Adolescence hit Paula D. with too much hair in all the wrong places. As a teenager, she could do little except feel bad about herself.

But once Paula had the means, she embarked on a two-year, several-thousand-dollar course of electrolysis treatments to remove hair from her bikini area and upper lip. She underwent laser treatments to clear up her arms, and still waxes her legs once a month.

Now in her 40s, Paula has her body hair under control, but those negative adolescent feelings still surface from time to time.

In a society that often sets impossibly high standards for feminine beauty, excessive facial and body hair in a woman can be a heavy burden, both psychologically and socially.

The medical term for abnormal hair growth is hirsutism, but determining what is abnormal is not always simple. Even apparently hairless skin may be covered with short, soft, usually colorless hairs, called vellushairs.

Hair growth may be considered abnormal in a woman when these fine hairs are replaced by longer, coarser terminal hairs in areas associated with male hair-growth patterns—the moustache, beard and sideburn areas, as well as the chest, abdomen, back, upper thighs or upper arms.

Why Some Women Have More Hair

Heredity and hormones determine the amount and distribution of body hair. Women of Mediterranean descent tend to have more hair than Nordic or Asian women. Even within an ethnic group, women in some families may tend to have more hair than average.

How a woman's hair-growth pattern compares to that of her sisters or other women of the same ethnicity is a key factor in diagnosing hirsutism.

Several hormones are responsible for controlling hair growth. The most important is testosterone, one of a group of hormones called androgens, which are responsible for "male" characteristics such as hair patterns and deeper voices.