Do you sport a Balbo? A Bandholz? Or perhaps a Fu Manchu? If so, you’re likely to be a MALE. The ability to grow that facial hair in the modern age is primarily reserved only for the ‘male’ gender. Are women built by nature to not sport any facial hair or has evolution changed the dynamics of facial hair in some way? Let’s find out.
Cost of hair removal
Women do develop facial hair, but they mostly shave or bleach it. In fact, the removal of facial and body hair is ubiquitous in the modern female population. According to one study, more than 99% of American women voluntarily rid themselves of their facial or body hair. Mind you, hair removal is pretty darn expensive! Other studies have pointed out that American woman typically spend more than $10,000 over the course of their lives to shave off their hair. This cost can balloon up to a whopping $23,000 for women from wealthier backgrounds who use waxing for hair removal, rather than shaving. These habits to get rid of hair, especially facial hair, is not restricted to the US; women across different races, ethnicities, and nationalities would agree that it’s almost “mandatory” for them to have a smooth, clear and hairless face.
Darwin’s explanation and its influence on women’s predisposition to eliminate facial hair
The antipathy for women’s facial hair has its roots in the work of Darwin. Gender and sexuality professor Rebecca Herzig point to Darwin’s 1871 book ‘Descent of Man’, which heavily incited women to turn against their facial hair. Darwin’s evolutionary theory transformed the subjects of body and facial hair into a question of natural selection—so much so that hairiness was profoundly pathologized.
Darwin wrote that individuals select the traits of those people with whom they want to reproduce. The loss of hair, he argues, is a key human characteristic that becomes important in selecting women, as it makes them more attractive. Moreover, a hairy face becomes a breeding ground for parasites and lice. Thus, a face without hair implies more hygiene and attractiveness, making a clean-faced woman a preferred choice for mating.
Darwin’s work in Descent of Man had its roots in traditions of comparative racial anatomy, and his evolutionary theory attested hair’s associations with ‘primitive’ ancestry and hairiness in females being implicitly linked to ‘less developed’ forms of living beings. Herzig opines that after the publication of Darwin’s work, hairiness became an issue of fitness.
Evolutionary scientists, following the work of Darwin, professed that hairiness was one of the external factors for clear the distinction between masculinity and femininity. Less hair in women indicated “higher anthropological development”, so hairiness in women became an anomaly. In one research study conducted in the 1890s studying insanity in women claimed to find that 271 cases of insanity in women were linked with excessive facial hair. Moreover, those supposedly ‘insane’ women had thicker and stiffer hair. Havelock Ellis, a renowned scholar of human sexuality, claimed that heavy hair growth in women was often linked to criminal violence, strong sexual instincts and unforgiving animal vigor.
Afsaneh Najmabadi, a gender and sexuality professor from Harvard, echoed Herzig’s point. During her research, Najmabadi has found that the literature of the 18th century depicted Iranian women with heavy brows and faint mustaches on many occasions. In fact, these features were considered so attractive that they were sometimes painted on by renowned artists or augmented with mascara. She discovered that, until the early 19th century, the gender distinction in portraits of lovers was very vague and it sometimes became difficult to discern males and females!
In the pursuit of hair removal
By the early 1900s, facial hair was an important source of discomfort for women in the US. Their desire for smooth, sanitized, white skin was insatiable. They wanted to be feminine and having a hairless face was a quintessential example of feminism. In her book Plucked, Herzig explained how in a very short time period, facial hair became despicable to middle-class American women—its removal seemed a necessity to separate themselves from the cruder atavistic human community.
Women started using pumice stones or sandpaper in the 1930s and 1940s to remove their facial and body hair, but this often caused irritation and scabbing. Koremlu, a cream made from thallium acetate, was making the rounds among the cosmetic kits of young women in the 1930s. Although Koremlu advertised itself as a safe and permanent hair-removing cream, it was made from thallium acetate, which is actually rat poison! Thousands of unsuspecting women faced severe health issues and the blighted cream cost the lives of several women. Koremlu was successful in eliminating hair, but it resulted in serious health implications that included blindness, limb damage, and at the very worst—death.
The Role of Hormones in Hair Growth
Although we understand how and why young women in the modern age are so reluctant to voluntarily nurture their facial hair, it’s true that facial hair growth in women is much less prolific than in men. Now, let’s try to understand the scientific reasons behind this difference.
Scientists working in the domain of neurosciences state that men have thick facial hair in the form of mustaches and beards for a very specific reason. The inception of facial hair for both men and women starts in the hypothalamus—a section located at the base of the brain. The hypothalamus sends signals to a gland called the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then sends signals that trigger the ovaries in girls and the testes in boys. You might have have learnt in school that the ovaries help to produce a hormone called estrogen in girls. On the other hand, the testes help to produce a hormone called testosterone in boys. The rigorous activity of these two hormones help to push our bodies into puberty.
Boys become more “masculine” with an increase in testosterone levels, while the elevated estrogen levels make girls more “feminine”. Many studies have shown that the large amounts of testosterone in the body stimulate the fast and rapid growth of facial hair. As girls have more estrogen than testosterone, their facial hair growth is not as prolific. Thus, girls who have problems with rapid facial hair growth have often been found to have higher levels of testosterone than normal. So, while higher levels of estrogen may help girls keep their facial hair growth in check, having a permanently and completely hairless face is preposterous for anyone!