Plucked: A History of Hair Removal (Biopolitics)
Rebecca M. Herzig
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From the clamshell razors and homemade lye depilatories used in colonial America to the diode lasers and prescription pharmaceuticals available today, Americans have used a staggering array of tools to remove hair deemed unsightly, unnatural, or excessive. This is true especially for women and girls; conservative estimates indicate that 99% of American women have tried hair removal, and at least 85% regularly remove hair from their faces, armpits, legs, and bikini lines on a regular basis. How and when does hair become a problem—what makes some growth “excessive”? Who or what separates the necessary from the superfluous?
In Plucked, Rebecca Herzig shows how, over time, dominant American beliefs about visible hair changed: where once elective hair removal was considered a “mutilation” practiced primarily by “savage” men, by the turn of the twentieth century, hair-free faces and limbs were expected for women. Visible hair growth—particularly on young, white women—came to be perceived as a sign of political extremism, sexual deviance, or mental illness. By the turn of the twenty-first century, more and more Americans were waxing, threading, shaving, or lasering themselves smooth. Herzig’s extraordinary account also reveals some of the collateral damages of the intensifying pursuit of hair-free skin. Moving beyond the experiences of particular patients or clients, Herzig describes the surprising histories of race, science, industry, and medicine behind today's hair-removing tools. Plucked is an unsettling, gripping, and original tale of the lengths to which Americans will go to remove hair.
charted across the affluent industrialized world. With time and resources, a more exhaustive comparative study—a global history of sciences of hair—would be ideal.17 But given the disproportionate influence of U.S. definitions of “necessity” in the early twenty-first century (evident in the ICRC’s report on Guantánamo), sustained reflection on American habits seems a useful place to start. BUT FIRST, A few notes on terminology may prove helpful. Because this book seeks to emphasize the
by 97.1 percent.37 The resulting stocking shortage led to a dramatic rise in consumption of “liquid stockings,” tinted compounds designed to create the illusion of fabric for women reluctant to appear bare legged. Sold as powders, lotions, and creams, leg cosmetics were applied with the fingers or an applicator pad—a process that could take anywhere from five to fifteen minutes a day, with additional time for drying and buffing. Sometimes paired with decals or penciled-in lines to create the
Thought, ed. David Oldroyd and Ian Langham (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1983), 105 n.78. 33. Blumenbach, “Natural Variety of Mankind,” 174. 34. Ibid., 173. 35. Knox, cited in Konkle, Writing Indian Nations, 15. 36. Konkle, Writing Indian Nations, 3; Bieder, Science, 9. 37. Hershberger, “Mobilizing Women,” 40; Ronald Satz, American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975). 38. Konkle, Writing Indian Nations, 5; Bieder, Science, 11. 39. The phrase
constraint and freedom also appeared in emerging norms of thinness. See Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 54. 21. Peter N. Stearns, Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self-Control in Modern America (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 99–100; Hope, “Caucasian Female Body Hair,” 93–99; Susan Brownmiller, Femininity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 142–48; Christy Callahan, “Body Hair Removal in the
47. E.g., “Tricho Method of Removing Superfluous Hair,” advertisement for Mrs. L. P. Williams’s Tricho salons, Connecticut and Massachusetts, folder 0318-01, AMA. 48. “Loveliness for the Most Discriminating Women,” advertisement for Hair-X Salon, Philadelphia, folder 0317-02, AMA. 49. “A Flawless Skin,” Boston Post, November 15, 1928, copy in folder 0318-02, AMA. 50. “Gone for Good.” 51. Lois Banner, American Beauty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 205. 52. On the immediate