Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin always figured razor companies convinced women to start shaving. But when they looked into it, they discovered the question of why women shave is much more complicated than they thought. The answer involves painted on nylons, some deadly rat poison, and a war that changed everything.
Produced by Dan Bobkoff, Amy Pedulla, and Sarah Wyman, and the team at Unladylike.
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DAN BOBKOFF: Hey! This episode is a little bit different from what we typically do on Household Name. It’s a collaboration with another Stitcher podcast called Unladylike, which you should go check out.
For years, the slogan for Gillette razors has been “The best a man can get.”
GILLETTE AD: You’re looking sharp. You’re looking good. You’ve come so far…
DB: There’s this one ad from 1989 that shows clean-shaven men playing baseball, killing it on Wall Street, getting the girl and showing their sons how to shave.
GILLETTE AD: Father to son, it’s what we’ve always done. Gillette! The best a man can get.
DB: But last January… Gillette ran a very different ad… This one showed two kinds of men: men who harassed, bullied, and mansplained their way around the world… and men who took a stand against all that.
GILLETTE AD: …making the same old excuses. Boys will be boys! Boys will be boys. Boys will be boys…
DB: Shaving has always been about gender and gender roles… beauty standards, masculinity – and femininity.
And you know who has a lot to say about that? Caroline Ervin…
CAROLINE ERVIN: We are probably a little bit over-excited to talk about armpits with you today.
DB: And… Cristen Conger:
CRISTEN CONGER: We have so many so many razor facts to share. (laughs) #razorfacts.
DB: They’re the hosts of the Unladylike podcast, which as they say on their show, is about what happens when women break the rules. And they’ve been thinking about Gillette since they were teenagers.
CC: So Caroline, you mentioned that your mom bought you a pack of Gillette Daisy razors.
CE: Oh yeah, milestone. Big milestone.
CC: Listen as a 12 year old me would have been super jealous because I think we just had some kind of like Cheapo generic razors, but I was very brand aware of that even at 12 like I knew that we were using the off-brand razors. I still remember those first Venus commercials that were like all these women coming out singing like ‘I’m your Venus. I’m your fire, your desire!!’
CE: So many legs!
CC: Which had nothing to do I thought with shaving, so this was both a brand and a beauty routine that we grew up with and I feel like was really ingrained almost in our daily lives.
DB: Caroline and Cristen always just assumed that razor companies like Gillette marketed the expectation that women should be hairless. Like – thanks to them, women have to shave.
CE: You know, none of us are strangers to the conversation around beauty standards and cultural expectations and I got to say as a feminist researcher who, I will say uses exclusively Gillette products kind of accidentally, I assume that the pressure had arisen out of like Gillette’s advertising campaigns over the years.
DB: But it turns out that a lot of assumptions we had about Gillette were wrong.
From Business Insider and Stitcher, this is Household Name. Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Dan Bobkoff.
Today: Gillette and the story of why we shave.
Shaving for men is very simple. Shaving is manly, not shaving is also manly. Shaving for women… now that’s complicated. Is it oppressive? Is it liberating? Is it both?
And what does Gillette have to do with all that?
Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin are here to investigate.
Stay with us.
DB: So, our first question: why do women shave?
Before looking into it, Cristen, Caroline and I had kind of assumed it was because razor companies just duped them into doing it. Like, we figured Gillette invented the norm of women’s hair removal just to sell razors.
CE: But it turns out that’s not only wrong it’s so very wrong because body hair removal is an ancient cross-cultural practice. And women in particular have been body hair shamed for eons. So if we rewind to ancient Roman poet Ovid, he was body shaming women 2,000 years ago telling us “that no rude goat should find his way beneath your arms and that your legs be not rough with bristling hair.”
CE: I mean Ovid, come on,
CC: come on.
CE: Chill out! It’s just leg hair.
DB: God those old poets!
CE: (laughs) I know! So judgy. What a bitch.
DB: Fast forward a couple thousand years, and the shaming went beyond poets… doctors and dermatologists actually pathologized body hair.
