Leg hair, don’t care: Why showing women’s body hair in Indian ads is long overdue
We speak to women from the advertising and digital world to understand why brands hesitate from showing body hair in adsPhotos by Billie Via Unsplash
Veet’s latest ad starring Shraddha Kapoor and Ahsaas Channa targets school girls and offers ‘skin whitening’ cream

Leg hair, don’t care: Why showing women’s body hair in Indian ads is long overdue

Veet’s latest ad starring Shraddha Kapoor and Ahsaas Channa targets school girls and offers ‘skin whitening’ cream
  • All shaving ads include a petite woman taking a bath in a tub full of bubbles, grabbing a razor in hand to shave her hairless legs and flawless hands.
  • We speak to women from the advertising and digital world to understand why brands hesitate from showing body hair in advertisements and what kind of ads they wish to see as we move forward.
  • We also discuss Veet’s latest ad starring Shraddha Kapoor and Ahsaas Channa that targets school girls and claims to offer a ‘skin whitening’ mechanism in its cream.
“I vividly remember asking my mother after our send-off in high school, "Why am I so hairy?" ⁣I had draped a beautiful sari that day, as the tradition goes. I felt pretty and confident until I saw the other girls in my class had waxed their arms. It made me feel a little uncomfortable,” shared Yugandhara Shinde, a 24-year-old graphic designer, as she tried to recall the first time she felt uncomfortable with her natural body.

While Shinde blames social conditioning, unsolicited judgements from people and societal beauty standards for making her uncomfortable about her body hair until today, these standards have been perpetuated through advertising and media that expect women to be hairless all the time. Thin and fair-skinned models in ads across the world have made women like me feel uncomfortable with my body. We look in the mirror only to notice our flaws, turn to beauty products to fix ourselves and hide our body hair. Advertisements have been profiting from these vulnerabilities and feeding on our insecurities. They portray women achieving happiness and success after hair removal.

Leg hair, don’t care: Why showing women’s body hair in Indian ads is long overdue

All shaving ads include a petite woman taking a bath in a tub full of bubbles, running a razor through their already shaven and almost flawless hands and legs. For example, look at the petite, fair-skinned and hairless women in Gillette Venus’ ads over the years.

Leg hair, don’t care: Why showing women’s body hair in Indian ads is long overdue

Chances are, you will need a microscope to find a single strand of unwanted hair on their bodies, forget a hint of stubble! While it is absolutely okay to shave your bodies, this article is about those who choose not to.

You would feel a penetrating gaze, full of judgement, coming from people around if you decide to just sport your body hair one day. We have spent years hiding our body hair under long sleeves and jeans or shaving every strand off our armpits before anyone else catches a glance. "Hww, log kya kahenge," has haunted us for years. While half this blame goes to our biased society, the rest is on unreal ads and cinema that have made us feel like less of a woman if we choose not to shave.

Last week, we happened to stumble upon Hair Removal brand Veet’s advertisement starring actor Shraddha Kapoor and Digital Creator Ahsaas Channa. It is about a young school girl, played by Channa, feeling anxious about going to a salon because well, we all know how uncomfortable that is. She is wearing a full-sleeved uniform to hide her body hair. Kapoor comes to ‘her rescue’ and offers her Veet’s shaving cream. Much to our surprise (but frankly, not so much), she shaves her already-shaved armpits and hands. As per the brand’s ad, the product also gives you smoother and visibly ‘brighter’ underarms.

Veet isn’t the first brand to sell us underarm lightening cream. There’s Dot & Key, Sanfe, Nimaya and Venus that help you ‘glow.’ According to ResearchAndMarkets, the Indian female grooming market stood at $152 million in 2018 and is projected to grow at a CAGR of over 26% to surpass $623 million by 2024.

We reached out to Dr Tanaya Narendra, Doctor and Content Creator, aka Dr Cuterus to find out if hair removing creams can brighten your armpits. She said, “Unless the hair removal cream contains bleach, I wouldn't imagine it would be possible to actually lighten the skin. Even then, the effect would be temporary. Actually putting clinically effective skin lightening formulations in their OTC cream would not be permitted, so this is a blatant lie. It also feeds into the larger message of ‘lighter skin is better skin’, which, I do not need to point, is based on our colonial past and its associated hangups.”

Elaborating on how having darker skin parts is completely normal, Dr Cuterus added, “We continue to idealise Eurocentric beauty standards, in people of non-European descent. It is perfectly normal for the skin of our genitals, underarms, and skin folds to be darker than the rest of our body. It's the result of hormones, constant friction, and our genetic skin type. Companies like Veet, Nimaya, Dot & Key, Sanfe, etc capitalise on this insecurity and sell expensive skin lightening serums, which obviously don't work (as they don't contain any clinically effective ingredients), leading to more insecurity, and more sales for the companies.”

