[Economist] second mention of bodywaxing for 2003...
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Fri Jan 9 17:38:12 PST 2004
This, from the publication that used the phrase 'back, crack, and sack'
without a shred of irony last year... next, I'm expecting to see an
off-lead on the e-commerce success of such single-product enthusiasts
as the Seiko-sellers at http://beavershaver.com/ ("the largest and most
comprehensive pubic hair removal site on the web")... and another
opinion leader on the upsurge in demand for Brazilians among
12-year-olds... Gotta love the wacky Christmas issue! --RK
Human hair // The bare truth
Dec 18th 2003
Why are humans nearly hairless? And why do some wish to become more so?
AT THE back of a hairdresser's shop, just off Piccadilly in London, an
Irish beautician called Genevieve is explaining what a “Brazilian” is
as she practises her art on your correspondent. A Brazilian strip, some
are surprised to learn, is nothing to do with Latin American football.
Between each excruciating rip, she explains that she is going to remove
nearly all my pubic hair, except for a narrow vertical strip of hairs
the width of a couple of fingers. This is known colloquially as the
In only a few years, this form of waxing has gone from the esoteric to
the everyday and is starting to rival the ordinary bikini wax in
popularity. At the same time the bikini wax is becoming a normal
procedure for women of all ages: the youngest person Genevieve has
waxed is a 12-year-old girl. Women are styling their pubic hair into
hearts, stars and arrows. It is one of the more notable developments in
hairdressing since the permanent wave.
The agony involved raises the question of why women increasingly feel
the need to remove a natural covering of hair. One theory is that they
are trying to acquire a prepubescent look in order to please men. The
waxers, though, will let you into another little secret which suggests
that, even if this is true, it is not the whole story. Some men too,
both straight and gay, are waxing their most intimate parts. Ouch.
At a biological level this behaviour seems even odder. Most other
mammals seem quite content with a luxuriant growth of fur. The idea of
a chimpanzee pulling out the hair on its genital regions is ridiculous.
Perhaps waxing is little more than a pseudo-sexual fad: another example
of the kind of erotic titivation, such as body piercing and tattooing,
that was once popular mainly among sailors, hippies and prostitutes.
There is another possibility, though. It could be an extension of a
longer-running animal story: humanity's evolution towards near
Humans are clearly obsessed with having too much hair. Last year men
and women spent $8 billion removing it with razor blades, reports
Gillette, which makes the things. Of this, $2 billion was spent by
America's 100m men on beard removal. More than 90% of American men over
15 shave about five times a week. But as beards are, biologically, a
sexual signal indicating masculinity, why shave them off?
Men have been shaving since antiquity, although the habit really got
going only when Gillette replaced the cut-throat razor with the safety
razor in 1903. Gus Van Beek, a curator of archaeology at the
Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, says that Egyptian tomb
paintings of men show them without beards, or at least without real
beards. When beards are depicted, they are false ones. This is known,
says Mr Van Beek, because detached falsies have been found.
Beards may have been considered a disadvantage in hand-to-hand combat,
since they can be grabbed. Yet much of the body, or so it is thought,
was shaven by the ancient Egyptians. Mr Van Beek says that their razors
would have been made first of copper, then of bronze and, much later,
of brass. But the ancient Egyptians would not have gone in for the
Sphinx, which is another style of pubic wax, named after the completely
hairless Egyptian cat.
Great for scouring pots
It is not clear when women began shaving their legs. One idea, almost
certainly wrong, is that the fashion began in the 1920s when western
women's skirts became shorter. Typically, today's women start shaving
at a slightly younger age than men do but they shave an area nine times
as large. Although the average male beard has the same number of hairs
as a woman's legs and underarms combined (7,000 to 15,000 hairs), the
beard is denser and grows much faster. The average American man spends
about 33 days of his life removing facial hair. Dry beard hair, says an
alarming Gillette fact sheet on shaving, is “extremely abrasive and
about as tough as copper wire of the same thickness.”
