January 15, 2007

Can British Women Ever Stop Being Slaves to the Shave?

By Carolyn Hitt

According to legend, eminent Victorian John Ruskin was so horrified to discover on his wedding night that his wife had hair on her nether regions, he never consummated their marriage. Basing his ideal of the feminine form on gleaming classical statues, poor Ruskin never realised that women can be as hairy as the next man.

Almost 160 years later, female body hair is still subject to the ych y fi factor. If Ruskin was honey- mooning in 2007, however, he might not be so traumatised, as his wife would have spent the previous week in the beauty salon having more personal topiary done than Kew Gardens.

Decades of conditioning have left us considering the perfectly natural thoroughly unnatural. If not centuries - the Ancient Egyptians saw the presence of body hair as an indication of belonging to the slave class.

But one woman wants to stop being a slave to the shave and dispel the prejudices surrounding hairy armpits and calves like a centre- forward for Caernarfon Town FC. Stand-up comedian Shazia Mirza has taken a brave New Year Resolution to let it grow - after dedicating much of her adult life to getting rid of it.

'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,' explains the 32-year-old. 'The hairs are growing quite nicely and I am now in a position to have my armpits styled and waxed, my sideburns permed. I am learning to love my hair.'

I joined a French journalist called Benedicte to discuss Shazia's one-woman stand against the tyranny of hair-removal on Radio Wales. In cultured Gallic tones, she explained how French women - the acknowledged guardians of style - would not be at all fussed about hairy armpits. Hang-ups about body hair, said Benedicte, were the preserve of a British culture heavily influenced by America.

But why are we so horrified by hirsuteness? I can still remember the mortification we felt as adolescents when the Sicilian exchange students we were hosting revealed fronds of armpit hair long enough for Tarzan to swing from during a dip in the pool at Swansea leisure centre.

Hollywood beauty Julia Roberts' hirsute underarms were also deemed to be the pits when she unveiled them in all their unshaven glory at the Notting Hill premiere in 1999. 'On a day to day basis I don't think about my armpits,' retorted an incredulous Roberts. More recently Trinny Woodall's underarm tufts where slammed as What Not To Wear.

Yet while Julia, Trinny and our continental cousins let it all hang out, the women of Britain are obsessed with hair removal.

In a recent study, 99% of females admitted to pulling their hair out.

Not on their heads, of course. We're talking underarms, legs, downstairs, eyebrows and the stray chin strand. And for those who produce razors, wax and depilatory creams that smell vaguely of flatulence, it's a booming market. In 1915 Wilkinson Sword launched its first razor for women. The female population of the UK is now estimated to spend pounds 280m a year removing body hair.

So much money, for so much palaver. Not to mention the agony. Until you've been hoisted off the beautician's coach by the hot wax strips attached to your lady bits, you don't know the meaning of pain. It gives beating about the bush a whole new meaning.

Those too wimpy for ordeal by hot wax resort to the razor but that too has its discomforts. Summer brings a daily routine of nicking shins with a razor and then wincing as you slather Johnson's Holiday Skin over the cuts.

In these post-Gavin Henson times, even men are feeling the pressure. There's never any Burt Reynolds-style fuzz on the perfectly-toned chests that grace the cover of Men's Health magazine. And while blokes may recoil from the sight of hairy female shins, women are equally unimpressed with gorilla shoulders. The problem of the latter has brought the most unappealing phrase into the beautician's vocabulary - anyone for a back, sac and crack wax? Eueew. Yet can Shazia Mirza's stance start a hairy backlash? As part of a TV programme she is making for the BBC, she is planning to stage a fashion show where hairy - ie normal - women will model lingerie and is hoping plenty of volunteers come forward. But the comedian's campaign will be seen as funny peculiar rather than funny ha ha. If Julia Roberts can't get away with a hairy pit, what hope is there for the rest of us? We haven't come much further than John Ruskin's traumatic wedding night. It will be another 160 years before a touch of Amazonian forest is more acceptable than a Brazilian.

(c) 2007 Western Mail. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.