Activity: Sex or gender

Consider the following pictures of armpits. Can you tell which are male and which are female? How did you reach your decision? Roll over the images with your mouse and find out if you were right or wrong.

Armpit hair might seem like an odd example to use when thinking about both sex and gender. Because body hair is a secondary sex characteristic, we might expect it to be associated with sex alone, rather than with gender. But we chose this example precisely because it demonstrates that something as commonplace and seemingly uncontroversial as armpit hair is subject to the influences of both sex and gender – as are larger or more complicated aspects of life.

Armpit hair appears at puberty, in response to a dramatic rise in levels of sex hormones, and is therefore clearly influenced by sex. But the development of armpit hair – and its abundance – depends on the entire genetic background of an individual, not just on her or his sex chromosomes. Males in some populations may develop a wealth of body hair while males in other populations grow to maturity with little or no body hair. Men of northern European descent, for example, tend to have more body hair, on average, than men of Southeast Asian descent. Similarly, people within a population may have varying degrees of hairiness, regardless of where they are situated along the sex continuum. Some health conditions that are related to sex, such as polycystic ovarian disease, can also increase the quantity of body hair.

While armpit hair is affected by sex, our reactions to it are determined by gender. In some societies, ideals of feminine beauty dictate that women should have little or no body hair. Women who have abundant body hair or hair in places deemed unattractive may suffer isolation and discrimination. As a result many women in these societies regularly shave and wax away body hair or have it permanently removed by electrolysis and laser treatments.

While these views of women’s body hair are dominant in Western culture, they are not universal today nor did they represent the norm in the past. According to a study by Susan Basow, the ideal of hairless female beauty emerged in the United States only in the early 20th century.

Interestingly, men in some societies are also turning to these techniques to minimize body hair, probably in an effort to increase their physical attractiveness. A research study conducted in the United States and New Zealand found that women in those countries found men without any hair on their trunk to be the most attractive.

Sources: Tiggemann, M. & Hodgson, S. (2008). The hairlessness norm extended: reasons for and predictors of women’s body hair removal at different body sites. Sex Roles. 59 11-12; 889-97;Bascow, S. (1991) The hairless ideal: Women and their body hair. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 15 (1); 83-96; Dixon, B.J., Dixon, A.F., Bishop, P.J. & Parish, A. (2009). Human physique and sexual attractiveness in men and women: A New Zealand-U.S. comparative study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39 (3): 798-806

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