Though beards and hairy legs may be unwanted, head hair is greatly
desired. Many men go to great lengths in their efforts to keep the hair
on their heads. Male-pattern baldness, or androgenetic alopecia, is the
commonest form of hair loss. By the age of 50, over half of all men are
experiencing some thinning or loss of hair at the top or front of their
scalp. It is caused by genetics and hormones, specifically the male
If fat is a feminist issue, then baldness is a male one, according to
statistics compiled by members of the American Academy of Cosmetic
Surgery. The main reason a man will have cosmetic surgery (apart, that
is, from botox injections) is for the transplantation or restoration of
his hair. Roughly the same number of American men are having their hair
revived as women are having their breasts augmented. In online chat
groups, bald men from all over the world discuss their misery and
inability to attract a mate (or “gf”). “I'd rather be fat than bald,”
Human beings' hairy preoccupations are curious because, compared with
their closest animal relations, humans have very little hair to begin
with. Hair is unique to mammals, and is one of the most obvious and
defining characteristics of the group. It may have first evolved when
sensory hairs—rather like a cat's whiskers—were multiplied over the
body and became a useful insulator. Many scientists believe the
evolution of hair is related to the evolution of warm-bloodedness: the
ability to maintain a constant internal temperature. This may have
given mammals an advantage in their early, nocturnal, environment, when
they lived in the shadow of dinosaurs. Mammals have probably had hair
for about 200m years, but since hair does not generally fossilise,
scientists are not quite sure.
Of the 5,000-plus species of mammal, the only other (mostly) hairless
creatures are elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, walruses, whales
and naked mole rats. It is easy to see why these few animals are not so
hairy. Elephants and rhinoceroses are some of the largest of mammals,
live in hot places and have trouble staying cool. The others live, at
least part of the time, in water—where hair is not very useful—or
underground, where temperature does not fluctuate as much as on the
surface. Pigs are different. Their relative hairlessness has been bred
into them fairly recently, in rather the same way as the unfortunate
Mexican hairless dog.
A scientist might argue that humans are not, technically, “hairless”.
Many have the same density of hair follicles as an ape of the same body
size would have. But human hair is generally fine and short, and so
humans look naked compared with their closest animal relations. How
bare they are, though, does vary racially—which may explain why one
Thai lady has requested that her European boyfriend should have his
entire body waxed. But completely hairless human skin is found in only
a few areas such as the soles of the feet, the areolae round the
nipples, the umbilicus, and the palms and undersurface of the fingers
Despite the title of Desmond Morris's 1967 book, “The Naked Ape”,
scientists do not know when in evolutionary history the “great
denudation” took place. Or, for that matter, why. One of the more
imaginative theories is that humans were once aquatic apes. This, it is
argued, would explain why humans have hair on their heads: since the
aquatic ape's head would have to be held out of the water, it would
have needed protection from the glare of the sun. The aquatic-ape
theory is also used to explain why humans are relatively nimble in
water, certainly compared with chimpanzees; and why the hair on the
human back points in a direction that would reduce resistance from the
water while swimming. But, as is often pointed out, the idea lacks hard
For many decades, the most popular explanation of hairlessness was that
humans lost their hair to keep cool. Too much hair made humans—very
active apes—hot, like elephants. Elephants evolved huge floppy ears to
radiate heat back into their surroundings. But when hominids moved out
of the forests and into the savannah, the same task could be carried
out by the entire body, thanks to hominids' upright posture (which
exposed less skin to the sun) and their lack of hair.
Unfortunately, as Mr Morris points out, there are problems with this
idea, too. One is that no other animals of human size, indeed, no other
savannah mammals at all, have shed their fur. Where are the naked
lions? Another is that, though bare skin increases the chances of heat
loss, it also increases the chances of heat gain, and the risk of
damage from the sun. And nakedness makes humans vulnerably cold at
night, even in Africa.
Mark Pagel, at the University of Reading, and Sir Walter Bodmer, at the
John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, have a new idea. They believe that
parasites are the key to human hairlessness. Humans, they say, lost
their hair in order to reduce the burden of parasites such as fleas and
ticks, some of which would have transmitted disease. Early humans
probably lived close together in hunter-gatherer groups, in which the
rate of parasite transmission was high. Hairless skin was easier to
keep clean. Cultural adaptations, such as the use of fire, shelter and
clothing, allowed humans to become furless.
What convinces them, they say, is the recent evidence of the great toll
that ticks, lice and fleas have on the survival of furry and feathered
creatures. Many animals die from parasites, and fleas carry the plague.
Other scientists have recently discovered that when foreign species
arrive on new shores they typically come with half as many parasites as
they had at home. This gives them a huge competitive advantage over the
local species, and explains why some become pests.
In 1874 Charles Darwin noted that, in the tropics, hairlessness would
help humans to free themselves from ticks and other parasites. He
showed some support for the idea in a passage reporting, “It is said to
be a practice with the Australians, when the vermin get troublesome, to
Some even argue that early cave paintings prove that cavemen were
removing hairs from their face for similar reasons. At first, it is
said, they plucked hair out using a pair of seashells as tweezers, and
later they scraped away at it with razors made of flint or horn. Since
horn becomes blunt quickly, it may almost be said that stone-age man
invented the disposable razor. Others may have singed their facial hair
with burning twigs. Why? Perhaps because it became sweaty and dirty,
made eating awkward and played host to nits.
