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Photography Ashley Armitage for Billie

In 2019, are people still shaving their bodies?

TextBrooke McCord

We examine the effects of the gender revolution on the shaving industry

Hair removal has a long and rich cultural history. There’s evidence to suggest that women removed their hair back in ancient Egyptian times (via tweezer-like devices made from sea shells). By the 16th century, it was less about the removal of body hair, more about the removal of hair from the face. Aside from perfectly plucked eyebrows, somewhat surprisingly, women removed hairs from their hairline – to make their foreheads appear larger – as demonstrated by Queen Elizabeth I. It was in 1760 that the first men’s razor was created by a French barber named Jean Jacques Perret, while the 1800s ushered in depilatory creams, the first of which was called Poudre Subtile, created in 1844 by Dr. Gouraud. It was in the same decade that French depilatory brand X-Bazin released an advert that told women it was “no longer immodest or embarrassing to wear evening gowns without sleeves or made of sheer fabrics” thanks to their cream that removed “superfluous hair”.  

The men’s razor as we know it today came into fruition in 1880, thanks to King Camp Gillette, but it wasn’t until 1915 that he created a version specifically for women, the Milady Decolletée which soared to popularity. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s hair removal was the norm, and in the four decades that have followed, new technologies – from depilatory devices and electrolysis centres, to waxing salons and brow threading bars – have heralded hair removal one of the most popular beauty services. But what does the future of shaving look like?

The shaving industry as we once knew it has reached a juncture, and we’re experiencing a gradual change against gender-based societal norms. Recent figures from a research study by Mintel reported that the percentage of young women aged between 18-24 shaving their underarm hair fell from 95% in 2013 to 77% in 2016. Leg-shaving is experiencing a decline too, having fallen from 92% in 2012, to 85% in 2016. Which might indicate why there’s been an overall decline in the sales of shaving and hair removal products: 4% in 2018 meaning the industry is worth £558 million, from £579 million in 2017. That said, the same report found that hair removal is becoming increasingly popular among men aged 16-24, with 42% of males in that demographic now removing the hair from their underarms (up from just 16% in 2016) and 46% removing the hair from their bodies (up from 36% in 2016). While sportsmen like Cristiano Ronaldo and Tom Daley have been sporting smooth bodies for some time, the stars of ITV’s Love Island reality television show – for example, Wes Nelson and Jack Fincham – have been attributed to such acceleration. In fact, according to Euromonitor, the whole of the male grooming market is booming. Currently valued at $47 billion, it’s projected to exceed $60 billion by 2020 – a significant growth from its current level.

As the figures suggest, the ways in which consumers are engaging with shaving and hair removal have shifted and, as a result of this, a cohort of future-facing grooming brands are taking a more nuanced and inclusive approach to body hair. Take male grooming brand Dollar Shave Club, for example, who explored the real and honest ways in which men go about shaving in its Get Ready advert in July 2018. According to Dollar Shave Club’s global executive creative director Alec Brownstein, the advert was inspired by research undertaken by the brand to discover what their customers really do in the bathroom. The ad itself celebrates men and women as they go about their individual, ‘embarrassing’ grooming habits, whether that’s shaving their pubic hair, waxing their chest with duct-tape, freshening up their genitalia, or taking a candlelit bath, all to the sound of Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me”. The three-minute video is a departure from the humour-driven macho ads associated with the brand in the past, instead providing an honest portrayal of both personal vulnerability and real human behaviour within this space.

There’s been a shift in the female landscape, too. Billie – a female-first mail order shaving subscription service – has accepted that the beauty standard of hair removal that’s been placed upon women has become a lower priority than ever before. They, therefore, offer customers three packages to choose from, depending on if they shave every day, a few times a week, or once a week. In other words, Billie put women first, letting the product take a back seat until they might need it. While the brand believes that “women shouldn't be an afterthought in the shaving category”, Billie has no intention of fantasising the idea that women are hairless from the neck down. Project Body Hair is a testament to this, the groundbreaking hair-positive campaign shot by Ashley Armitage which set out to combat the lack of representation of female body hair within the industry and the real ways in which women decide to groom it. It marked the first time that a female razor company showed actual body hair in an advert for over 100 years (a real head-scratcher when you consider that these adverts are selling products to remove body hair, right?). Billie extended its quest for representation further with a dedicated site that invited the community to submit images of beautiful body hair using the #projectbodyhair hashtag on Instagram, something that celebrities like Hasley, Scout Willis and Lourdes Leon have personally advocated on social media.

Younger brands aside, Gillette launched an unexpected campaign in 2018 that showcased the evolution of modern manhood – a stark contrast to the narrow view of masculinity the brand’s previously been associated with. Gillette’s “We Believe: the Best Men Can Be” campaign (riffing on the their 30-year tagline “The best a man can get”) tackled issues such as bullying, sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement in a video that set out to challenge its viewers, while exploring what Gillette referred to as a ‘new era of masculinity’. Having racked up 4m views on YouTube in 48 hours the short film has received both huge amounts of praise and angry criticism, with people claiming that the advert was refreshing and progressive or emasculating, and everything in between. Gillette has also committed to donate £776,500 a year to non-profits with programs in place to inspire, educate and promote positive change among men of all ages.

So what do Billie and Dollar Shave Club have in common, why did they both decide to go against the grain, and what learnings can we take from them when we look to the future of hair removal? Firstly, both are striving to normalise the diversity of relationships people have with their body hair. While Billie realised that showing only smooth hairless female bodies plays into the archaic way in which women have long been presented in the media (in turn prohibiting the normalisation of body hair), Dollar Shave Club embraced the insight that many men feel embarrassed about hair removal, by setting out to celebrate the weird and wonderful intricacies of exactly that. Secondly, whether we decide to embrace our hairy selves, or to shave ourselves smooth – both brands believe that shaving is a choice. It’s something that’s entirely optional based on personal preference, therefore the decision to do so, or not to do so, is at the liberty of the individual in question, and this is something that other brands need to realise in order to adopt a more inclusive genderless language that celebrates the diversity of attitudes that people have towards body hair.

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