April 2011

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So as most of you will probably realize, I am writing this blog as part of project that will ultimately earn me (she wrote, fingers crossed) a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies from Queen’s University. Because I have access to them, I have been consulting academic journals as part of my research. Some of them are medical journals — and though they aren’t the sort of thing I would normally be drawn to, they’ve been providing all sorts of interesting fodder for conversation.

I recently came upon a journal article called “Brazilian bikini wax and the designer vagina”, by Mike Fitzpatrick, in the British Journal of General Practice. Though the article is dated December 2007, it’s chock-full of tasty stuff still utterly relevant for consideration here.

The article draws a connection between the “remarkable disappearance of female body hair over recent years” and the increased demand for labial surgery (also called labiaplasty). The procedure usually involves reducing the labia majora and labia minora. As Fitzpatrick cites research indicating that “our patients uniformly wanted their vulvas to be flat with no protrusion beyond the labia majora, similar to the prepubescent aesthetic featured in advertisements.”

The article goes on to describe women bringing along ‘pornographic photographs to illustrate the desired appearance’ when they come for their consultation.

The author also cites a Guardian article by Kira Cochrane (which couldn’t get my hands on, regretfully) that draws a parallel between “the trend for pubic hair removal and the growing demand for the surgical procedure known as the ‘designer vagina’.”

Fitzpatrick seems to agree with Cochrane’s thesis, writing that he has seen the number of cosmetic labial surgeries more than double in the last five years (meaning 2002-2007, I presume), writing “I can confirm that demand appears to be growing.”

It’s not difficult to presume that pubic hair removal and the increase of labial surgery are related: after all, it’s harder to hate (and thus want to change) something you can’t see. If everything is out in the open, it’s a lot easier to find ways to compare what you’ve got with what you see around you.

A recent article in the Guardian by Rowenna Davis (Feb 27, 2011) draws a connection between the proliferation of porn among young people, and the rise of labiaplasty surgery in the U.K. It seems like an entirely plausible theory. Here’s the complete article:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/feb/27/labiaplasty-surgery-labia-vagina-pornography

I still find it frightening that women would subject their most intimate bits to voluntary surgery. As Davis writes, “experts say the risks of labiaplasty include permanent scarring, infections, bleeding and irritation, as well as increased or decreased sensitivity if nerves get caught in the operation.” Yikes!

So that, naturally, leads to this question: WHO are women doing this for?

It’s that question that lead to this most excellent film, The Perfect Vagina. Made by Heather Leach and Lisa Rogers in 2008 for Channel 4 in the U.K., it takes an engrossing look at the practice and is well worth a watch (it’s nearly an hour long, though, so be sure to book yourself enough time):

http://vimeo.com/4704237

 

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I’ve been getting some great feedback from readers lately. A lot of it is positive, and I’m grateful for that. A small amount, however, has been critical. In fact, I recently found some comments posted on an online forum that were downright mean.

The comments were in response to a talk I gave at Sarah Lawrence College back in March.  What was most frustrating was that the comments didn’t seem directed at my work — they seemed intent on attacking the fact that I had introduced my talk (a light way to get into the topic and engage listeners) by saying that I really hadn’t realized, before beginning my research, that pubic hair removal had become so widespread among young women. The (male) writer said he found it troubling that a “cultural historian” could be so “out of touch with culture”.

Though he didn’t address my main arguments, his posting implied that I was laughably out of it. Everyone, he suggested, knows that pubic hair removal has gone mainstream. I’ll admit that I felt, momentarily, pretty dumb.

But here’s what I have since come to realize.

Not everyone knows about the mainstreaming of pubic hair removal. I have met scores of smart, educated women horrified to learn (as I was) that this is the case. If you aren’t a regular consumer of pornography, have been married for more than a decade, or you have better things to do with your time than watch Sex In The City (circa 2004), then it is entirely possible that you didn’t get the pubic hair memo.

But what I think it highlights (more than the mere issue of what women do when it comes to intimate grooming) is the real disconnect that is happening among generations of women.

Obviously, it is the second wave feminists I speak with who are most horrified by what they see as intensified body control for women. They see the trend as being in opposition of everything they fought for.

Increased amounts of body control do not a liberated woman make.

