[Economist] second mention of bodywaxing for 2003...

Rohit Khare 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 
“landing strip”.

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 
hormone dihydrotestosterone.

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,” 
bemoans one.

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 
and toes.

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 

Cool, man

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 
singe themselves.”

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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