still surprises me how much that upsets people. I think it’s because it’s one of the most visible indicators of a disobedient woman.

A recent study of sexually-active women under 30 in the US revealed that 95% of the women surveyed either groomed, trimmed or completely removed their pubic hair. The prevalence of pubic hair removal would suggest that either a) feminism has been eradicated from the under-30 generation in the United States, or b) feminism is no longer associated with maintaining body hair. Neither are true. The maintenance of female body hair – armpit hair in particular – is still perceived as strongly associated with feminism or a political statement against patriarchy. It’s more likely that body hair removal has become mainstream to the extent that a personal preference for hairlessness may outweigh a younger female feminist’s desire to adhere to performative displays of feminism.  As a result, those who choose to go hairless can be subjected to social pressure and shaming within feminist communities, with one’s feminist integrity called into question. Thus, the decision to maintain or remove body hair can become an issue of identity and group membership, rather than simply a matter of personal preference or the preference of one’s sexual partner (though the latter becomes complicated when one’s partner is male and his preference is for hairlessness, as it is then more easily framed as the accommodation of patriarchy, rather than if a female partner prefers hairlessness or a male partner a full bush in their mate). Under what circumstances is the decision to engage in body hair removal a matter of personal choice or a product of patriarchy?

A feminist who opts to forgo most body hair removal herself, Leggett emphasises the importance of a non-judgemental approach and personal choice in her line of work:

Could you describe your body hair choice, or ‘style?’
“I never remove my underarm hair, sometimes my legs, and most often my bikini.”

Tell me about your feminist identity.
“I’m in between second and third wave feminism as I’m concerned with rights for women (female bodies) as a class and have some issues with ‘choice feminism,’ but am concerned about the idea of trading one master for another. I don’t really see how performative aspects of presentation really matter in the equality stakes.”

Can you tell me how your line of work fits in with your feminist identity?
“I feel pretty strongly that removal of body hair is a moral neutral, something that’s important only in the context of a system (Beauty Industrial Complex) that assigns value based on adherence to norms. That being said, I’m making my living off of the idea that hair-free is nice. In order to stay true to myself, I don’t use shame-based marketing and I don’t up-sell: if you come to me for your lip, I’m not mentioning your hairy chin unless you ask.”

Tell me about your opinion on commercial beauty standards, body hair and feminism.
“Well, I think that the Beauty Industrial Complex is incredibly damaging and unhealthy – it takes a perfectly normal vanity or desire to appear attractive to your mate and exploits it to both make money and to control people. Add in that women are expected to do a lot more grooming, while being paid a lower wage, and you’ve a pretty compelling argument that manufactured insecurities drive part of the (consumer-based) economy. I’m not going to say it’s a shadow government conspiracy type thing, but it doesn’t have to be for it to be true.

Now we’re seeing a much bigger push towards male grooming, both because businesses want the additional revenue streams, but also in some sort of bizarre move towards equality. Like, ‘Look we oppress men too and are now asking the same BS of men, so it’s equal!’ When really we could just focus on not judging people based on their exterior.”

Have you had any experiences of social exclusion, shaming or social pressure to remove body hair?
“I haven’t removed my underarm hair since 1996 and didn’t [shave] my legs for much of that time as well. It still surprises me how much that upsets some people. I think it’s because it’s one of the most visible indicators of a disobedient woman. When I was younger, I had men ask me if I’d remove my hair for ‘the right man’ to which I’d reply that the right man would never ask (nor did he). More recently I’ve had people here in Ireland tell me that it doesn’t bother *them* but that I should probably do something about it. But overall I feel people care less the older I get. Maybe it’s less threatening on an older woman or maybe we care less in general.”

Have you had any experiences of social exclusion, shaming or social pressure to maintain body hair?
“Yes, and this is the weirdest! It’s so strange to be told that I need to change my body or change an area that I’m happy with to be a free woman or a more empowered woman. I’ve also been accused of being a hypocrite for working in body hair removal and calling myself a feminist.”

Can you tell me about your clientele?
“I’m constantly surprised by my clientele; they really span all demographics. 70:30 women to men, but male services – especially male bikini services – are getting more common. My speciality is the Brazilian so I do a lot of them. I think I do see a lot of feminist clients because they’re happy to come to a therapist who’s not judgmental. I’m also one of few (if the only), explicitly seeing Trans clients and I know that makes Trans clients feel really comfortable.”

Leggett is striving to distance body hair removal from it’s deeply-rooted associations with gender performance and traditional gender roles, as performative aspects of identity and group membership often inhibit personal choice and preference, whether women (or, more recently, men and members of the Trans community), want to maintain or remove their body hair.

Watch the documentary, The Sugarist, here.

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