Problematic Visual Culture: Hair Removal Advertisements & Beauty Standards

By Joy Cheng, class of ‘23

Do you know where our beauty standard of the 21st century comes from and why we shave?  What we find attractive today is rooted in the advertisement boom of the 1950s. Along with the rise of fashion styles like short sleeves and bikinis, companies advertised hair removal products and perpetuated beauty standards of hair removal, especially for women.1 We should, therefore, be wary of the constant exposure and pressure from advertising agencies of profit-hungry companies that harmfully dictate shaving and hair removal trends.

When we think of advertisements, the words “visual culture” are not usually the first thing to pop into our minds. However, advertisements often are forms of visual culture—like paintings, photographs, or videos and it is through these mediums that advertisers can associate beauty and happiness with hair removal. When we see ads like the one below, we often compare ourselves with these models—desiring to be happy, proud, and feeling good about our bodies. We draw an interesting connection between being beautiful and shaving; “if I want to be just like that model, I should shave my body hair too!” As a result, we come to the conclusion that “if I want to shave my body hair, I’ll need to buy a razor.” In other words, advertisements are a form of visual culture that attempts to influence consumers’ actions in a way that leads them to purchase products. As a result, corporations promote hair removal, making products like razors a necessity to gain profits.

Pictured above is a 1978 magazine ad for the hair removal product Nair.

In the modern digital age, we are more exposed to advertising than ever before. Advertising is omnipresent, from billboards on the highway to Instagram ads to full-page spreads in newspapers and magazines. Sometimes advertisements are not evident at first glance—a shelf of sleek Gillette razors at CVS is a form of advertising too. With ‘winner of Allure’ or ‘best of 2021’ signs, our eyes are bound to pay attention to these catchphrases. Yet, most of the time, we do not realize how they influence our thoughts. With so much exposure to advertising, it is no wonder that we begin to internalize the messages they present. As we internalize messages about hair removal, we may perceive ourselves as ugly for having body hair—even though body hair is perfectly normal! The goal of advertising is to sell products and capitalize on both real and manufactured insecurities. By perpetuating beauty standards of hair removal, advertisers influence women’s self-perception in unhealthy ways by telling people that they need to shave in order to be beautiful.

Advertising taglines reveal explicit attempts to create beauty standards for hair removal. For example, one ad from the 1900s asks us, “are you going to permit unsightly hair on your face, arms, underarms, and limbs to spoil the freedom which awaits you at the beach?” while another reads, “summer dress and modern dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.”2 These ads are trying to generate shame about our body hair—it is something shameful that spoils our fun and how others perceive us. We see similar ideas in modern-day ads, like a Gillette Venus advertisement that states, “you’re a woman, shave like one,” implying that shaving is necessary for women.3 The message is consistent throughout decades—we need to eliminate body hair because it impedes us from being viewed as beautiful.

Gillette’s advertisement for Venus Embrace Razor in 2012.

Today, people are challenging the notion that we need to shave to be beautiful. Body hair is becoming more and more accepted as beautiful, and we see that some celebrities are confronting conventional beauty norms that mainstream culture imposes onto us. Julia Michaels, a singer, announced on Twitter that she is “not shaving [her] armpits ever again… social norms can eat an eggplant.”4Mo’Nique, a comedian, says, “I tried shaving one time, and it was uncomfortable and painful… I said never again would I do that to myself.”5 Beyond celebrities, we see public opinions moving towards body hair acceptance through movements like #Januhairy, a social media campaign encouraging women to grow their body hair for the month of January.

Left: Pictured above Mo’Nique showing off her unshaven legs at the Golden Globes in 2017. Photo courtesy of Getty Images. Right: Instagram account showing support for #Januhairy movement.

Beyond celebrities and popular sentiment, there are also emerging shaving companies that promote body hair acceptance. One such company is Billie, a razor company, which states that “what you do with [your hair] is up to you – grow it, get rid of it, or comb it.”6 Another company, Estrid, is running a “Super Hairoes” campaign to help women feel more comfortable about their body hair.7Although we could be cynical about the whole thing and claim that these companies are just trying to profit from public sentiment, it does do its part in bringing us to question certain status quos and their origins. Even though they sell hair removal products, they are not trying to generate insecurity about body hair and profit from it. Rather, they are trying to support consumers with their own choices about body hair. I think this is what we need—advertising that supports our body hair choices rather than enforcing uncomfortable beauty standards.

  1. Smithsonian Institution.“Hair Removal.” Accessed November 4, 2021. https://www.si.edu/spotlight/health-hygiene-and-beauty/hair-removal.
  2. Samira Rauner. “How the Beauty Industry Pressured Women into Shaving.” Medium, The Indiependent, 5 July 2020. Accessed November 3, 2021. https://medium.com/the-indiependent/how-the-beauty-industry-pressured-women-into-shaving-adb62957cf4e; Amanda Scherker. “7 Ways the Beauty Industry Convinced Women That They Weren’t Good Enough.” HuffPost, 7 Dec. 2017. Accessed November 4, 2021. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/beauty-industry-women_n_5127078.
  3. Jessica Pearce Rotondi. “’Woman Up’? Do Ads Appealing to Femininity Really Work?” HuffPost, Huffington Post, 7 Jan. 2012. Accessed November 5, 2021. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/advertising-gender_b_1077239.
  4. Michaels, Julia [@juliamichaels]. “Honestly, I’m not shaving my armpits ever again. I don’t know why I ever did before. Social norms can eat an eggplant” Twitter, 27 May 2020, Accessed November 12, 2021. https://twitter.com/juliamichaels/status/1265739031733653504?lang=en.
  5. Tom McCarthy. “Mo’Nique on Why She Refuses to Shave.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 10 Mar. 2010, Accessed November 11, 2021. https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/Oscars/barbara-walters-monique-oscar-special/story?id=10011657#:~:text=%22So%2C%20as%20a%20younger%20woman,I%20do%20that%20to%20myself.%224.
  6. “Project Body Hair.” Billie, Accessed November 6, 2021. https://mybillie.com/pages/projectbodyhair.
  7. Northman, Tora. “Estrid Embraces Body Hair in Its Latest ‘Super Hairoes’ Campaign.” HYPEBAE, 3 Feb. 2021, Accessed November 11, 2021. https://hypebae.com/2021/2/estrid-body-hair-campaign-self-care-confidence-super-hairoes.

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