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Last Updated: Friday, 12 January 2007, 12:00 GMT
Letting your hair down
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Julia Roberts
Letting it all hang out
When Julia Roberts flashed under-arm hair at a film premiere there was uproar. But one woman, at least, wants to overturn prejudices and has taken a New Year's resolution not to shave.

Shazia Mirza is a self-confessed "hairy woman". In fact, she is so hairy, she describes herself as "trapped in a man's body". Until recently, though, few others would have known.

Like most women, Shazia has dedicated a significant part of her adult life to hair removal.

"I have done everything to remove my hair. I have waxed, shaved, used my dad's lawnmower. It has taken so much time, so much effort, so many red blotches," says the 32-year-old comedian.

All that stopped at the start of January, as Shazia took a New Year's resolution to shave no more. The evidence is already starting to show.

"The hairs are growing quite nicely, and I am now in a position to have my armpits styled and waxed, and my sideburns permed. I am learning to love my hair."

Rapid

Her stance may be extreme, but in casting aside the razor, even temporarily, she is in good company. Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Elizabeth Jagger, even fashionista Trinny Woodall, have all had a hairy moment - usually involving armpits.

When it comes to the female body, hair is one of the last taboos. When Roberts flashed her hairy armpits at the premiere of Notting Hill in 1999 it caused uproar and made one thing crystal clear - hairiness will not be tolerated.

Shazia Mirza
Shazia before the shaving started (left) and before giving up (right)
Amazed by the fuss, she said: "On a day-to-day basis I don't think about my armpits."

Not so your average woman. A recent UK study found that 99% of women removed some hair, most commonly from the underarms, legs, pubic area and eyebrows. Shaving and plucking were the most common removal methods.

It is a rapidly growing market. The female population of the UK is now estimated to spend 280m a year removing body hair.

Like so many other things, the rise of hair removal can be closely linked with fashion. The first commercial for a female hair removal product was in 1915 when Harpers Bazaar printed an advert which showed a woman in a sleeveless evening gown which exposed her perfectly shaven armpits.

Bikini and thong

At the same time, Wilkinson Sword launched a marketing campaign at women and within two years, sales of razor blades had doubled.

The bikini wax followed the invention of the bikini in the 50s, and the Brazilian wax - where nearly all the pubic hair is removed - arrived in the 80s, along with the thong.

A woman can definitely be sexy in a pair of Jimmy Choos and a pair of hairy legs, she can be sexy in a Wonderbra and hairy armpits
Shazia Mirza
But women's hair removal is neither a modern, nor a purely Western invention. In ancient Egypt it was common practice as the presence of any body hair at all meant you could only belong to the slave class.

Historical accounts of women's hair removal have been linked to Greece, the Trobriand Islands, Uganda, South America and Turkey.

In the 1970s bra burning feminists put their razors aside as a form of political statement, but today women who object on principle still feel pressured into removing body hair.

People's natural bodies are seen as needing disciplining into an ideal, says Merran Toerien, who has researched gender and body hair.

"Hair is seen as masculine," she says. "Historically, medically and in the media, it is nearly always associated with men. Shaving female body hair is seen as a way to differentiate between the sexes.

Smelly

"Society dictates that female body hair should be tamed and looked after, women are not allowed to let their bodies just be. Interestingly men are starting to feel they have to live by the same rules and are removing more and more body hair."

People who don't conform to certain standards of appearance are seen as somehow lacking.

"Body hair on a man is seen as rugged but on a woman it is viewed as sweaty and smelly," says Ms Toerien. "Women who have body hair are viewed as not taking care of themselves. "

Professor Stevi Jackson, Director of the Centre for Women's Studies at York University agrees.

Charlie Dimmock
Razor testing... but what about just going without

"Over the years body hair on women has been viewed more and more as a monstrosity and dealing with it has become more and more draconian," she says. "It is about conforming to standard and if you don't you are viewed as unattractive and ungroomed."

Women with body hair are even perceived by men and women to be more aggressive and immoral, according to a study by US psychologist Dr Susan Basow. Non-hairy women are seen in a generally positive light.

But who are women shaving for? According to researchers, it is not as simple as saying they do it for men.

"It is not about being seen as beautiful," says Ms Jackson. "It is about conforming, not standing out."

