Hair Care Down There
By Lorelei Links
Note: this article is written from the perspective of a white, hetero, cisgendered woman…because that’s the only one I have the authority to write from :)
I remember the exact moment I was taught to be ashamed of my body hair. I was eleven years old and had involuntarily sprouted armpit hair, which the girls at school thought was the funniest, grossest thing they’d ever seen. Fast forward a couple years and I can pinpoint the moment I was taught to be ashamed of my pubic hair. A boy asked me if I shaved and a 13-year-old, very sexually-inactive me incredulously responded in the negative, which was met with disgust and endless teasing. Throughout my teenage years, this kind of attitude seemed practically universal (one boy even told me he’d never seen a vagina that wasn’t bald), so that I too quickly shared in the disgust and started making regular trips to the waxing salon.
Fast forward another five years and I can remember the moment I first started to question my “grooming” habits. A friend linked me to a vintage porn shot of a woman with a dildo (see below) one night on Facebook. He was making cheeky jokes about the wallpaper – but I just couldn’t take my eyes off her bush. It was untrimmed, untamed, and completely unapologetic. And, I found myself thinking, it was sexy. I went through hundreds of pictures on the same website – a Tumblr dedicated to vintage porn – and saw that the majority of women in porn through the 1960s and 70s had the same fuzzy mound. Some were shaped a little, some were trimmed a little, but most were there, and all were awesome. So the question stuck with me: when, and more importantly why, did pubic hair disappear?
Anyway, it turns out that women have actually been removing their body hair for centuries. In Middle Eastern societies, body hair has been traditionally removed for hygiene, and pubic hair removal is required under Islam. In the West, Renaissance nudes (male and female) were rarely painted with their pubes – the mere shadow of a wisp of down on Francisco Goya’s La Maja Desnuda, considered the first depiction of pubic hair in the Western canon, caused outrage upon its unveiling circa 1797. More bare skin and mass-produced safety razors through the 1920s made underarm-shaving and leg-shaving commonplace, and the advent of the bikini inspired a tidier crotch. But Gen Y’s obsession with a bare vagina is relatively new, and takes on a different dynamic to traditional hair removal. The Brazilian is pretty much in a class of its own, and I think the expectation that surrounds it (and the reaction when that expectation goes unfulfilled) is unprecedented.
So what’s the appeal? Why do women go to terrifying and painful lengths for a bald crotch? Sex author Roger Friedland writes for the Huffington Post about a growing eroticisation of the prepubescent girl around the same time that second-wave feminism had men looking for something more submissive against which they could really feel like a man. It also coincided with the rise of the internet, which made porn (and lots of it) freely accessible around the world. In pornography, and now in wider society, hairlessness seemed to indicate some kind of “readiness” for sex, hair having always been a staple of the dirty-smelly-vagina stereotype. Removing it, according to Friedland, signifies an act of purification to suit the tastes of the 21st century’s average dude.
Friedland goes on to say a lot of creepy things about women’s bodies being built for love and reproduction, but he raises some solid points. The relationship between the explosion of mainstream pornography on the internet, and the sudden enthusiasm of women in their twenties to bare all, seems undeniable. Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth (and someone to whom I feel slightly more comfortable listening than creepy Friedland), is scathing in a criticism of pornographic standards for New York magazine. She says the pressure to compete with mainstream porn stars, who not only look like dolls but comply with any and all of a man’s desires, accounts for the Brazilian obsession. When stood next to an industry absolutely saturated with impossible standards, Wolf says, “real naked women are just bad porn.” I know men who get on the defensive about this kind of statement, who say that women overestimate the judgment of the average man, that it’s just exciting when a woman is willing to be naked around you. But then I think about my friend who has never seen a woman au naturel, and I think Wolf has a point. It’s common knowledge that women are held to unrealistic standards of beauty in mainstream media, and that the majority of us take steps to try and mimic that ideal. It would be naive to assume that porn doesn’t work in the same way.
So, I think I’m happy to commit to blaming porn for the baffling popularity of the Brazilian wax. But I still can’t figure out why. In an article on The Atlantic website, media professor Joseph Slade suggests that porn prefers a clean-shaven lady as either an infantilisation attempt, or simply to expose more vagina to the camera. What about men in real life? Six straight guys on Jezebel shared their thoughts on pubic hair and the results were largely uniform – five of the six were turned off by a woman who did nothing with her bush. There seemed to be two recurring reasons: the first being that hair is dirty, smelly and gross to put in your mouth; the second being that they liked a woman who “took care of herself.” The image of the free-wielding, out-of-control bush seemed to symbolise, for these young men, a woman who refused to conform to traditional standards of beauty. Even so – when did a full bush stop being beautiful?
Well, in trying to get my head around it all, I’m developing a theory of my own. It actually harks back to creepy Roger Friedland, and the idea that women “purify” to suit the male taste. Women are usually depicted in mainstream porn in an unnatural state, without their own desires and preferences and with artificial bodies. Essentially, it turns the woman into a vehicle for her vagina, and her vagina into a resource for male pleasure. Modification of the genitals in real life is part of this – everything from pubic hair dye, stenciling kits and (my personal favourite) Vajazzling, right through to surgical trimming of the inner labia or tightening of the vaginal canal. And along with shaving and waxing, I think these procedures serve as a layer of disconnect between the vagina as a part of a woman, and the vagina as a tool that a woman has at her disposal in the pursuit of pleasing men.
Having said this, I condemn the notion that a hairless vagina is a less womanly one. I’m not in the business of judging any woman for what she does or doesn’t do with her body, and I will always respect a woman’s complete authority over her vag. What I am in the business of judging is mainstream media when it starts to shame women just for being women, which is what I think the porn industry does as well. I still struggle, but I’ve almost had my epiphany. Pubic hair is great, actually. If you, like me, have been socialised to hate body hair, do yourself a favour and have a look through some old school porn. Then do yourself another and lady, love your pubes.