Nearly one in four female millennials no longer remove hair from their armpits. Times have changed, says Deirdre Reynolds
WONDER Woman whipped the competition, taking almost €200m at cinemas worldwide during its opening weekend. For some viewers though, it seems the biggest wonder of all is how Diana of Themyscira found the time to shave her armpits while saving the planet.
Ahead of the release of the first female-led superhero movie in over a decade, one trailer teased the new Wonder Woman lifting a car above her head and tossing it down the street. But it wasn’t the character’s superhuman strength or her iconic golden rope that lassoed attention.
Rather it was her implausibly smooth underarms.
Waxing lyrical on Twitter, one fan wrote: “Until this point, I hadn’t realised how badly I wanted Wonder Woman to have armpit hair.” Agreed another: “I wish #WonderWoman had visible armpit hair. She was raised on an island of women w/no [razor brand] advertisements!”
Despite being rubbished by Israeli star Gal Gadot as “empty talk”, new figures show how DC’s depiction of the Goddess of Truth may not ring true for a growing number of young women.
Almost one in four female millennials no longer depilate their armpits, according to global market research company Mintel, and there’s only a hair’s breadth in similar statistics on legs.
Just four years ago, 95% of women aged 16-24 told how they routinely removed the hair from under their arms. By last year, just 77% of those in that age bracket were still keeping the area fluff-free by waxing or shaving.
Piliferous pins also became more popular with women in their late teens and early 20s, with the number who defuzzed falling from 92% in 2013 to 85% in 2016.
As hashtags such as #freethepits and #hairypits take root on Twitter, Una Hennessy of Cork Feminist Collective says women are becoming more comfortable with their own decisions about hair removal.
“If someone decides they want to have smooth, hairless legs on a night out, power to them,” she says.
“If someone else decides they can’t be bothered to shave, or that they don’t like the experience of being plucked like a chicken, or if they feel oppressed by society’s obsession with body image, or if they simply like the look of the hair, then power to them also.”
Certainly the practice of epilation is nothing new for women.
Long before the invention of Veet, women used everything from pumice stones to arsenic to rid their bodies of unwanted hair.
What has changed since ancient Egypt, however, is the attitude towards women who work the natural look.
Julia Roberts turned heads at the premiere of Notting Hill in 1999 when she showed off the unshaven armpits. And back when Madonna broke the beauty mould, comedian Joan Rivers famously quipped that the singer was “so hairy, when she lifted up her arm, I thought it was Tina Turner in her armpit”.
A generation on, the star’s 20-year-old daughter Lourdes has been mostly praised for continuing to normalise the trend.
Although she has no intention of binning her razor like Miley Cyrus, Stephanie Reddy from New Ross shared how underarm hair is no longer considered the pits among her pals either.
“Even though I myself would be very into keeping the fluff tame, I think every woman should be free to do whatever she likes,” says the 18-year-old, who’s studying to become a personal trainer. “If a man doesn’t want to shave then why should a woman?
“I feel Miley and Lourdes are good influences to show young impressionable teenagers it is good to embrace your natural beauty and not to feel pressured or horrible if they have a bit of stubble.”
Stephanie’s mum Tracey, a healthcare assistant, recalls it being different in her day. “When I was younger, I remember a neighbour had a German student over for the summer,” she says.
“My friend and I were horrified when we noticed she did not shave and even wore a sleeveless dress to the nightclub.
“Needless to say, growing up it was a no-no to have hairy armpits. Now as a 37-year-old, I still personally prefer to be clean-shaven, but each to their own.”
Of the 77% of like-minded women who still fight the fuzz, beauticians report many are doing so for good. “Over the past few years, we do notice far more clients laser their underarm area instead of waxing,” says Paula Cuddihy of Urbana Hair Removal Clinic in Dublin and Louth.
“For some women, underarm hair can be very difficult to manage. Some women would shave their underarms in the morning and feel regrowth by the very same evening, and over-shaving this area may lead to skin issues for them.
“Hygiene, appearance, and convenience are the most common reasons for wanting to remove underarm hair. Women regularly comment on having a constant dark shadow in this area that they would like to get rid of.
“We would always encourage women to choose what they wanted and not to be led by trends. The reduction you achieve from laser hair removal after six to eight sessions is pretty much permanent so it is important they are happy with their own personal choice.”
Designed to wick sweat and thereby bacteria away from the skin, stripping the body of its natural coat isn’t without its hazards, among them shaving rash and ingrown hairs.
Whether you’re ‘fur’ or against shaving, one expert urges women to give their underarms a breather from time to time.
“Folliculitis is the main problem associated with physical means of hair removal like waxing and shaving,” says Dr Sharon Wong, a consultant dermatologist.
“It’s an irritation of the hair follicle and inflammation as a result of repeated friction and trauma, so you get those little red bumps which very often do settle if you allow the hair to grow through or reduce the frequency of which you shave or wax.
“The problem is obviously things like ingrown hairs can be an additional insult to the hair follicle, so when the hairs grow back into the skin they can irritate the skin follicle further and just exacerbate the underlying folliculitis.
“If [someone] gets recurrent folliculitis as a result of physical means of hair removal, then the sensible advice is to reduce how frequently they do it,” she says.
“You just need time for the skin and the hair follicles to recover, but also, obviously, looking at longer-term ways of hair removal that give you a more definitive and lasting result.”
If you’re washing frequently and using antiperspirant, body odour shouldn’t be a problem, she says. “If anything fresh sweat doesn’t tend to smell, this only when the sweat’s been hanging around for a while.”
With the average woman estimated to spend €15,600 in her lifetime on waving goodbye to unwanted body hair, of course, there could be another good reason for going au natural.
Whether Irish women will go quite as far as Lady Gaga — who memorably rocked turquoise armpit hair extensions at an awards ceremony in Canada six years ago — remains to be seen.
“Hair has and will always be a feminist issue in our culture when it is a natural part of the female body and is seen as something to be ashamed of,” says Hennessy.
“In my opinion, it’s completely up to the individual to decide their own hair removal regime, and choosing one way or the other is not ‘feminist’ or ‘anti-feminist’.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that someone is a role model just because they’re a celebrity who doesn’t shave their armpits.
“I think the important thing here is for young women to see a variety of representations of other women with agency.”
TOP REASONS TO BIN RAZOR
4. Hair traps pheromones, the body’s natural perfume. Sweat only tends to smell when it goes steal, so regular washing should deal with unwanted body odour.
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