Naturally, the women coming of age today have different ideas about what equality means. More than a few times I’ve heard young women argue that the women’s movement earned them the right to do as they choose with their bodies — so that’s what they’re doing (and old ladies should quit whining about it – they’re obviously out of touch).

(Just as an aside: I recently heard about a class of third year female sociology students who, straight-faced, told their instructor that we didn’t need feminism anymore since women already have the vote).

The conversation reminds me of an article by Susan Faludi than ran in the October 2010 edition of Harper’s magazine. The article, called “American Electra: Feminism’s ritual matricide” explores feminism’s struggle to make gains between generations.

As Faludi writes:

“while American feminism has long, and productively, concentrated on getting men to give women some of the power they used to give only to their sons, it hasn’t figured out how to pass power down from woman to woman, to bequeath authority to its progeny. Its inability to conceive of a succession has crippled women’s progress not just within the women’s movement but in every venue of American public life. The women’s movement cycled through a long first “wave,” and, in increasingly shorter oscillations, a second and third wave, and some say we are now witnessing a fourth. With each go-round, women make gains, but the movement never seems able to establish an enduring birthright, a secure line of descent—to reproduce itself as a strong and sturdy force. At the core of America’s most fruitful political movement resides a perpetual barrenness.”

Here’s a link to part of the article (you’ll have to pay or visit your local library if you want to read the whole thing): http://www.harpers.org/archive/2010/10/0083140

I recently had an email from a reader who seemed to sum up this predicament perfectly. The mother of two grown daughters, she wrote: “my daughters are waxers, and I can’t figure out where I went wrong.”

Pubic hair, it seems to me, is standing in here for a much larger divide between generations.  A yawning chasm between generations of women summed up in a tidy pile of short and curlies.

More soon.

 

 

 

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So today I’d like to draw your attention to a little website called ‘Guess Her Muff’. The object of the site is this: post a picture of a woman fully clothed, and then get people to try and guess what her pubic hair is like. The answer comes as a nude photo of the woman who just moments ago was depicted with all her clothes on.

Want to check it out for yourself? (Get your shot glasses lined up!)

Here’s the link: http://guesshermuff.blogspot.com/

(WARNING: This site is definitely adult-only content. Don’t have a look if you’re at work!)

Most of what there is to say about this is pretty damn obvious. Firstly, there’s the whole girl-next-door-as-drinking-game thing. Then there are all kinds of questions: have these women deliberately posed for these photographs? If they have, why? What’s in it for them?

This blog also keeps tabs on what’s being offered up in its ‘Muffs Documented’ count. Here’s the current breakdown (shaved comes out on top with 831 images):

It’s probably no coincidence, then, that “shaved bald” comes in as the top answer in the “What’s Your Favourite Style” question (which I presume is being asked of male viewers)  Interestingly, however,  ‘Natural’ comes in second. Here’s the breakdown there:

Natural
23632 (24%)
Trimmed
14034 (14%)
Patch
4594 (4%)
Landing Strip
12090 (12%)
Brazilian
10295 (10%)
Shaved Bald
32946 (33%)

 

Um… that’s probably all I need to say today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Toronto artist Julie Voyce has done it again: here’s the second installment in the every-other-friday, This-Blog-Features-Original-Art feature.

This time: delicate underwear that doesn’t quite cover it all.

(I’ve been busy conducting interviews and hope to get some original content posted soon. Check back soon!)

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So yesterday a porn star by the name of Stoya posted this on Twitter:

“If you think pubic hair on a woman is unnatural or weird, you aren’t mature enough to be touching vaginas”. #FootIsDown #YeahIJustWentThere

With 46,415 followers, Stoya’s comments were heard loud and clear. While that message was re-tweeted a whack of times, Stoya soon found herself having to follow-up her initial comment.

For example, @Scoobydobydooo replied with the following:

“@stoya didn’t you said you personally prefer it bald. but let it grow if there is a shoot 🙂 ”

To which Stoya replied:

“@scoobydobydooo Yes, but that lack of hair is an unnatural choice I make.”

Responses to others went like this:

“@Rugger_Daddy As long as you realize that the removal of the hair is an unnatural thing, it’s preference, not asshole-ry.”

You get the idea.

