Historians point to ancient Egypt as the genesis of hair removal, where a hairless body was the mark of a civilized existence. Men and women used beeswax, pumice stones and tweezers made of seashells in their follicle wars. Similar practices evolved in ancient Greece and Rome, where hairlessness was a sign of wealth. By the Middle Ages, women were following the lead of Queen Elizabeth I and using bandages soaked in vinegar and ammonia to remove facial hair. The ammonia was harvested from the urine of their pet cats [source: Barringer].
It wasn't until the early 20th century, decades after the invention of the straight razor, that the forerunner of today's armpit shavers began to take shape. In 1915, Gillette debuted the Milady Decolleté, the first razor marketed specifically for women's removal of unwanted hair. The armpit hair-removal practice, fueled by increasingly sheer materials and rising hemlines, was propagated by Gillette's widespread advertising campaigns and by the era's popular publications, including Ladies' Home Journal and Harper's Bazaar.
A dalliance into armpit hair as a sign of feminism in the 1970s didn't prevent later generations from shaving their armpits with gusto. Today, armpit hair is shaved, threaded, tweezed, sugared, waxed and lasered into obscurity [source: Harrison].
Although women have a long history with armpit hair removal, it's a relatively new phenomenon among men. Once relegated to the realm of competitive body builders and professional swimmers, the removal of male underarm hair is becoming more common.
While shaving may not make men sweat less, it may improve their social lives. At least one study discovered that women preferred smelling men's shaved armpits instead of their hairy counterparts. The odor of the shaved armpits was perceived as more attractive and less intense than unshaved -- even if the hair growth was only six to 10 weeks old. The newer the hair growth, the less significant were the differences between shaven and unshaven armpits [source: Kohoutova].
Author's Note: Does shaving your armpits reduce sweating?
Armpit hair. It's not something that usually comes up in casual conversation, but it's important to your social life, nonetheless. When I began researching this topic, I was curious about whether shaving would reduce sweating. There are a few anecdotal accounts that it does, particularly in bodybuilding forums. Turns out, shaving armpits doesn't affect the amount of sweat being produced, but it can (at least temporarily) reduce odor.
- Barringer, Taylor. "Hair Removal Through the Ages." MSN. (May 5, 2014) http://glo.msn.com/beauty/the-fascinating-history-of-hair-removal-9249.gallery
- Harrison, Lauren. "Shaving and Fashion: A Storied History." Chicago Tribune. Sept. 14, 2010. (May 5, 2014) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-09-14/features/sc-fash-0913-shaving-20100913_1_shaving-strip-hair-body
- Kimball, Molly. "Body Odor Can Be Affected by Diet as Well as Sweat." NOLA. Oct. 21, 2011. (May 5, 2014) http://www.nola.com/health/index.ssf/2011/10/controlling_bacteria_on_the_sk.html
- Kohoutova, Dagmar, et. al. "Shaving of Axillary Hair Has Only a Transient Effect on Perceived Body Odor Pleasantness." Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. April 2012. (May 5, 2014) http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00265-011-1305-0
- Mayo Clinic. "Sweating and Body Odor." (May 5, 2014) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sweating-and-body-odor/basics/causes/con-20014438
- SheFinds. "You're Doing It Wrong: Shaving Your Armpits." Sept. 1, 2013. (May 5, 2014) http://www.shefinds.com/2013/youre-doing-it-wrong-shaving-your-pits/expose-to-water/#slide0
- Willacy, Hayley. "Embarrassing Problems." Patient. (May 5, 2014) http://www.patient.co.uk/health/embarrassing-problems