CC: So so in the 1870s the American Dermatological Society invented this condition, they called hypertrichosis or excess body hair and really described it as this sort of lady affliction, a disagreeable abnormality, they called it, of masculine hair growth.
DB: What do you think was the meeting where this Dermatological Society was like, alright time for a new affliction.
CE: And honestly like that… It’s like funny but that’s kind of also how we assumed that stuff was going down. Whether it was with the Dermatological Society or with companies and advertisers, we just assume that a lot of these things are invented to make money and it’s not that that’s not true. It’s just that what we’re trying to get at is that so much of this body hair shame and body hair anxiety frankly predates Gillette!
DB: You mentioned that this goes back to in some sense ancient times, but what were the beauty standards before this period like, you know, was it okay to be hairy then all of a sudden it wasn’t?
CC: Well it was okay to be hairy technically because women’s bodies were pretty much covered up from neck to ankle. I mean before the 1900s, even the word underarm was taboo because it was a part of a woman’s body that only her husband might see so it was no big deal if you had pit hair if no one could see it.
CE: And also keep in mind a lot of these cultural pressures too centered on white women and so a lot of women of color with darker body hair were not part of this conversation to begin with.
CC: So Gillette was not innovating woman’s body hair shame because before that if you flipped open a Harper’s Bazaar or another woman’s magazine of the time they were already talking about so-called objectionable hair because for the first time, women’s taboo under arms were being revealed because fashions were changing and for the first time more of our body hair was on public display and we were told from that moment in those fashion magazines that if you were to be a woman of fashion, your embarrassing hair had to go.
DB: Before they used razors, many women used creams and powders that removed body hair with chemicals. The fancy word for this is depilatory products.
CE: One of the first I would say which is a French one called Poudre Subtile. I’m butchering that sorry French people! And they targeted both men and women honestly, so their early start was targeting men’s beards. Like ‘don’t look too hairy on your face men!!’ But when they turned their attention to women particularly in the 1880s, they really pushed this idea of beautiful skin, pure skin, smooth skin, they lamented the fact that women’s body hair was covering up the smoothness of youth and purity of color, which is like a really heavy loud dog whistle to racist and classist assumptions at the time.
DB: Okay. So where did Gillette and the Gillette razor come from?
CE: So in 1901 this dude named King Camp Gillette, I kid you not that was his real name, founds the American safety razor company.
DB: King Camp Gillette?
CE: Yeah, like it was yeah.
DB: Is that a place?
CE: (laughs) I would go to that camp I guess. It’s very on brand.
CC: He basically invented that t-shaped bar that, where you insert the blade and can hold it in a more convenient kind of way. And it wasn’t innovation, but this guy had been a traveling hardware salesman and he was sort of a tinkerer and figured out how to make this t-handle and he makes his first sale in 1903 and he patents this safety razor design and renames his company the Gillette Safety Razor Company and it becomes one of the first globally known brands. I mean King was aptly named. I mean he was he was kind of killing it at first.
DB: Just side note: if your name, if you have King in your name, why would you call the company Gillette? But anyway.
CC: Missed opportunity.
DB: King Camp Gillette had an idea to sell his razors… he started bringing them around to local barbershops. He was just thinking about selling them to… men.
CE: Exclusively exclusively, like shaving was totally a dude thing. Early Gillette ads in fact, were all about how shaving was some sort of civilizing force for men like one ad said, “Own a Gillette be a master of your time. Shave in three minutes.”
CC: And it really was efficient because prior to that your really your only option was to go to a barbershop to get a close shave and so King Camp Gillette walks into these barbershops and he’s like, ‘hey, you know what? I have these blades you can send them home with your customers as samples.’ And the barbershops get on board basically giving away the durable handles and blades. So the guys were like, ‘oh this is so efficient. I am the master of my own domain.’
DB: So sit ounds like there was no grand plan to market this to women and change their behavior.
CC: Exactly because King didn’t even have to think about women because women’s magazines and these depilatory cream companies were already teaching women that their body hair was embarrassing and objectionable.
DB: But in 1915, a little over a decade after King Camp Gillette started selling razors to men, the company changed course. It introduced its very first razor specifically for women… although the company was careful not to call it a razor. Because, you know, razors are for men.