She then sent this Tweet, directing people to her blog:

“Because the internet is my own personal soapbox and the pubic hair discussion required more than 140 characters”

Here’s a link to her blog post:

http://stoya.tumblr.com/post/4751022562/way-too-much-information-about-my-ladyparts

You can have a read for yourself, but the long and short of it is this: While Stoya writes about going in to a salon to have certain bits of her pubic hair permanently removed, she is very clear about the fact that she wants to keep the bulk of it. As she writes, “personally, I like to have options with my bush.”

I particularly liked this bit:

“Maybe I’m just a bit snappier or more short-tempered this week than usual, but I reacted very negatively to what I perceived as a lack of appreciation for pussies in their natural state.”

and then:“I just want everyone in the world to know that twats are incredibly varied and all wonderful, and I have intensely negative emotional reactions when I see anything that seems like vulva judgment.”

I think this conversation is really interesting, considering it comes from a woman who makes her living (and has garnered vast amounts of fame) appearing in adult films. Porn is, after all, one of the influences I see as having an impact on this normalizing of hairlessness.

So to have a well-regarded porn star celebrating pubic hair is… well…kinda exciting.

I can’t help but ad that as enlightening as Stoya’s comments are, the Twittersphere (is that what it’s called?) is full of people with opinions about pubic hair. Most of them go like this:

-from @_LadyTaylor: “Women should not have pubic hair. It’s gross.”

-from @erin023: “I actually have a vagina and pubic hair still grosses me out. It’s all personal preference.”

-from @AimanJacheem: “OMFG! That chick said she didn’t shave her pubic hair for 10 weeks! HAHAHA!”

Oh, and one last word from Stoya, who, evidently, has a history of bad luck with salons:

http://stoya.tumblr.com/post/3364672669/stoya-vs-the-waxing-salon

 

 

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Just because this blog is about pubic hair doesn’t preclude me from writing about other kinds of body hair, right? After all, the forces that encourage women to remove their leg and armpit hair are more-or-less the same as those that are, increasingly, marketing pubic hair as unkempt and dirty. We’ve constructed body hair as masculine — which means that women are required to remove that hair in order to define themselves as feminine (ie. in contrast to men).

One of the things I’m interested in is how young women learn what is required of them when it comes to partaking of these body practices. Obviously, a young woman doesn’t start her depilation practice with her pubic hair. Presumably, she crosses over from girl to woman with each newly adopted body practice. She learns from her mother, her peers, and from the media (where she is bombarded with hundreds of images of ‘perfect’-looking women every day) about what is expected from her.

I remember the day one of my friends showed me her newly shorn legs. I was in grade seven and, at the time, hung out fairly regularly with a couple of vaguely nerdy girls. One, Eleni, was Greek. As such, the hair on her legs was relatively dark and coarse. At this point, it was still the late 1980s. We didn’t yet have the Internet. In some ways, the way we lived our lives was still relatively sheltered.

But one day, Eleni showed up at school with hair-free legs. We were a little in awe. What had it been like, we asked? How had she known what to do?

Interestingly, rather than making me go out and do the same, Eleni shaving her legs raised all kinds of questions in me, the budding feminist. Before I could shave my own legs, I wanted to know WHY I was supposed to. WHO decided that I needed to shave my legs? Why did I need to shave mine when the boys weren’t expected to do the same?

Back when I was a kid, we didn’t have the Internet to help us answer those kinds of questions. But things are different now.

I recently came upon a fascinating (though kinda horrifying) series of videos geared at helping young women (and their mothers) figure out all the basics around the question of how and when to start shaving. The video series, called Gillette Venus Shaving Tips (there are eight in total), feature an excessively perky young host, Gabby who says things like “shouldn’t I be as hairfree as I am carefree?” about her decision to start shaving.

