When I was going through puberty I was so embarrassed by my hairy arms that I shaved one of them as an experiment, only one mind, to see if it would improve my appearance and self-esteem.
Hair: our bodies are pretty much covered in it unless you suffer from alopecia (in the UK there are around 1 in a 100 people including 8 million women, who do) and despite the popularity of hair removal since the ancient Egyptians, it is only since 1915 when women’s fashion decided bare arms were OK and Harper’s Bazaar started to shame women into shaving their newly exposed armpits, that the whole hairy body image thing became the focus of manufacturers and the media.
Who can forget that famous photo of Julia Roberts in that stunning bright red sleeveless dress? Her hairy armpits immediately becoming the focus of everyone’s attention rather than the premiere night of that classic 1999 film ‘Notting Hill’.
There have been many others since including Madonna and Lily Allen, all making a stand for women’s rights to have their hair naturelle.
CHESTS & PUBES
So just what is it about body hair that we find so absorbing and what makes the hair on our arms different from our pubic hair or for that matter, why do men have hairy chests and women don’t?
Disregarding our much hairier ancestors and our evolution to a more refined body covering, our first exposure to body hair is whilst we are developing in the womb. Lanugo hair is very fine soft downy hair that usually disappears at around 33 weeks although babies can be born with a covering that generally disappears within a few days of birth.
Lanugo hair is important because it helps anchor the vermix caseosa (a thin coating that protects the delicate skin of the foetus). People with serious eating disorders e.g. anorexia may also have it as the body finds other ways to retain heat and protect itself in the absence of body fat.
Of course each of us is different, some will be hairy from an early age and others less so but during our childhood our bodies grow vellus hair (Latin for wool or fleece). It’s also called peach fuzz because of its texture and appearance.
This fine short light coloured hair covers most of our body with a few exceptions including our lips, soles of our feet and the palms of our hands; it is very important for regulating our body temperature as sweat coats each hair then evaporates to keep us cool.
But it is when we reach puberty that some of our vellus hair takes on a new identity.
Androgens (that create testosterone in boys and oestrogen in girls) change vellus into terminal hair but only in certain places including the armpit and pubic areas and these hormones also make the body generate subcutaneous glands that lubricate the hair with oil. This is why greasy hair and acne are often linked to teenage years and puberty.
Males will find their body hair grows at a faster rate and on more parts of their body than females who usually have less terminal and more vellus hair.
One possible explanation for this is that historically male humans faced tougher environments e.g. hunting and fighting and so needed the extra protection.
Unlike vellus, terminal hair is not only pigmented but is thicker and longer and regularly replaced by regrowth of new follicles; the lifespan of terminal hair is 3-6 months which is why you will never have armpit hair that is as long as the hair on your head.
SHAVE OR NOT
So having acknowledged our hairiness and thanks to the media and manufacturers, we look for the best way to remove our bushy growth and the choices are many; from waxing to shaving (ladies, never ever shave facial hair!) and electrolysis to creams, there is a wide choice which brings me to a hairy myth … if you shave hair, does it grow back thicker and darker?
Emphatically no! Before it is shaved hair has a smooth less visible end, shaving it makes the end of the hair blunt, so what you can see when it grows back is the more visible blunt end; the hair itself has not altered at all.
So whilst I will not be repeating the actions of my crazy 12 year old self, I may just bare all this summer although won’t be raising my arms too often!