Body hair removal in China
Summer will be here soon! These days the daytime temperatures are above 25ºC in Suzhou. How can that be? Just last week I was still wearing my long johns! But that’s the Yangtze delta area for you: we basically don’t have spring and autumn; the change from winter to summer and viceversa is pretty sudden.
With the arrival of warmer temperatures, we start wearing shorter clothes and show more skin. In many countries, tradition and customs dictate that women should not have hairs in certain body parts. The history of hair removal is very long; in ancient Egypt both men and women would get rid of unwanted hair (which, it seems, was ALL of it except the eyebrows). Several other cultures during different periods in history also practised hair removal. And then we get to the present day. In Spain, my home country, women are expected to have hairless legs and underarms. If wearing a swim suit, the only visible hairs are supposed to be in your head, brows and eyelashes. A bit of hair on your forearms is considered acceptable. Some women don’t agree with this and choose not to shave/wax, but they are still a minority and people who see them might judge them.
What’s the situation regarding hair removal in China?
When I first arrived to China it was the beginning of September. That year it was quite warm until the end of October and I was surprised to see that many Chinese women did not deal with their underarm and leg hairs. I heard other foreigners judging this as disgusting, but I secretly wished I could not give a crap about what people think and just stop waxing.
Until my mid twenties, dealing with my body hair was pretty much a torture. My legs always looked a mine field. After plucking them, many hairs would grow inside the skin and I had to use a needle to dig in and take them out. I often drew blood. During the summer months I would constantly check my legs while sitting on the sofa or on the beach, searching for those treacherous hairs. If my legs were a problem, you can imagine my bikini line. Better not to think about it too much. When I was 26 I couldn’t take it anymore and did the laser hair removal thingie. It was a lot of money, but it gave me peace of mind. It was the money best spent in my life.
But let’s get back to the situation in China. Once, when I was living in Beijing, my friend L. went to the supermarket to buy wax and couldn’t find it. When she asked the assistant, she replied: “Wax? What do you want wax for? It’s winter!”. We knew there were some fancy spa places catering to foreigners that offered waxing services, but they were not close to where we lived. I heard there was a small beauty parlour on the street behind our campus; someone went there for waxing and came back saying they used newspaper strips to pull the wax.
Until very recently, Chinese women didn’t really show off much skin. Think about the old dynasties; both men and women are always depicted wearing long robes. During the 60s, when the western world was raving about the mini skirt, Chinese women were wearing cotton suits with long pants. If removing our hair is something we do partly because other people might not like it, it makes sense to not do it when nobody is going to see it.
Nowadays, if you take a walk in any city or town in China during the summer, you are going to see a lot of ladies with very short skirts or pants, and I’d say more and more of them remove their body hairs, at least in the cities. I guess they are giving up to what they see on advertisements and tv! Regarding this topic, I found this interesting article written by Yuan Ren, a Chinese woman who studied in the UK. The title is very explicit: Why Chinese women like me aren’t ashamed of our body hair.
When I was at university in the UK in the late Noughties, one of the most liberating things about travelling back to my native China for the summer break was not having to worry about shaving. Nobody really cared, so I wasn’t embarrassed to let nature take its course.
In her article, Yuan Ren also notices that more Chinese women are shaving now, but they are mostly concentrated in the cities and it seems to be also an issue of social class.
Zhang Hong, 40, a cleaner, almost ridiculed the idea that she’d be preoccupied with body hair: “That’s for girls with money and influence; we’re in the cleaning business and barely get enough sleep to think about that.”
To be fair, many Chinese women don’t even have a lot of hairs so their removal needs should be minimal. But that’s not an obstacle for the industry. From Yuan Ren’s article:
Aditya Sehgal, the North Asia Regional Director for Reckitt Benckiser’s (RB), which owns Veet, said in an interview with Bloomberg in 2012 that “It’s not how much hair you have, it’s how much you think you have.” He was right. Veet’s sales picked up in 2012 and the brand became one of the fastest growing in China.
In Suzhou, I see more and more poster ads for cosmetic clinics that also offer hair removal services. Are Chinese women on the way to become as obsessed about body hair removal as we are in Spain? Time will tell. But I wish hair removal could be more a personal option than a societal pressure.