My “favourite” video (#2) is when Gabby realizes she is “animal hairy” at a slumber party (“It was all I could see. It was all I could think about. I couldn’t think about how great my toenails would look in Pink Taffy nail polish. I couldn’t listen to Kristen talk about how she texted Tom in study hall. All I could see was…that…hair.”) She advises that you’re ready to start shaving “whenever you start to feel uncomfortable about NOT shaving.”  (That’s right: start the body obsession stuff ASAP)

Here’s the video: http://www.gillettevenus.com/en_US/goddess_central/videos/when_to_start_shaving/index.jsp

These are merely mini Gillette ads packaged up neatly to sell products by honing in on insecurities (tip #6: Choose a Venus razor). Hello, brand loyalty? Get ’em while they’re young…

 

 

 

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Hi all – sorry for the radio silence over the last few days. I’ve been busy reading and thinking and trying to figure out where to take this conversation next. I’ve started doing formal interviews, too. This morning I interviewed a woman who has been working as an esthetician for 35 years. I’ll be offering up some of the best bits of that conversation in an upcoming post.

For now, I wanted to draw your attention to the wild world of YouTube — most significantly, to this commercial for a ‘bikini trimmer’. If you’ve got a quick moment, have a look at this:

This is a commercial that evidently ran on television in the United Kingdom (though I haven’t been able to discern exactly when). It has since enjoyed tremendous popularity here on the interweb.

It some ways, there’s nothing to say, right? It’s at once totally appalling and wonderfully hilarious.

I am particularly fascinated by how un-subtle it is:

I love that we start in a staid living room where our main character sits trapped between two bushy ferns, cuddling a particularly fluffy cat (be sure to note the shorn feline she’s holding in the final scene). She then bursts into the outside world (hair down and dressed in a flouncy skirt and bright pink topic) rarin’ to clip her topiary along with a collection of bubbly neighbours.

We then learn that “some bushes are really big” (black woman) and that “some gardens are mighty small” (asian woman) — but never fear, because “whatever shape your topiary, it’s easy to trim them all.”

In other words ladies: you can do whatever you like with your shrubbery, as long as you do something. Selling women on the idea that they should “never feel untidy” is pretty much at the crux of what I’m on about in this blog: that the unkempt woman is unacceptable. Buying the “Quattro for Women” bikini trimmer, however, oughta get you fixed right up.

(I love that one of the posted comments in response to this video is “This is the hint of? all hints to leave on your girlfriends (sic) facebook. lol” Ah, technology: facilitating communication between the sexes for, oh, a handful of years or so).

Oh- and while I’ve got your attention — the American market got a similar but more subtle ad. This one is for the “Schick Quattro Bikini Trim Style”. Have a look:

I love that they encourage us to “Free Our Skin” by buying their product — again, drawing a not-particularly-subtle link between consumption and freedom.

And obviously, women aren’t the only ones being honed in on by the consumption machine. I recently came across this little ditty aimed at (presumably young) men:

It’s interesting to compare how markets tap into male and female insecurities when it comes to intimate grooming. With women, the focus is on feeling tidy and together. With men, it’s about “making the tree look taller”.

More soon.

 

 

 

 

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Yes, that’s right:

Original Art! Right here! And it’s all on our favourite topic: pubic hair.

This little blog has planted a few creative seeds lately — most notably in the wonderfully inventive mind of Toronto-based artist Julie Voyce.

Every couple of weeks or so, I’ll be featuring a new drawing by Julie, created especially for The Last Triangle.  Because we’re still just introducing the issues, we’ll start with this smashing drawing of an au-naturel gal wearing smashing shoes. Enjoy!

 

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hi readers-

I’m so grateful so many of you are reading and commenting. I’m also thrilled by how many are re-posting my writing on Facebook using the ‘like’ button (though somehow I just messed everything up and now the evidence of those many ‘likes’ seems to have vanished from the end of each post. I’m still tweaking the technical bugs – thanks for your patience).

So here’s where I want to go with things today: I’m going to keep to the generalizations as I get ramped up. My hope is to get into individual interviews and more pop-cultural and critical looks at things as I go — but we’re just warming up.

A few thoughts for today:

It probably isn’t news to any of us that gender is performed — and that femininity is usually created in opposition to masculinity (I’m writing this in a university library where I am seeing it play out all around me). When it comes to mainstream definitions of men and women, we often play things out in opposition to one another.

So, where the masculine body  is naturally hairy, the feminine body should always appear smooth and hairless. Where rugged men wear five o’clock shadow, well kept women are plucked and bleached. Male hair is short and utilitarian, his skin is rough, and his face natural and unadorned. Being ‘feminine’ means wearing make-up and having high maintenance hair. The female body left untamed is, as a matter of course in our society today, unacceptable — or at the very least, sort of weird and pitiable.