As a stand-up comedian, Shazia Mirza is less worried than most about standing out in a crowd.

"I have decided that enough is enough and I have decided to just grow it, grow it like grass and try and live with it," she says. "I decided this needs to change. Every woman has hair. This is a fact. It is a natural thing that all human beings are born with. It's about time hair on women was celebrated not condemned.

"A woman can definitely be sexy in a pair of Jimmy Choos and a pair of hairy legs, she can be sexy in a Wonderbra and hairy armpits, and she can be very hot in a mini skirt and hairy arms. The public just needs to see that's ok and it's possible."

If it sounds like a call to arms to other women, Shazia says it is exactly that.

As part of a TV programme she is making for the BBC, Shazia is planning to stage a fashion show where hairy women will model lingerie. And she is looking for volunteers to take part.

You can e-mail Shazia to pledge your allegiance, at hair@bbc.co.uk


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Seeing unexpected hair of women gives me the same reaction as nails on a blackboard. It makes me want to run away screaming.
John Brewer, London, UK

I'm sure there are a few twisted souls who like this kind of thing but if my wife didn't 'de-fuzz' she would quickly be an ex-wife!
Ben, the City, UK

Good for her.
Brian Stephens, Penarth , Wales.

I am not a part of the 'anti-hair mafia', but I do like my legs and armpits to be clean shaven. Apart from anything else, it feels nicer and means your underarms are less likely to smell. I do draw the line at waxing though. I'm not going to cause myself pain just for the look of it. I don't like the look of someone wearing black tights with blonde hairs sticking out, or even worse, pale legs with long black hairs on show. Whether you dislike shaving purely on principle, there are some things that are just unattractive.
Heather, Wolverhampton

Go Shazia! I have been thinking this very thing for a number of years now. How crazy is it for women of all ages to describe their body hair as "unnatural"? I understand that beauty is a social construct, but this is something that we should socially "deconstruct", as the people who benefit from our "hairy paranoia" are the companies who are in the hair removal business. No thank you!
Sarah Johnson, Hove, United Kingdom

As an intelligent woman I am well aware that, in principle, female body hair should not be repugnant as it is very natural. However, given the social conditioning of our environment - even as a woman - it is impossible to feel neutral about being hairy, let alone feel sexy. I was living with a woman from rural China who had long black bushes under her arms and all over her legs. These were exposed during the hot summer last year and actually made me feel a bit repulsed. I truly believe that this is wrong in principle - but that deep, conditioned reaction remains a reality for most people. Myself, I'll keep shaving - and feeling positive about myself.
Helen

It is not just a female problem either, I get harassed by my wife to shave as she does not like facial hair, especially stubble - so when I want to relax on a weekend, I still have to shave or put up with comments like 'you look like a bum'.
Neil, Soton

If I grew my fingernails long, had a matted, straggling beard and never washed that would be natural, but not particularly pleasant.
Michael, York, UK

I am really glad that Shazia is taking a stand on this issue. It saddens me as a seventies feminist to see how pressured my daughters feel into removing every last hair on pain of persecution in the school changing room. It would be great to see more women in the limelight flashing a bit of hair and not being burnt at the stake for it!
A. Michie-Kay, Hull

There seems to me to be something both worrying and obscene about the societal requirement for adult women to remove the body hair that proclaims them sexually mature adults and turn themselves into facsimiles of pre-pubertal girls.
Kate Corwyn, Bristol

About blinking time we stopped all this 'every bit of a woman's body must be bald' nonsense. If hairiness is okay for men, it's okay for us women...
Rita Damper, Sussex UK

Quite agree. What women seem to forget is they conform NOT to their idea of beauty, but a perceived and very much male-oriented version of beauty. If we found men with hairless legs more attractive, do you for one instant imagine that that will become the "standard"? I think not..
Deborah, The Hague, Holland

Why all this fuss about women occasionally shaving when 95% of men have to do it every day -sometimes twice! Do we hear about clean shaven men complaining that they have to do it to conform and it's only because of peer pressure - No! (P.S. I have been bearded for 28 years)
Adrian, London

I love hairy women. I find it very natural and very attractive. Blokes I know feel the same so it's so sad that many women feel the need to conform with peers instead of giving the men what they want - curvy, natural and hairy instead of thin, cosmetic and hairless.
Dan, Cambridge, UK

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