My husband is a hairy man...
The parasite theory may also help explain why women are less hairy than
men. Mates of either sex would have chosen each other because of their
lack of hair, argue Mr Pagel and Sir Walter, since this would suggest
that the chosen one was likelier to be free of disease. But as men are
more likely than women to select mates on their appearance, it may be
that the evolutionary pressure driving hairlessness was greater in
women than in men.
Hairiness is also related to the level of a predominantly male hormone.
Hence, being less hairy may be a sexual signal of femininity. The
companies that advertise female shaving, waxing and depilatory products
often play on the fear that hair is dirty. The message is clear: if you
don't want to look like a dirty man in a hygiene-obsessed world, get
rid of your body hair. And as the fashion for revealing clothing and
microscopic underwear spreads, so too does the desire to show only
smooth, naked skin—a desire often reinforced by society. Consider the
outcry when Julia Roberts waved to a crowd and revealed, to the horror
of many, a hairy armpit.
More and more of the body is on display, and not always pleasurably.
For many women, for instance, men's hairy backs and chests are an
acquired taste. Smoother certainly usually means easier on the eye. Mr
Pagel says he is struck by how many advertisements for women's clothes
and scent show them with their backs exposed. This may, conventionally,
be thought of as a normal, sexually suggestive, display. But Mr Pagel
adds, “We do not normally regard backs as secondary sexual
characteristics and so it occurred to me that what these advertisements
may be subconsciously displaying is the ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ of the
model by revealing a large area of unblemished skin.”
Some evolutionary biologists, though, are bristling at the parasite
theory. Robin Dunbar, of the University of Liverpool, is sceptical.
Parasites, he says, would have become a problem only when shelters were
first established. But hairlessness, he says, evolved before shelters
did. Some research suggests it evolved when walking upright became
popular among hominids more than 2m years ago.
Mr Dunbar supports the cooling theory, and argues that when humans
invaded the open plains, hair loss doubled the distance they could
travel on a pint of water. Moreover, the presence or absence of hair
clearly affects insulation because hair length changes on animals in
different environments: elephants in cold places became the woolly
mammoth. And it is now thought that humans started wearing clothes
rather recently—work on the genetics and evolutionary origins of
clothes lice suggests they first appeared some time between 30,000 and
114,000 years ago—certainly far too late to explain why humans lost
most of their hair.
...but I am sexy
Whatever the explanation for the loss of hair, another explanation is
needed for why men and women kept dense hair in three places: their
heads, armpits and pubes. In particular, those who believe in the
parasite theory must explain why humans merely shed some of their hair
and not all of it, since the head, armpits and pubic areas are the very
regions where human parasitic infections tend to occur.
The answer is sex, of course. David Stoddart, an olfactory biologist
with Australia's Antarctic programme, points out that armpit and pubic
hair grows just where the major scent glands are to be found. Hair is a
means of wafting this scent about. Thus a tuft of hair allows humans,
like other animals, to advertise to mates that something of interest is
happening on the skin below.
Humans' crowning glory, the hair on their heads, is easier to explain.
Again, it is a human characteristic that was shaped by sexual
selection. A luxuriant head of hair is, and has always been, desirable
in a mate. At least since the days of the Assyrians—between the 17th
and seventh centuries BC—hair has been dressed, and has been an
important signal for attracting and choosing partners. In Europe in the
late 1760s, women's hair rose from the head and took on extraordinary
proportions. Fashionable women might dress their hair powdered, draped
over wire or basketwork foundations, and crowned with feathers,
flowers, baskets of fruit, or even a miniature ship in full sail.
That still leaves beards. The theory here is that sexual selection has
kept facial hair in men, presumably because this advertises their male
hormones. But why, then, do so many men, in so many cultures, shave
them off? Perhaps the fear of parasites is driving some men to be
clean-shaven. Maybe the goatee is a compromise between being clean and
manly. Or, perhaps, shaving is popular because facial shape in humans
is a sexually dimorphic characteristic. Men tend to have squarer jaws
than women, and they shave to highlight this. If so, this would explain
the trend for emphasising the edge of the jawline with a fringe of
hair. But moustaches are a mystery, to evolutionary biologists and to
practically everyone else.
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