As a child, when I visited my elderly grandmother in a nursing home, I dreaded kissing her goodbye because her sharp, stubby chin hairs would scratch my face. My mother regularly shaved her mother’s chin to lessen the pain and promote a softer look.
But now that I’m Grandma’s age, I, too, regularly cope with stubborn chin hairs, so I pluck them nightly after I brush my teeth. I thought I had an abnormally high incidence of them until the subject arose at lunch one day when my girlfriends complained as well. One wanted desperately to keep her eyesight so she could nightly tweeze them as well. Another made her husband promise to remove them if he noticed any stray hairs. It was comforting to discover the chin hair problem is not mine alone.
By the Hair of Your Chinny Chin Chin
What is surprising is that the average woman spends anywhere from $10,000 to $23,000 in hair removal over a lifetime, and the multi-billion-dollar hair removal industry is booming. I’m relatively lucky as some women whose genes, ethnicities or conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome predispose them to increased hair growth. At-home shaving didn’t become popular until 1910 when Gillette introduced the first women’s razor. Then advertisements characterized body hair as unseemly. Over the following year, hair removal went from a status marker to a standard that all could aspire to.
Granted that shifting hormones, aging and genetics are the reason for most chin hairs, but excess and coarse facial hair could be a sign that medical treatment might be needed. Fine, light-colored hair like “peach fuzz,” called vellus hair, is normal and is part of our overall body hair that helps regulate our body temperature. During puberty, increased production of the hormone androgen causes the follicles to become bigger and begins making terminal (coarse and wiry) hair longer, coarser, darker and denser.
All bodies produce androgen but of course, males have higher levels and thus more terminal hairs. But because of aging, weight gain, pregnancy and menopause, our hormone levels shift, and the increase in androgen results in more terminal hairs, but in most cases, the accelerated growth is harmless and normal. The options to rid ourselves of chin hair are tweezing, shaving, waxing, threading, electrolysis or laser hair removal. Most of us pluck or tweeze. Shaving is fast and easy, but one has to do it more often and the regrowth appears coarse. The hairs are not growing in thicker, but appear that way because the tips of the hairs are blunt rather than tapered after shaving.
Excessive facial or chin hair or a sudden increase in growth could be a sign of hypertrichosis or hirsutism and is caused by several medical conditions. According to the Cleveland Clinic, hirsutism is common and affects 5 to 10% of women of childbearing age and results in dark, coarse hair growth on the chin, upper lip, chest, back and abdomen. A dermatologist can look at chin hair and determine what other conditions might be at play. But overall, chin hair is usually a cosmetic concern more than a medical one.
Plucking is quick and inexpensive, but depends on one’s skin’s sensitivity. Plucking, waxing and threading are best because pulling hairs from their roots traumatizes the follicle and slows, if not eliminates, regrowth. Sugaring is a process by which the hair is dawn out from the root using a gel made from sugar and water. One of the main benefits of sugaring is that it removes hair in the direction of growth, meaning fewer broken hairs, and since it is extracted from the root, regrowth is slower. I have not tried sugaring, but have undergone electrolysis and it works for a time, but it can be expensive.
In her book, “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal,” author Rebecca M. Herzig traces the clamshell razors, recipes featuring frogs’ blood or cat feces, and homemade lye depilatories that were used in colonial America to the diode lasers, X-ray removal, dangerous depilatory creams and prescription drugs available today. Ninety-nine percent of American women have tried hair removal and at least 85% remove hair from their faces, armpits, legs and bikini lines.
In her book, Herzig shows how our views of hair removal have changed. Throughout history, amounts of hair or hair growth patterns have been linked to insanity, gender confusion and crime. By the turn of the 20th century, hair-free faces and limbs were expected for women. By the turn of the 21st century, more and more women were waxing, threading, shaving or lasering—anything to be hair-free. A Depression-era advertisement read, “Freedom from Unwanted Hair Opens the Gates to Social Enjoyments That Are Forever Closed to Those So Afflicted.” And isn’t it shocking about the attention now paid to certain “areas” of hair removal? A YouTube video recently showed a male celebrity shaving his girlfriend’s genital area at her direction.
In her book, Herzig goes beyond the experiences of particular patients or clients and describes the surprising histories of race, science, industry and medicine behind today’s hair removing tools. Hair removal from the neck down got a boost from the lack of nylons in World War II, and men’s magazines made it more popular for women to shave their legs all the way to the waist. The book also shows us the lengths to which Americans will go to remove hair, and the amount of money spent is staggering.
Whether you believe your hair is peculiar or excessive is totally subjective and subject to change based on preference, style or economic shifts. That to me was the most comforting part of the book. That and the fact that the book is so readable. Most of the earth’s mammals have luxuriant fur, but we’re the only mammal that wants to remove it because smooth skin is a cultural necessity.
This book is so well researched and well written that race, class and gender are all explored in our relationship to hair removal, especially now when hairlessness is a sign of beauty and respectability. Herzig, a professor and author at Bates College, convinced me that laser treatment is often painful and sometimes unsafe although the practice is quite lucrative because it is a cash-only business not covered by insurance or health organizations. Waxing is common but also can be painful. And even men now are attending to body hair other than just facial hairs.
When Herzig took to this whole topic of hair removal, many scholars were repulsed and suggested that “the subject was too repellent to merit scholarly attention.” But considering how many of us women cope with hair removal, I’m grateful for this funny, entertaining, informative and constructive tome that addresses such an important topic. Meanwhile, I’ll keep my nightly regimen of plucking.