CC: They called it the Milady Decollete.
DB: The what?
CC: (laughs) Right!? The Milady Decollete. And it was described as the safest and most sanitary method of acquiring a smooth underarm. So they didn’t even use the word shaving because again, like the idea of shaving was something that men would do but with all of that depilatory cream conditioning about smoothing away your objectionable hair, women were told by Gillette ‘oh, here’s another tool for smoothing.’
DB: What did this razor look like?
CC: I would say the most distinguishing feature of the Milady Decollete is not only of course its very feminine packaging but its size. These razors were very small, which I’m not really sure like what the strategy was beyond just the fact that ladies equal dainty and, and petite but there were similar competitors that started to come out at the same time such as my favorite, the razor of the Hollywood stars, the Daisy, which was shaped like a lipstick and there was also one a pink Razor called a Cutie that was basically the size of your pinky finger. So I mean the thing is they probably also…
DB: All of this is really on the nose, isn’t it?
CE: I know. Well, I mean what…
DB: Maybe we’ll make it look like lipstick!
CE: Well, what you may not realize is that women have very, very tiny armpits. So you can’t make those razors too big, Dan!
DB: Alright, so he, he names this product of the company names this product the Milady. What do you think the reaction is among women when they see a product in the market called the Milady?
CC: Women were somewhat skeptical it seems like because the Milady Decollette was not a blockbuster. They were still really attached to their beauty routines with depilatory creams and powders. Not these razors that men were using.
DB: So just offering a razor to women in the nineteen teens didn’t change behavior overnight.
It turns out, selling razors to women was going to be harder than just slapping some new packaging on the product.
CC: Basically because ‘ol King Camp Gillette had done such a bang-up job of marketing shaving as this manly thing.
DB: So it sounds like they were very clearly marketing this to a very specific segment of the population.
CE: Oh, absolutely. This was like totally a masculine thing. But meanwhile, I mean, they’re still advertising that Milady Decollete to women, right? So women now…
DB: Which is not a razor of course.
CC: Oh no no!
DB: It’s a Decollete.
CE: Right. It’s whatever that is-
CB: It’s like a smoother!
CE: Yeah, so women are trapped between this expectation to be hairless and these all these new ads about the Milady but also trapped on the other side by this idea that razors and shaving are a dude thing. They are a masculine, totally unladylike, totally unfeminine thing to do. And so you get this magazine article at the time the did a deep dive into this topic. Thank goodness. Right? So they said “the practice of razor napping has long been a source of mild marital and family discord and the greater availability of women’s razors may even be a boon to family harmony.”
DB: Razor napping? Is that like stealing a razor?
CE: Yeah, exactly. So basically what this is telling us is that women are getting the memo of like, ‘okay. I need to be hairless. Maybe shaving is the best way to go. Maybe I should give up these depilatory creams, but I’m too embarrassed to pick up my own razor!’
DB: So how did Gillette get women to give up those creams and pick up razors? That’s next.
DB: We’re back.
So we started this with Caroline and Cristen of the Unladylike podcast wondering if Gillette and its razors are the reason most women shave these days. But so far in our story… not so much.
By the mid-twentieth century, women were on board with hair removal, but the vast majority of them were still relying on those deadly depilatory powders and creams to get the job done.
But there was a big problem with those products…
CC: So Dan, I think to a lot of women razors feel like a burden on our beauty routines. Like these things that we have to use and they cut us sometimes and they cause razor burn and it’s just this whole annoying thing but it turns out like as we were searching around for like ‘who is responsible for imposing this burden on us?!’ My perspective on razors completely changed and in fact, yes, I am saying this as a feminist, razors were kind of liberating for women in a way.
DB: Really? How so?
CE: Absolutely I agree with Cristen because the beauty routines that women have had in the past have been kind of a literal pain…. Some of those depilatory creams that we talked about earlier, you know that women were so loyal to, they just didn’t want to give those up to start doing something as masculine as shaving, they could literally kill you!
DB: Oh my god, what was in them?
