Plucked: A history of hair removal, by Rebecca M. Herzig

Plucked: A history of hair removal Book Cover Plucked: A history of hair removal
Rebecca M. Herzig
NYU press
Feb 3 2015

A history of hair removal. What? Yes. You know how long people have been obsessing over hairy ladylegs? Forever. Well, no, but a long time.

I wanted to read this book because, first of all, I love micro-histories - historical accounts of very specific subjects, like, well, rabies. Or hair. Also, because I had just recently touched on the subject in The Poisoner's Handbook, where the mentioned use of thallium for hair removal made me incredibly, endlessly grateful for being born when I was, and not a century earlier. I get to have the privilege of naivete. Most of the time, it really is okay for me to assume "It's being sold in the shops, so it has been through testing and been approved for its intended use, so it is probably safe and won't hurt me terribly." That privilege, that safety, is a recent thing, history considered. Once, you could get away with selling people a hair removal cream that caused nerve damage and/or death, as long as some hair could be observed to fall out, too.

You'd think it didn't get worse than that, but then the new fabulous depillatory supertool came along; x-rays. I don't have to talk about that, do I? SO many people lined up for x-rays, even when the potential dangers were known; they resided in quiet, secret clinics, much like certain other dangerous, but desperately demanded, treatments. Thousands, thousands of women looking to shed the mustache.

Lasers aren't harmless either, but that's the ruling method, these days. Just don't look at the pictures of the laser burn damage, or the cases of unfortunate patients who had laser treatment stimulate MORE hair growth. Look away; The important thing is to be clean and 100% hairless from the eyebrows down.

Excessive hair growth is only really a problem, an ailment, a horror, for women. (And possibly, historically, military men who need to avoid lice and also keep their faces smooth so that gas masks will fit.) This book talks a lot about that, how the image of hairy legs and armpits came to be so strongly associated with radical feminism; in short, it's because there was good reason to ask why on earth anyone should have to spend so much of their time removing perfectly normal, clean, healthy hair from their bodies.

And - imagine living in a time before anyone knew anything about hormones. If you had a ladystache back when no one knew the words "endocrine disorder", you were a circus freak, or likely lesbian, or whatever was associated with a female fuzzy face at the time. You used your secret concoctions and veiled your face and suffered the prejudice and that was the end of it. No estrogen/testosterone balancing treatments, no checking out the rest of your hormonal functions to look for connections and clues.

It must have been an enormous relief once some bright doctor decided to look into glands.

The book is very thorough, and tells a history of not only body hair treatment, but of Darwin, racism, medicine, science, feminism, and culture. Unfortunately, a lot of it is quite dry, and I feel like I'm reading the encyclopedia entry on the topic, rather than a book which should have room for more of a... voice.

In the end, it's not my favourite of micro-histories; if it was, it wouldn't have taken me weeks to get through it. It didn't make me want to read the next chapter, despite my interest in the subject.  I actually want to know more about how, and why, native Americans shaved their faces.  And I'm reminded of a book I'm pretty sure I once added to my TBR about the wonderfully human concept of disgust, but I need to remind myself which one that was, exactly...

One comment on “Plucked: A history of hair removal, by Rebecca M. Herzig

  1. I was surprised to see the title of this book—I didn’t expect to find a book about hair removal. At all. And I don’t think I would read about it, but reading your review was interesting, and I’m glad I read it 😀 Plus, as weird as it might sound (does it?) I had never heard of microhistory, but now I’m determined to check some of these out!

    (by the way, I tagged you to do the Gif Tag, the rules and the books are here: feel free to only do some books, or to not do it at all if you don’t want to!)

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