Why Does Women's Body Hair Gross People Out?

A recent study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly reveals that most women are disgusted by the thought of female body hair or the thought of themselves not shaving. The stigma of female body hair no doubt stems from societal pressure, but perhaps there's a scientific explanation as well.

What's the Latest?


A recent study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly confirms what so many of us already figured -- a lot of people are grossed out by female body hair.

The wrinkle in such an assumed notion is that Breanne Fahs, the scholar who conducted the study, focused her research on the opinions of other women. Her write-up, delightfully titled "Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women's Body Hair Growth," details two separate studies in which she explored womens' imagined and lived experiences with regard to body hair.

Fahs conducted two studies. In the first, she interviewed 20 women on how they felt about body hair and shaving:

Women overwhelmingly constructed body hair removal as something they, and others, chose to do, even though a few acknowledged the complexity of blending choices and requirements together.

For the second study, Fahs asked 62 female students to volunteer to go 10 weeks without shaving and write about their experience. The results were fascinating when compared to what Fahs learned after the first study:

Many women reflected on how, although they initially framed body hair as a (sometimes insignificant or casual) personal choice prior to doing the assignment, they changed their views once they grew their body hair. Four themes (sometimes overlapping) appeared in women’s discussions: (a) new perspectives on the social meanings of body hair, (b) encounters with homophobia and heterosexism, (c) anger from family members and partners about growing body hair, and (d) internalized feelings of being “disgusting” and “dirty.” 

What's the Big Idea?

Erin Mayer at Bustle wrote an article on the study a few days ago. In it, she reflected on Fahs' second study and posed what's really the million dollar question here:

Obviously, the drive for women to shave is embedded in the structure of patriarchal society, but what’s interesting is that plenty of women who reject traditional gender roles and sexist ideals — myself included — feel strongly compelled to shave everything. Why is this disgust for female hair anywhere but the head so widespread, even among many feminist circles?

Mayer turned to Lisa Miller of NY Mag, who offered an interesting science-based theory:

Evolutionarily speaking, sex is the whole game. Sex with the wrong person can kill you and your genetic line – through disease, infertility, misfortune. With the right person, it can assure that your genes are transmitted to the next generation. Armpit hair signals sex because it grows during puberty and is one of the first signs of maturity (and fertility). And it signals sex because it transmits the scents that lead to mating. It triggers disgust because it reminds humans how dangerous sex can be. And that’s why we shave it off. Because armpit hair betrays the western fantasy about sex, which is that sex is fun, pleasurable, innocent, and inconsequential, a fantasy that elides the evolutionary truth.

Fascinating.

Although I personally think anti-hair stigma grows more from the patriarchal root than anything else (not that that contradicts any of the above), this sociological theory offers a fascinating glimpse into how cultural preferences and taboos attempt to tackle scientific and evolutionary truths.

What do you think?

Read Fahs' entire study here.

Read more at Bustle & NY Mag

Photo credit: Anneka / Shutterstock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.