Rae Gross knows her hair-removal techniques. The 26-year-old has spent half her life shaving, bleaching, waxing and weighing the benefits of other hair-elimination methods.
“I tried Nair but my hair was too thick,” she says. “I looked at electrolysis but the cost was prohibitive and it would have taken a decade. And my mom suggested threading but it just seemed like I had too much of an area to cover.”
Gross, a public relations manager from Laguna Beach, Calif., finally decided to try laser hair removal. She’s invested the last two years and more than $10,000 on what she calls the “full treatment.”
“I’m getting it on my underarms, arms, hands, chest, stomach, Brazilian, legs, face, neck and back. And I can tell you, it’s painful.”
Equally painful is growing up as a hairy female in a culture where the only acceptable hair is glossy and luxurious and limited to the top of the head. While our mothers and grandmothers only had to worry about shaving their legs and their underarms, women today are lining up for hair-blasting lasers and Brazilian waxes like brides outside of Filene’s, undergoing excruciatingly painful — and pricey — procedures in order to join the ever-increasing hairless hordes.
According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, laser hair removal was the third most popular non-surgical cosmetic procedure performed in 2007. (More than 1 million zapped!) It also was the No. 1 procedure for people under the age of 18.
“Before waxing, beauty salons were mostly about hair and skin care but in the past five years, the hair-removal business has grown at least 25 percent,” he says. “And that’s not just at J Sisters, but coast to coast. Pop culture has a lot to do with it — even ‘Sex and the City’ had an episode about waxing.”
The pain of depilation
Unfortunately, the spike in popularity brought on by pop culture — and, some would argue, the porn industry — has created a world of hurt for the hirsute.
Gross, who inherited her ubiquitous dark hair from her Eastern European father, says she spends an incredible amount of time plucking, tweezing, shaving, waxing and, most of all, hiding her body-hair burden from the world.
“People don’t get it; they just think you’re super anal about your appearance or that you’re vain,” says Gross. “But I have body hair pretty much from head to toe. And no one really knows. Up until I started getting laser, I could count on one hand the number of people who knew what I had to go through just to get ready every morning. But I don’t have a choice. I work in an image-oriented industry. I have to look good.”
Lara Del Rio, a 24-year-old executive assistant from Santa Monica, Calif., says she’s practically neurotic when it comes to hair removal.
“I’m Hispanic and have darker hair and I spend a ridiculous amount of time making sure my body hair remains unseen,” she says. “I don’t care how painful it is, I’ll do it. I like the way it makes me look, plus I live in a place where people can be very critical about body image.”
Hair woes aren’t just limited to those whose genetics — or geographical location — ensure a lifelong relationship with their aesthetician.
Lillian Arleque, a 52-year-old consultant and life coach from Andover, Mass., has experienced hair growth after childbirth and menopause, and also after taking testosterone for female sexual dysfunction.
“I work with a sexual medicine physician who does ‘off-label’ prescribing of testosterone for women, and I have to use higher doses than most women to get results,” she says. “And about eight weeks into it, I started getting very long black hairs on the back of my legs and heavier hair on my inner thighs and a lot of hair growth on my face and neck. I even started growing sideburns, sort of.”
Excessive hair growth also has been attributed to polycystic ovary syndrome, which, along with causing increased hair growth on the face, chest, stomach, back, thumbs or toes, can cause female-pattern baldness.
Rarer forms of hirsutism have been linked to tumors or cancer in the adrenal gland or ovary. In addition, the extremely rare disorder hypertrichosis, a condition of excessive hairiness, can cause hair growth over the entire body or in unusual locations such as the face, ears, shoulders or elbows.
Not surprisingly, there are as many ways to remove hair as there are places to grow it.
While millions have turned to laser, waxing and electrolysis, others have opted for sugaring, a sweeter version of hair removal that uses a sugar paste instead of wax, or threading, an ancient technique in which a cotton string is rolled across unwanted hairs to pluck them out.
Still more have pinned their hair-removal hopes on topical drugs such as Vaniqa, which works by inhibiting an enzyme needed for hair growth. Vaniqa received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the reduction of unwanted facial hair in women in 2003. Other options include oral contraceptives and anti-androgens, which work by reducing the level of androgens, the hormones linked to excessive hair growth.
But no method of hair removal is perfect. Medications can have unwanted side effects, and laser can be less effective with certain skin and hair types. (Dark hair on light skin gets the best results.) And many hair removal techniques can be a pain — both literally and financially. In 2007, the average price for a one-to-two-hour laser-hair-removal session was $387, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
Even waxing, while wildly popular, can carry health risks, especially if the technician fails to use proper hygiene.
“If the wax or the wax stick is infected, you could develop a bacterial infection,” says Jennifer Wider, medical adviser for the Society for Women’s Health Research and co-editor of “The Savvy Woman Patient.” “And even if all the conditions are safe, you could still get folliculitis, which requires antibiotics, or develop an allergy from the products.”
In a society obsessed by smooth skin, though, letting nature take its dark, curly course can be equally problematic.
“I never imagined I’d be doing a cosmetic procedure on my 13-year-old daughter, but the alternative was to watch her self-esteem erode,” says Dr. Hema Sundaram, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist who recently used a laser to zap away unwanted hairs on her daughter’s upper lip.
“In the course of 30 years, our concept of what is normal has changed so much,” she says. “Now women are expected to not have a speck of hair anywhere. And it’s even becoming the ideal for men. When’s the last time you saw a hairy chest on a celebrity or an athlete or a model?”
Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."