Bare It? I Think Not

While browsing the interwebs this morning I came across an article by Ashley Fetters in the Atlantic that left me dumbfounded. If Fetters and those she interviews and cites are right, 20-something white, middle class young women prefer to bare all.

Fetters cites the work of  two

Indiana University researchers Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick found in a recent study that nearly 60 percent of American women between 18 and 24 are sometimes or always completely bare down there, while almost half of women in the U.S. between 25 and 29 reported similar habits. Herbenick’s numbers show a clear-cut trend: More women lack pubic hair than ever before.

Now, I’m no expert on 20-somethings or pubes, but I find this disturbing. I have no problem with whatever a woman decides to do with her pubes, but I do wonder how informed these young women are about the decisions they’re making. If they’re having a Brazilian wax because they want to, I’m fine with that. But if, as I suspect, they’re doing so because they’ve bought into the “everyone is doing it” line or the patriarchal idea that women shouldn’t have body hair, or getting waxed because their partners prefer they look prepubescent, then they’re not making an informed decision. Femininity is culturally coded as hairless.

Just look at television, print and electronic advertisements. Do you see any women with hair anywhere other than on their heads? No. Smooth skin, what advertisers insist every woman wants, is hairless skin. The message hasn’t changed much over time (see beauty ads from the 1920s-present): women need to change their bodies to be socially acceptable, especially to men. What’s changed, if Fetter is right, is that removing hair from our legs, faces, and armpits is no longer good enough; now we need hairless vaginas as well.

The growth of body hair is a sign of sexual development and occurs after puberty; so tame a woman’s hair and tame her physical and sexual maturity as well. This ensures that for women beauty is associated with youth. The western cultural norm of hairlessness signals that women’s bodies are not acceptable or attractive unless altered. The practice of  hair removal in women has long been culturally linked to concepts of hygiene, gender norms and youth. Now that practice, among 20-30 somethings according to much of what I’ve read, extends to the vagina, and these women wax, laser, electrify, depilate or otherwise remove some or all of their pubic hair, simply as a matter of course.

But of course it’s not just a matter of course. Joseph Slade, professor of media and culture at Ohio University, argues the primary driving force behind  bare everywhere is the porn industry: “Depilation took hold in visual porn in the 1990s, though some actresses trimmed for movies before then. It was easier to keep crotches cleaner on the set. But certainly the practice is widespread in video porn today.” I would argue that there’s more at work in than just the porn industry. While I recognize that internet access and changing mores has made porn more prominent, I don’t think porn alone is responsible for the prevalence of pube-free 20-30 something white women.

I think it’s important to note, as does Slade, that shaving or otherwise removing pubic hair isn’t new

as far back as the 15th century, women — especially prostitutes — often shaved their pubic hair to avoid lice infestation, which is where having a muff may have picked up its stigma of being “unclean.” In the years following, medieval and classical European sculptors and painters omitted pubic hair from depictions of female nudes; In fact, the notion of pubic hair in general was so unholy that every last naked prophet on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is completely hairless below the neck.  (Slade)

Now, as far as I know, Michelangelo’s pube-free angels didn’t create a bare mons trend. Nor did Hefner’s bare bunnies, or the itsy bitsy tiny winy yellow polka dot bikini. Fetter attributes the trend to an episode of  Sex and the City in which Carrie Bradshaw waxes it off, but I don’t know. What I do know is that it isn’t the norm for my female friends my age and older to pay between $55 and $65 every four to five weeks to have

an esthetician pours wax heated to 140° F (roughly the temperature of a steak fresh off the grill) onto her labia and spreads it like butter on bread. Half a minute later, she swiftly peels away the hardened wax — and with it, a full crop of pubic hair, freshly ripped from the follicles. (Fetters)

According to Fetter, this procedure is “reportedly as painful as being flicked with a hot rubber band a thousand times, once on each follicle.” I believe her.

So whether it be due to patriarchy, the porn industry, Carrie Bradshaw or these and other factors combined, young women today not only have to worry that they’re unfeminine and undesirable because they have a bit of hair on their  legs and pits, but they also have to worry about their pubic hair. They have, in fact, to have the vaginas of  pre-teens. And so many young women think we no longer need feminism.

I can’t imagine how I would bring this into a class discussion, but I would like to have a conversation about body hair with my female students. I would tell them that body hair is natural, and that many of have it to one degree or another. I would share with them what I’ve learned about the history of women and body hair, and I would tell them that beauty isn’t about how they look, it’s about how they feel about themselves, that they shouldn’t allow themselves to be infantilized, and that they shouldn’t buy into the perversion of feminism that says they can dress like a hooker if they want and are not doing so to attract someone. I would encourage them to use all this knowledge to carefully consider all the reasons why they might subject themselves to having 140° burning, hot wax spread over their vaginas and their pubic hair ripped off  before they do so.

Then I would share Herbenick’s findings that show “the hairless vulva isn’t always analogous to the clenched fist of female solidarity; just as often, it’s a telltale sign of oppression or forced conformity.” And that, I’d say, is what concerns me.

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2 Responses to Bare It? I Think Not

  1. Doc says:

    Right on on all counts. I stopped shaving my legs in the ‘sixties (when, to be honest, lots of my friends also quit doing so, so this wasn’t a brave act or anything). Stopped shaving my pits when a nurse in one of my classes told me that she suspected breast cancer might be related to the practice–we shave off the outer dermis, she said, and then we apply chemicals to the area, aluminum among them.
    In other words, if the goddess wanted us to be hairless, she’d have seen to it.

  2. BuddhaKat says:

    yaay to female hairiness… I have only maybe twice or so ever even done my pits or legs, only… haven’t touched a razor or depilatory in 4 decades… I was going to use the term hirsute, but it turns out hirsutism is actually considered a medical condition needing treatment in females… ouch, ouch… oh, scuse me… I’ve never been waxed and was just thinking about it… what an awful ritual!!! ladies, WHY do we put ourselves through this?!?!? PLEASE, THINK before you wax!!!

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