It’s that time of the year. The trees are an explosion of reds and browns. Pumpkin-spiced lattes show up in coffee shops. And men start growing out their mustaches for Movember, a two-decades-old tradition that is designed to raise awareness—and cash—for men’s health issues.
Except this year, the shaving startup Billie is making the radical assertion that women should join in the fun. And why not? After all, women also have hair on their upper lips, although many feel embarrassed about it, and they invest a lot of money in waxing, epilating, or threading their mustaches off.
This week, Billie dropped its latest advertising campaign, which invites women to participate in Movember by growing out their upper lip hair. The video features women proudly bearing hair on their upper lip. It’s a startling sight, only because we hardly ever see it in the media. “Women have mustaches too,” one woman featured in the ad says. “The world may not know this because we go through a lot to hide them. We’ve been hiding them all our lives.” The ad then shows the variety of ways women painstakingly remove their hair.
The company has set up a team on the Movember website and invites women to join, which effectively means growing out their mustaches throughout the month of November. Those that join the team can ask their friends to donate to the cause, and Billie will match any donation up to $50,000.
Sure, this is a stunt. The Movember event allows Billie to reinforce its broader, progressive message that women shouldn’t feel shackled by social expectations about body hair. On the team website, for instance, Billie lays out the company’s motivation for inviting women to be part of Movember. “Newsflash: women have mustaches,” it reads. “We’ve been trained to hide them—wax them, bleach them, shave them—but that doesn’t make them any less real. Fuzzy and faint or dark and dazzling, they’re there. So this Movember, we’re growing out our (formerly) top secret upper lip hair.”
Earlier this year, the company launched a campaign called Project Body Hair, which sought to start a conversation about the social pressures women feel to remove their body hair. Billie was among the first razor brands that actually showed women with hair on their legs and underarms. This was a stark contrast to previous, more traditional brands like Venus, by Gillette, that typically represent women as hairless, in their post-shorn state. Over the summer, Billie pushed the message further with a campaign featuring women in bathing suits with unshaven bikini lines, and the tagline “Red, White, and You Do You.” All of these ads were met with support from consumers who are just as eager to blast away these taboos. But they were also met with plenty of mean-spirited comments that revealed how entrenched our social expectations are around women and body hair.
Those expectations are fairly established in Western culture. In an academic article, scholar Kimberly Hamlin points out that in the 19th century, American society and even the medical community was fascinated with women’s facial hair. Consider the “bearded women” in circuses and carnivals, who were officially described as “freaks.” All of this was exacerbated by the fact that Charles Darwin speculated that facial hair in women was a sign of disease. Hamlin says that this culture conditioned society to associate hairlessness with femininity, and hair with masculinity. And it created social pressure for women to make it a matter of everyday grooming to remove their facial and body hair.
This was a boon for businesses, since it created a massive market for hair-removal products, from waxes to razors to laser treatments. The hair-removal industry will be worth $3.4 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research. This places an unfair burden on women, since they have to spend time and money on depilatory practices. A British study revealed that women will spend £23,000, or nearly $30,000, on removing unwanted hair in their lifetimes. And at the same time, half of women hate the idea of hair removal. In other words, many of us resent the social pressure placed upon us to be hairless, and yet we do it anyway.
It’s unclear whether Billie will effectively convince women—and society more broadly—that we should feel free to grow our hair any way we choose. The brand’s effort to bust the taboo is pretty radical at this moment in time, when most girls grow up conditioned to remove their body and facial hair as soon as it shows up. Still, give the brand credit for starting the conversation.