A History of Hair Removal

280 pages

January, 2015

ISBN: 9781479840823



Add to Cart Available: 1/22/2015

Also available in



Part of the Biopolitics series


Rebecca M. Herzig is Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Bates College. Her previous work includes Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America and, with Evelynn Hammonds, The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics.

All books by Rebecca M. Herzig

From the clamshell razors and homemade lye depilatories used in colonial America to the diode lasers and prescription pharmaceuticals available today, Americans have used a staggering array of tools to remove hair deemed unsightly, unnatural, or excessive. This is true especially for women and girls; conservative estimates indicate that 99% of American women have tried hair removal, and at least 85% regularly remove hair from their faces, armpits, legs, and bikini lines. How and when does hair become a problem—what makes some growth “excessive”? Who or what separates the necessary from the superfluous?
In Plucked, historian Rebecca Herzig addresses these questions about hair removal. She shows how, over time, dominant American beliefs about visible hair changed: where once elective hair removal was considered a “mutilation” practiced primarily by “savage” men, by the turn of the twentieth century, hair-free faces and limbs were expected for women. Visible hair growth—particularly on young, white women—came to be perceived as a sign of political extremism, sexual deviance, or mental illness. By the turn of the twenty-first century, more and more Americans were waxing, threading, shaving, or lasering themselves smooth. Herzig’s extraordinary account also reveals some of the collateral damages of the intensifying pursuit of hair-free skin. Moving beyond the experiences of particular patients or clients, Herzig describes the surprising histories of race, science, industry, and medicine behind today's hair-removing tools. Plucked is an unsettling, gripping, and original tale of the lengths to which Americans will go to remove hair.


  • "Humanity has used an impressive array of tools to remove hair.  This is, biologically speaking, pretty strange.  Most of earth's mammals possess luxuriant fur.  Only one seeks to remove it.  Rebecca Herzig's delightful history explains why: smooth skin is a cultural imperative."

    The Economist

  • "[A] fascinating new book tracing the history of hair removal since the days when it was done with such delightful devices as clamshell razors or recipes featuring frogs' blood or cat feces, is so very timely."

    The Times (UK)

  • "Herzig unites anthropology, sociology, history and psychology in this gripping study... Plucked is an important work, not least because it is so very readable.  What's more, Herzig is angry, and anger is the first step towards social change."

    Times Higher Education

  • "In Plucked [Herzig] tells the seemingly obscure story of 'hair removal below the scalp line' throughout American history.  In a very reader-friendly way we are shown the relevance of hairlessness in the terms of society, race, politics, fashion and economic development...This book is astonishing."

    Portland Press Herald

  • "Few people would link the forced beard shaving of Guantanamo Bay detainees with Gwyneth 'I work a seventies vibe' Paltrow, but historian Rebecca Herzig connects the dots in her new book, Plucked."

    The Toronto Globe and Mail

  • Plucked moves beyond current discourse, which is limited to whether shaving and waxing indicate subjugation to social norms or freedom and the practices associated with it.  This interdisciplinary study, which unites sociology, anthropology, and history, draws on books, letters, advertisements, magazines, and contemporary interviews to show that determinations of whether hair is ‘excessive’ or ‘peculiar’ are subjective and flexible, dependent on the person doing the looking, and subject to change based on political, scientific, technological, military, and economic shifts.”   

    Women's Review of Books

  • “Herzig tracks the history of the commercialization of hair removal in industrial and post-industrial America.  The book demonstrates persuasively that modern communications influenced fashions in hair removal as the U.S. moved from the era of ladies’ magazines to the broadcast age.” 

    American Historical Review

  • "Herzig draws from history, sociology, racial studies, anthropology, and dermatology, and has absorbed views of theologians and pornographers.  Much of what she has found is disturbing, and other findings are just funny, illustrating what a peculiar set of mammals we are."

    Columbus Dispatch

  • "Plucked's thorough investigation of hair removal's history makes this consuming read a wake-up call for those who haven't yet interrogated our shaving, plucking, threading, and lasering habits." 


  • "Plucked is a fascinating look into a largely untaught part of our history...meticulously researched."

    Bust Magazine

  • "Herzig's history of the growing American antipathy to body hair, and the means used to deal with it, is full of such arresting moments.  By its title, Plucked would seem to offer a volume of frothy fun (tinged with schadenfreude) about the high cost of fashion glory; it turns out to be eye-poppingly informative, thought-provoking and, almost against the author's will, frothy fun."

    Maclean's Magazine

  •  "A thoughtful and unique microhistory of hair from the eyebrows down."

    Journal of American Culture

  • “Her forthcoming book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal in America, to be published by NYU Press in January 2015, examines techniques that Americans have used to remove their own hair, and the array of social force – including beliefs about beauty and self-determination – that create expectations about hair and hair removal.”

    Sun Journal

  • "This is an interesting, serious, and meticulously researched contribution to American history, offering a variety of insights around key topics in the evolution of attitudes and practices relating to hair.”

    The Journal of American History

  • "Well researched, well written, and knowledgeable, this work covers not only the history of hair removal in America but the social issues and movements associated with body hair, from cleanliness and race to free will...the author excels at drawing out the larger implications of each dubious procedure and the pseudo-scientific theory associated with hair-removal, from the turn of the 19th century to the present."

    Library Journal

  • “Well researched, well written, and knowledgeable, this work covers not only the history of hair removal in America but the social issues and movements associated with body hair, from cleanliness and race to free will. […] [T]he author excels at drawing out the larger implications of each dubious procedure and the pseudo-scientific theory associated with hair removal, from the turn of the 19th century to the present.  Herzig carefully considers both sex and gender and never makes the assumption that white is the default.  The book asks us to question what role advertising, science, and prejudice play in what we ‘know’ to be true. VERDICT: This would be a solid read for popular history buffs and fans of Lori Tharp and Ayana Byrd’s Hair Story or Bee Wilson’s Swindled.”

    Library Journal

  • “Rebecca Herzig's thought-provoking book makes an important contribution to the history of the body, science, and culture in the United States. Herzig insightfully explores how Americans came to perceive body hair as a sign of sexual disorder and animal-like traits, as she traces the scientists and entrepreneurs who promoted hair removal, the feminists who reviled it, and the ordinary women and men who increasingly saw hairlessness as a sign of beauty and respectability. Plucked convincingly argues there is more at stake in shaving and waxing than simply removing hair; rather, these practices are bound up in our understanding of what it means to be human.”

    —Kathy Peiss, author of Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture

  • "If you ever want proof that a thoughtful, careful scholar can follow a single strand of social life and come to see race, class, gender and all the complexity of society—this is the book to read."

    —Barbara Katz Rothman, author of Genetic Maps and Human Imaginations

  • “A brilliant exploration of American preoccupations, irrationalities and inconsistencies in our perceptions of body hair. Rebecca Herzig will convince you that how we have hair on our bodies may not really matter, but how we have hair on our minds definitely does.”

    —Rachel P. Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, Vibrators, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction