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.
bearded; cosmetic entrepreneurs; gender transition and laser therapy; hairy; social control of. See also female hair growth; feminism; gender workers. See labor Workingman’s Advocate x-ray hair removal: adverse affects of; advertising; comparison to shoe-fitting fluoroscopes; decline of; electrolysis vs.; expense of; gender and; pain and; personal injury claims; physicians’ rejection of; professionalization and; race/ethnicity of clients; regulation of Young, James Harvey Zanden, Alison
waterboarding—would simply flip existing presumptions of value. My aim here is instead to illuminate the historical contingency of such assertions themselves. Delving into the history of personal enhancement, Plucked excavates the surprisingly recent development of seemingly self-evident distinctions between the serious and the unimportant, the necessary and the superfluous. Body hair, here referring to any hair growth below the scalp line, renders such distinctions helpfully concrete. Readily
measurement and observation that gave rise to Darwin’s theories of variation, diverse groups of investigators began counting hairs as a way to engage wider social and political concerns. Their analyses were part of a significant cultural shift ongoing in the late nineteenth century: one moving “deviance” from its traditional location in criminal law to the domain of medical science.61 Particularly influential in this regard was the young field of study known as “sexology,” which approached most
ovaries, and testes. By 1929, “female” sex steroids had been isolated from the urine of pregnant women; by 1931, “male” sex hormones had been isolated from the urine of men.20 In these early decades of chemical research, most experimenters assumed that female sex hormones existed only in people identified as women, and that male sex hormones existed only in people identified as men. Yet already by 1921, the alleged sexual specificity of sex hormones was being called into question: men’s bodies,
Index About the Author INTRODUCTION: NECESSARY SUFFERING IN THE CLOSING months of 2006, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) traveled to the internment facility at Guantánamo Bay run by the U.S. Department of Defense. There, the representatives conducted private interviews with fourteen “high value” detainees held in custody by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in accordance with the ICRC’s legal obligation to monitor compliance with the Geneva