Opinion The Youth Issue

How body hair has historical significance

It’s no wonder that hair ignites strong feelings in people.

By Maryam Al Shawab

Us, Arab women, were once young girls unified by our little leg hairs and peach fuzz. We used to stare at our growing, dark arm and leg hair in fascination, and we would stop each other in mid-conversation to inform one another that we were growing a mustache and then giggle.

But by the time high school came around, our attitude towards body hair turned from observation to complete disgust. Our body and facial hair no longer matched what we wanted to be: beautiful women.

Those of us who didn’t remove our facial and bodily hair (excluding what is religiously compulsory to remove for Muslims), received constant pressure to do so as we reached martial age. It’s not a personal choice but a must for the sake of your future husband, many believe. When asking my mother about this, she mentioned that her generation wasn’t even allowed to remove their body and facial hair until they got married. So, it was more common back then to see young women sporting hairy knuckles and a unibrow. Having bodily and facial hair, in the past, symbolised singlehood for females.

Indeed, hair and its removal from certain areas of the body has been symbolic throughout the ages and across different parts of the world, and has also been an identifier. For example, both men and women in Ancient Egypt shaved all their hair, including the hair on their heads, as a sign of beauty and to look civilized. Other reasons included keeping cool under the sun and to get rid of lice. In ancient Greece and Rome, body hair removal became more common amongst women as it was seen as more feminine. Fast forward to the 19th century, author Rebecca Herzig, who wrote Plucked: A history of hair removal, mentioned that Charles Darwin used body hair to imply that hairier races were inferior and more likely to be violent.

Nowadays in the Arab world, hairy limbs and facial hair on women (married or not) are widely seen as unattractive, and leave the impression of poor hygiene and self-neglect on many. If one of my friends or I decide not to shave, we put an effort to cover it up with layers of clothes to avoid judgment. For Arab men, the opposite is true, as body and facial hair is an integral part of their identity. The lack of it usually brings a sense of shame, and even the need for medical attention at times. Men’s leg, chest, or arm hair isn’t normally associated with a lack of hygiene.

Meanwhile, the media and advertisers emphasize  the concept of hair removal with the underlying goal of selling more razors, wax, hair removal creams, or other hair removal gadgets. Consequently, the necessity for women to be hairless has seemingly become universal around the world.

On social media, a growing number of female celebrities and feminists (particularly in the Western world), post their unshaved arms or armpits in hopes of making a statement and sparking a debate. But it shouldn’t be a statement. After all, it is just hair. It should simply represent a preference.

For us, former Arabs girls, body and facial hair was a representation of youth and innocence. It played a key role in our experience as Arab girls and the time in our lives when we were free of expectations. Contrary to the belief in other cultures that hairlessness equals childhood and hairiness equals adulthood,  hairlessness equates to being a woman in Arab society. And maybe that’s the reason why some Arab teenage girls rush to have every hair zapped with laser, while others cling to their little hairs for a bit longer, not quite ready to make the transition from girl to woman.

It’s no wonder that body and facial hair ignites strong feelings in people. What many  of us may assume is insignificant actually signifies much larger concepts such as history, culture, race, cleanliness, beauty, a phase in our lives and how we perceive others and ourselves.

Artwork by Saudi illustrator Zainab Alradhi.

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Maryam Al Shawab is a 22-year-old Emirati writer. She is one of the winners of the Oxford University Press Story Writing Competition in 2018.