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.
to an ambivalent process of accommodation, as Americans shifted from using familiar, handcrafted preparations to purchasing commodities produced at a distance. Ambivalence is understandable, as the market revolution at once expanded the array of available off-the-shelf goods and rendered purchasers newly vulnerable to obscure and unregulated processes of production. While the shift from homemade depilatories to those concocted at remote perfumeries was surely one of the more modest features of
the bag,” one physician lamented. “Right now it’s anything goes.”29 Indeed, although laser equipment itself is far more heavily monitored than most other hair removal devices, it is subject to (appallingly) little state, federal, or professional oversight, particularly when used in private offices. Some equipment manufacturers do not allow physicians to purchase their lasers outright, instead requiring leasing arrangements in which physicians pay per-treatment and/or per-month minimums to the
Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines; Containing a Clear Exposition of Their Principles and Practice (New York: Appleton, 1847), 393. 17. As recently as 2005, physicians in Japan reported that a 49-year-old woman, following a recipe for homemade depilatories reported on a popular television program, was seriously injured when her compound of soymilk, lemon, and absolute ethanol combusted on the stove. See Yasunori Yamamoto et al., “Burns in the Homemade Process of Depilatory Lotion
Orientalist themes apparent in these products predate by several decades the fashion for “mosques, temples, and desert oases” that took off in American merchandising in the 1890s. See Leach, Land of Desire, 104. 71. “National Tastes and Antipathies,” Workingman’s Advocate, October 16, 1830, 2. 72. “Literary Notices,” Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette, April 1833, 185. 73. The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion (Boston: Allen and Ticknor, 1834), 52. 74. Ure, Dictionary of Arts, 393.
Practical Research (March 1926), reprint in folder 0317-17, AMA. 25. Geyser, “Truth and Fallacy.” 26. M. C. Phillips, Skin Deep: The Truth about Beauty Aids—Safe and Harmful (New York: Vanguard, 1934), 91. For more recent reports of severe ulcerations caused by calcium thioglycolate depilatories, see Alexander A. Fisher, “Unique Reactions of Scrotal Skin to Topical Agents,” Cutis 44 (December 1989): 445. 27. Miss M.C. to Chicago Tribune (undated, circa November 1915), AMA Folder 0315-08. 28.