To Get Rid of Body Hair, Renaissance Women Made Lotions of Arsenic, Cat Dung And Vinegar

“When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off”

Diana and Actaeon
Quick, wash off the arsenic before it melts your skin! Lucas Cranach the Elder

While beards may be coming back into style for men, women are still expected to keep the majority of their body hairless. This tradition of smooth, hairless ladies goes way, way back. Even in some of the earliest paintings of nude females, the women have very little body hair. But Renaissance women didn’t have Nair or disposable razors. Did they really keep their bodies hairless? And if so, how? 

According to Jill Burke, a lecturer on Italian renaissance history at the University of Edinburgh, women dealt with removing their hair in all sorts of ways, and most of them sounds pretty terrible. Take this 1532 recipe:

Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.

That same book includes another recipe that calls for a mixture of cat dung and vinegar to burn the hair off. Sounds awesome, right?

This actually isn’t so far off from how products like Nair and Veet work (although modern depilators don’t contain arsenic). Our perceptions of female body hair haven't changed so much over the centuries, either. Here’s a sixteenth-century physician explaining why a woman with body hair would make a bad wife:

Of course, the woman who has much body and facial hair (being of a more hot and dry nature) is also intelligent but disagreeable and argumentative, muscular, ugly, has a deep voice and frequent infertility problems.

Women who happen to be hairy still deal with those sort of prejudices. Burke points to a 2005 study in which 90 percent of female respondents said they removed the hair from their legs and armpits, and 80 percent said they removed hair from their pubic area and eyebrows. Thankfully, they’re not turning to arsenic and cat dung to do it, but the impetus is largely the same: removing the hair that somehow makes women undesirable. 

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