CE: So this one particular popular depilatory cream called Karimloo had this stuff in it called thallium acetate. Some of you might also recognize that as a now banned rat poison. Yes, that’s right. It’s so dangerous we can’t even use it in this country anymore to kill rats! And the thing is though, this stuff was so dangerous that like, you might just put it on your lady stache, you know, get rid of a little bit of facial hair, but it was so dangerous and so potent, women were experiencing hair loss randomly on other parts of their body, all the rest of your hair might fall out. You might go blind and then you know next step is you also might die. So that’s a downer…. you got to you got to think that razors aren’t that big of a deal compared to a lethal depilatory cream!
DB: So they were far worse than Nair!
CC: Oh, yes!
CE: The smell of Nair just pales in comparison to dying from Karimloo.
DB: So obviously these creams are not healthy and are causing a lot of harm. So when does shaving take off?
CC: Well shaving really took off in World War II after nylon materials and silk were diverted to the wartime effort to make things like parachutes. And so, suddenly for the first time, American women are faced with the Panic of having to go into public with bare legs.
CC: As soon as nylons and Silk Stockings disappeared, suddenly liquid stockings showed up on cosmetic counters and women were literally painting on the appearance of stockings to make their legs presentable to the world. You could even go to a department store and find a makeup counter that just specialized in painting your legs including you know, the Hallmark seam of a stocking that would run up the back of your leg. And this was as absurd as it sounded because as you might imagine in the 1940s, leg paint was not exactly the easiest to apply especially if you had leg hair. Women started having to shave their legs in order to smooth them down so they could paint on their stockings. But by 1945, Consumer Reports notes that the liquid stocking market had kind of plateaued because women were gradually realizing that they could get pretty much the same effect by simply shaving their legs and getting a tan.
DB: Wait, wait I’m curious. Did Consumer Reports rate leg makeup?
CC: (laughs) I think it was just like the Emoji of like a hand on a face like I don’t understand.
DB: By the time the war ended in 1945, women were in the habit of shaving. They were buying Gillette razors. And they were teaching their daughters how to use them too.
CC: And in fact by 1964, surveys find that 98% of American women between 15 and 44 were regularly shaving their legs. And funnily enough –
DB: how much? 98%??
CC: 98%. And that percentage has really barely budged since then. One of the one of the latest stats I saw was 95%.
DB: In just a few decades, women had fully come around to the idea of shaving. Not only had it become a requisite part of beauty routines — it was perceived as really stereotypically feminine.
DB: So was King Camp Gillette the mastermind behind this? Were Gillette and other razor companies the ones who talked women into picking up razors?
CC: No because Gillette was still very much exclusively focused on masculinity and the men’s razor market.
DB: Gillette had developed new razors for women since the Milady. But while women were taking up shaving in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, Gillette’s advertising was still mostly preoccupied with men:
GILLETTE AD: No doubt about it! The only way to get a real man shave is with Gillette!
GILLETTE AD: Hey, Jim! You tried the new Gillette stainless blade? You’d better. You’ll get the best shave of your life.
GILLETTE AD: Yes, a boy has self-respect when he’s clean shaved. I tell him to use a Gillette razor, Al.
DB: It wasn’t until the ’90s that Gillette started seriously gearing their branding towards women… and taking advantage of the feminist movement to sell razors.
CE: Like so they’re turning their attention back to women with this empower-tising, in the same era of girl power, of commodifying feminism. Not to mention, this is a period of backlash against all of those radical feminists in the ’70s who did not want to shave.
CC: Right. So Gillette when it finally comes out and starts targeting women, in some ways that echoes what they were telling men in the 1930s and during the Depression, which was basically like ‘if you don’t shave you’re not going to get a job and be successful.’
DB: No pressure, right?
CC: So in the ’90s you have girl power, yes, but you also have more women entering the workforce. And so their ad campaign starts targeting those women in their suits and bare legs. Asking. Are you ready? Are you prepared? Essentially suggesting that if you don’t shave, you’re not gonna get that job.
GILLETTE AD: Are you ready?
Start with Gillette for women, and be ready for anything.
Yes I aaaaam!
Ready to begin?
