For the Uvari of Southern India, shaving is an act of devotion. Throughout the year, they participate in a series of rituals, known as asanam, that include fasting, sacrifice of a goat or chicken, shaving one’s head, and feeding thirteen poor people. The Uvari believe that these rituals will ultimately pay off in the form of healing, perhaps in sickness for a loved one. Before you assume shaving one’s head as an act of devotion is far outside the religions you’re familiar with, the Uvari are Catholics.
The Uvari approach to shaving is just one of many hundreds of unique and unusual shaving rituals practiced by cultures throughout the world today and in history. Let’s take a closer look at the many ways people have chosen to shave through the centuries:
The First to Shave: The Cro Magnon Man
In the earliest cave painting from tens of thousands of years ago, most men are depicted with beards, but not all. In fact, archaeologists have found clean-shaven men as well. But were these paintings merely imaginative?
Archaeological digs have unearthed sharpened edges of flint, sharks’ teeth, and clam shells that forensic study indicates were used by the earliest humans to shave their beards. Medical and cultural anthropologists have concluded that the reasons for shaving were not necessarily cosmetic or religious: Early Man shaved to keep his face free of vermin and disease.
A New Social Status: Ancient Egypt
During the early period of Ancient Egypt, men grew out their beards. Noble or royal Egyptian men would even braid their beards and decorate them with gold powder. The few Egyptian luminaries who shaved at all would still keep a moustache. We know this in part from depictions on death masks, mummies, and murals of the period.
But shaving eventually grew in popularity as Ancient Egyptian civilization developed. Egyptian culture came to view excess hair as a visual reminder of man’s natural origins. Status meant breaking with appearances and reaching for higher—even heavenly—aspirations. Egyptian men began shaving everything: heads, faces, armpits, legs, and more.
Noble Egyptian men kept full-time barbers on staff. Daily shaving was a necessity to maintain appearances. Beards and body hair meant lower social status. The more wealth you possesed, the more often you would visit skilled barbers for the complete treatment.
The complete treatment. What does that mean exactly? The Greek historian Herodotus wrote extensively about Egyptian shaving practices, claiming that Egyptian priests and other religious figures were so thorough that they even plucked out their eyebrows and lashes every other day.
Of course the most grandiose hair removal rituals were reserved for the Pharaoh and his family. Royal barbers shaved their exclusive clients with special razors studded with jewels and blessed by high priests. When the Pharaoh was buried with his servants and worldly possessions in the Pyramids, you can bet his barber and jewel-encrusted razor went along for the ride into the afterlife.
Men and Beards: Ancient Greece
In Ancient Greece, shaving was more relaxed as far as social status. The Greeks saw beards as a sign of manhood and wisdom. During puberty, boys who began growing whiskers were celebrated in religious rituals dedicated to the sun god Apollo.
However, Greeks did not embrace hair free of cosmetic improvement. Fashionable Greek men had their beards trimmed, shaped, and oiled all the time. Greek men would even shave their beards entirely in periods of grief and mourning in the wake of a relative’s death.
Because the streets didn’t overflow with razors (unlike Ancient Egypt), grief-stricken Greek man scrambled to find a shaving implement. When it took too long to find one, they would just tear out their own beard with their bare hands. The really crazy ones even burned off their beards with fire.
The Ancient Greeks exhibited some other weird beard behavior too. Beard cutting was a severe type of punishment, especially for the military. This was known as being “de-bearded.” Spartans would shave off half the beard of any soldier they deemed to be a coward. On death, a man’s face would be shaved before burial, and his relative would hang the beard trimmings on the door of his house.
The beard obsession did not last for eternity. Alexander the Great changed Greek culture forever when he took a stand against beard-pulling during hand-to-hand combat in battle. He felt beard pulling was a waste of time, slowing down his army, which was then advancing rapidly across the known world. Thus he insisted all able-bodied men be shaved using a block of iron with one edge sharpened.
Women Start Shaving: European Renaissance
Shaving in Medieval Europe was limited by resource shortage. Shaving became a status symbol, because it meant one had enough wealth to afford soap to lather the face. At the time, soap was a rare and expensive commodity. Some historians have argued that Roman Catholic monks developed the style of shaving known as tonsure in response to the soap shortage. Tonsure involves shaving the center section of the head while leave the rest of the hair to form a halo around the bald spot.
By the Renaissance, high status women got in on the shaving action. Aristocratic women in Western Europe began frequently plucking their temples, upper foreheads, and eyebrows. Meanwhile, King Henry VIII of England revived the popularity of the beard for men, a development that held throughout the sixteenth century.
The Straight Razor: Early Modern Shaving
A fashionable shaving ritual pioneered by French monarchs in the seventeenth century eventually led to the development of modern shaving technologies. Louis XIII and his son Louis XIV shaved their own heads and wore wigs. France was the most powerful nation in Europe at the time, and the fashion of shaving one’s head to make space for elaborate wigs soon spread to aristocrats across the continent.
The booming demand for frequent head shaving led to the development of the straight razor by French swordsmiths in the 1680s. The straight razor necessitated care, maintenance, and frequent sharpening. Later, the French also developed the modern shaving brush to improve the application of soap lather.
In 1762, French barber Jean-Jacques Perret invented the safety razor. It included a novel L-shaped guard along a side of the blade. This dramatically lowered the rate of accidental cuts and nicks on the head and face of the person being shaved. Powdered wigs became even more popular with the lower costs of shaving, making it easier for full head shaves.
Thanks to all of these weird and wacky shaving rituals, we have the modern shaving tools we use today. While Prince Harry may not be shaving his head before the wedding and our military doesn’t tear out their own hair for a crew cut, shaving is still a practice that has cultural meaning. Whatever your choice–shaving your head, your arms, your legs–make sure to protect your body and use products that protect your skin before and after.