While we are used to seeing hairless bodies on the big screen by now, Veet’s latest ad targets school girls this time. It is reaching out to young, impressionable minds, suggesting that you cannot go to a party unless you shave your body.

Telling us how the ad made her feel, Akshara Vasavda, Creative Lead, Schbang, shared, “It makes me feel like we're devolving instead of evolving. It's like Indian advertising is still stuck in the past while the rest of the world is moving on. It's a bad ad, to begin with, even just creatively speaking, and on top of that, they've taken the most overused, mind-numbing route to showcase their product. 'Ghisa Pita' is the word we use in Hindi. That's this ad.”

She also pointed out that we need more representation in our ads to help women accept their bodies, and even its darker areas.

“In Veet's ad, we have a young student probably in high school who is more worried about waxing than whatever is going on in school? Because that's the only thing girls care about, of course. Then we have Shraddha Kapoor entering the picture, looking like she just stepped off a red carpet. Have SOME aspect of realism to your ads at least? And then there's the whole issue of colourism that these brands constanty reinforce. Most girls do not have smooth, even-toned underarms. Brown skins are bound to be pigmented and the entertainment industry is 100% responsible for making millions of girls conscious about their dark underarms. I think most of us spent our entire lives trying various methods to fight pigmentation and ingrown hair. We need more skin colours in these ads. We need pigmented underarms without the false promise of 'whitening' them because a) our skins simply do not work that way b) it's entirely unnecessary. These brands need to be held accountable for misinformation in my opinion,” added Vasavda.

Sharing how DIY has become the need of the hour due the lockdown, Ashwini Deshpande, Co-founder & Director, Elephant Design, said, “Selfcare & DIY grooming products is absolutely the need of the hour. Hair removers, hair colours, pedicure kits, facial kits etc are here to stay. Grooming is also gaining popularity irrespective of gender. Boys seem equally concerned about their look as girls. I do not see all advertisements of grooming products as gender misappropriation issues. It is mostly about turning out well and feeling good/ confident about oneself. However, the didi giving a solution to the younger sibling in the latest VEET commercial is quite the beaten path. I don't believe GenZ is looking for advice from millennials. So the story just wasn't convincing for me.”

Alpa Dedhia, Business Director, VMLY&R India said, “The larger issue here is pushing younger girls to focus on these set beauty norms like she should look a certain way, act a certain way, dress a certain way. I also believe putting pressure on teens on how they should look or be a certain way impacts the overall confidence of young girls. No girl should have to worry about the way she looks. Brands should be taking the baton and training these minds to think beyond superficial beauty norms. Campaigns like #likeagirl have done a similar job in a great way.”

So, what should the brands do?

While some people feel empowered by shaving or waxing their bodies, it is their choice to shave or not to shave. However, it is often considered that body hair is ‘unhygienic’, when it is in fact a natural gift and meant to protect us from bacteria.

We also asked ad women and Content Creator Dr Cutreus about the kind of ads they wish to see now.

“What I would like to be discussed more is how having body hair is not unhygienic, and this is a personal choice. I understand that this is difficult, as having such a disclaimer in ads would be weird. That said, it would be incredible to see more representation about body hair from more mainstream celebrities, rather than "radical" Instagram influencers. Another welcome change would be to see some actual body hair being removed in these ads. I mean, they're marketing a product whose efficacy has a giant question mark on it as we cannot see any body hair on these people anyway! They shave hairless legs! If we can have ads that show a man with a five o'clock shadow, and a fancy animation showing the blades slicing away his facial hair, why can't we see that with a woman's underarm hair,” asked Dr Tanaya.

Dedhia said, “All hair removing brands have focused on the same messaging.. ‘Set yourself free from unwanted hair,’ ‘hairless arms will make you more attractive, beautiful and more feminine.' I want to see ads that are progressive in their thinking and approach. Instead of saying that you will miss out on all the fun if you don’t do this or that, maybe we could focus on hygiene?”

Vasavda said, “When it comes to the target audience of these brands, the majority of women should not have an issue with slightly more realistic depiction of hair removal, even if we don't go all out like some international ads. And like I said earlier, there is zero excuse for these brands to continue propagating such harmful beauty standards. This is one issue that is completely in the hands of the media, and if they are still making such regressive content, it's because they want to. They want to maintain a certain aesthetic for their brand imagery because of personal biases, and that's it. Hair removal is a basic need. No one's going to stop buying their products. If I need to shave, I'm going to buy a razor and it's probably going to be Gillette because they own the market share and my chemist only stocks that up. They don't have the pressure of fighting for market share at this point, so what's stopping them? Nothing but the mindset of people running these brands on the client side.”