DB: What did you think when you saw those Venus ads as I guess you are what maybe like late teens or early twenties?
CC: For me it created more of a Prestige brand in terms of shaving. Like honestly, like if I went to Sleepaway Camp or spent the night at friends houses, like I noticed the kinds of razors that other girls had, and here was this special new razor called the Venus for women and the commercials were kind of absurd but I mean, I still remember them.
VENUS AD: [Venus jingle]
Introducing Venus from Gillette, the first razor designed to make you feel like a goddess.
VENUS AD: “I’m your Venus”
Only from Venus embrace.
VENUS AD: Venus. Reveal the goddess in you…
CC: I started shaving the summer going into sixth grade. And so my mother bought me a pack of pink Gillette Daisy razors and hands me one. She’s supervising me as I’m sitting on the edge of the bathtub. And filled the water up about to my ankles, smoothed down the Gillette shaving cream all over my legs and set to work basically shaving stripes just like to the middle of my knee and getting into bed that night and being like ‘this feels weird!’ It was an alien strange feeling to have such smooth legs.
CE: Yeah, it felt like one of the three Hallmarks of growing up as a girl which was getting your first bra, getting your ears pierced, and being allowed to shave your legs.
DB: Coming up, is Gillette trying to sell to women by talking about toxic masculinity? That’s in a minute.
DB: We’re back.
Cristen and Caroline both remember Gillette from their teenage years. They remember watching ads for the Venus razor and thinking of it as a sort of golden standard of womanhood.
And that’s part of the reason why, when they started thinking about where the gender norms surrounding shaving come from, they thought of Gillette. But, there was another reason:
CBS: You know Gillette makes the razors? So they put out a commercial called boys will be boys.
GILLETTE AD: Is this the best a man can get?
We can’t hide from it.
It’s been going on far too long.
CC: Gillette had its sort of Me Too moment with this ad and essentially it presented this idea that you know, the best a man can be is better than so-called toxic masculinity. That men need to be accountable for each other and treat women better, XYZ.
DB: This ad got a lot of attention, not all of it positive. There was a lot of debate about it.
CBS: There are some people who will say: ‘look, I don’t want politics with my razors’ and what they feel like is they’re being told is this is what men are.
GMB: No Harriet! Because actually the premise of the Gillette ad is that all men are predators, until proven otherwise…
CBS: But others are saying this is needed. This is a company that markets an item that men will use the rest of their lives, and you get them early…
GMB: What Peter just said…
It is not the premise of the…
Look how angry you were!
COLBERT: Are our public institutions so weak that we need to be taught moral lessons by razor companies?
DB: The ad’s been viewed over 29 million times on YouTube. And as critics have been quick to observe, it has about twice as many dislikes as likes. But Cristen and Caroline have a theory about this ad.
CC: What the men thought about the ad kind of didn’t matter because you want to know who loved this ad?
DB: Not men?
CC: Women! (laughs) Women!
DB: So wait. So wait do you think this is actually like a stealth ad to sell more women’s razors?
CE: Maybe. I think what it is more is an effort to garner yet more goodwill among women who are controlling the finances in the household. And the fact that women really liked this ad that wasn’t about razors at all is really important because on social media at least when women talk about razors it’s very negative. We don’t like shaving, we’re complaining, we just cut ourselves, etc. However women’s response to this ad was overwhelmingly positive and far more positive than men’s responses on social media. And by presenting this new masculinity through this Best A Man Can Be campaign, I feel like in a way Gillette was slyly offering women the best a woman can get.
It’s absolutely in line with their previous advertising strategies. So back in 2008 when Gillette had launched the Venus Embrace, The Advertiser on the account was quoted as saying basically like ‘hey when we pitch razors two men, we emphasize technological innovations,’ right like adding that 50th blade to the razor head. But when they focus on women when they’re pitching women quote, ‘we focus more on the emotional and benefits.’ Men want to know what I’m paying for, women want to have more of a brand relationship according to their research.
CC: Well, and it’s also important because Gillette needs to create that positive brand awareness with women in particular because you now have competing women’s brands coming in that are calling out brands like Gillette for charging more for its women’s razors, for providing subpar, you know women’s razors versus the quality of the men’s blades and here Gillette is not really talking about any of that but still building up that positive brand affinity. I’d also say that judging by Gillette’s response to the Best A Man Can Be backlash says a lot about who they were targeting because Gillette has been very calm and cool about the whole thing saying ‘oh we were just sparking the conversation’ and the way I read between those lines is them seeing this as a win because they got women.
DB: We asked Gillette about this, and a spokesperson told us the goal of the ad was to reach male customers and inspire them to be their best. But the ad has resonated with women, too. A survey conducted by an independent research firm showed that more than half of female respondents said the ad “bettered their perception of Gillette as a brand.”
DB: So it sounds like, you started this adventure, you started this exploration, thinking that Gillette was this evil company that has forced women for a hundred years to, to change and to basically, you know do this thing that is a pain, you get cut and it feels like it’s the patriarchy and by the end of this you’re like, oh actually they’re fighting toxic masculinity, maybe they’re pretty good.
CC: Well, I wouldn’t say that! I would say that women have had a lot more agency in all of this, all of these razor developments than our popular feminist narratives have really acknowledged because in a lot of ways, Gillette has simply been taking cues from women’s beauty habits to begin with.
CE: Absolutely. In the background consistently has been a company that has wanted to make money… shocker! And through that they have ridden the waves of popular culture, popular narratives, and popular beliefs around beauty.
CC: So we think today that shaving is this total pain and the sort of burden and takes up so much time. However, it’s a lot more liberating in a way than trying to paint on nylons on your legs or have to wear like neck to ankle fashions and essentially like cover our bodies from head to toe or use depilatory creams that might contain rat poison. (laughs) So if it’s a choice between having to go to you know, the department store makeup counter and have some women you know airbrush my legs to death or possibly depilatory myself to death literally… I’ll take a razor any day.
DB: Those are your options. Sounds great!
CC: Although… have I just been duped by the patriarchy. Oh, no!
DB: Well Cristen Conger, Caroline Ervin, thank you so much for teaching us so much about Gillette and what it has and hasn’t done to us!
CE: It’s been a blast. Thank you, Dan.
CC: Thanks, Dan.
DB: Check out Unladylike! You can find it on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts…or you know the drill… wherever you find your podcasts!
Well, we’re off for a few weeks now gearing up for season 3, which comes your way in April. Until then, let’s look back at some of our favorite moments from the past few weeks because we’ve definitely covered a lot of ground…
ARCHIVAL: What do you say to people who say ‘maybe you didn’t understand human nature when you started this?’ what is your response?
Excuse me! This thing worked! You served millions of people over many, many years.
I’m Gunnar Lundberg, and I was 18 years old when I decided to eat my Croc.
On January 24th, Apple computer will introduce Macintosh, and you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984. I’m pretty sure my first reaction was… ‘woah’
It’s like I saw Martha hanging out with JCPenney?
It’s like do you think something is going on?
Yeah, are they cheating?
The answer is yes!
And I just start walking around anywhere with books and being like ‘hey, do you have classics? [RUSSIAN] Do you have Jane Austen?’
Real Life. Real News. Real Voices
Help us tell more of the stories that matterBecome a founding member
Hitler built a city for the Beetle? Like the hippie Beetle? I hadn’t even known that it was associated with Hitler. That part of the story hadn’t gotten to me.
DB: If you’re new to the show, check out those past episodes in our feed, and if you like what you hear, leave us a review and rating on Apple podcasts, it really helps people find the show. And, if you wanna get in touch with story ideas or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out our Facebook group. Just search for Household Name podcast. Follow me on Twitter, I’m @danbobkoff. And we’ll be back in a few weeks!
Special thanks to Abigail Keel and the Unladylike team.
The producers of Household Name are Sarah Wyman, Amy Pedulla, and me.
Our editor is Gianna Palmer.
Sound design and original music by two bearded men… John DeLore and Casey Holford.
The executive producers are Chris Bannon, Jenny Radelet and me.
Household Name is a production of Insider Audio.
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