(That’s not, of course, to say that men aren’t being targeted in new and creative ways by the fashion and beauty industry — but the notion of the man who is overly concerned with grooming is still more often than not seen as a little suspect. With women, it’s the opposite — she who is fails to pay sufficient attention to her beauty regiment is the problem. Men also tend not to monitor one another in the same way that women do).

But here’s where we go back into the pubic hair question:

Whereas other parts of the female body have always been up for public scrutiny, until recently what you did with your hair-down-there was between you and whoever got to see you naked. By setting standards for how it should be tended we’re declaring (to young, heterosexual women in particular — at least because that’s where my attention is focused right now) that there are right ways and wrong ways to groom oneself.

Get it right (with time, money, effort and pain) and you’ll be able to walk around feeling sexy, confident and in-control. Get it wrong…and you may as well dress yourself in paper bags and give up washing your hair — because you probably won’t be having sex anytime soon.

I think the reasons for the normalization of pubic hair removal are complicated. While it’s easy to make generalizations about how pubic hair removal keeps grown women looking child-like in a culture that fetishizes youth (and more than a few people have addressed this issue in their comments and to me, off-line), I think the reasons are inherently more complicated than that.

It could have, as I have suggested, something to do with our love of good hygiene. Pubic hair’s role, of course, is to help keep the genitals protected while giving those mysterious phermones a place to hang out — and some have argued that modern day living (and regular showering) makes it redundant now anyway.

But one of the most cited influences for the new hairlessness is pornography — which is having a profound impact on all of us, whether we watch it or not. The internet makes even the most hard-core material available to any of us, whenever we want it, in the comfort (and privacy) of our own homes.

In her 2005 book, Pornified, Pamela Paul writes that the average age for first encountering pornography on-line is now eleven years old. (And she was referencing 1995 statistics, so it’s quite likely that kids are even younger than that, these days).

For many children, what they encounter online — where the mainstream stuff (again, I’m going to generalize) is often horrifically degrading to women — becomes the basis for their sexual education, setting the bar for what’s ‘normal’: particularly for what sex looks like, and how women are supposed to look and behave.

And it is pornography, it seems, that first normalized the removal of pubic hair. In her essay “Clean Porn: the Visual Aesthetics of Hygiene, Hot Sex and Hair Removal,” writer and academic Susann Cokal describes how the smaller screens associated with at-home consumption have impacted body practices in pornography: getting rid of pubic hair improved visibility and helped foster intimacy with viewers.

So it’s not surprising that a generation of young men and women raised with hard-core porn think pubic hair is gross. It’s now so unusual in mainstream porn that it has spawned its own fetish: “hairy women.”

But in a culture where we’re all supposedly trying to increase our “erotic capital” (a term coined by the academic Catherine Hakim), emulating what is seen on-screen becomes completely understandable. Women — particularly young women — today are not only expected to be beautiful, but to be ‘hot’ (as in sexually desireable). And there’s nothing ‘hotter’ than looking like a porn-star, right?

Of course, the women coming of age now have been raised in the era of ‘girl power’ — a clever “post-feminist” capitalist ploy where being scantily clad and objectified is now your choice. It’s empowering! Ariel Levy’s 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs sums it up well by describing young women embracing ‘raunch culture’ and things that were once the exclusive domain of men — like porn — in the name of equality. The problem for women, of course, is that it ends up looking like the same old objectification.  When it comes to sexuality, young women are still having to be more concerned with how they look and act, than with how they feel.

I met a young woman recently who took issue with my research, defiantly defending her right to wax away her pubic hair (which, to be clear, I was not attacking – merely questioning). “What about oral sex?” she asked me defensively, suggesting that an unwaxed woman might be a less worthy recipient. In a social climate where blow-jobs are now first-base material, I’m worried about what we’re telling young women about sex: men are entitled to oral sex (now handed out at parties like a party trick) — but for women to be recipients, their intimate grooming must be up to code.

So again, I want to reiterate that I am not opposed to women doing things that make them feel good.  What I’m worried about women feeling obliged to do things that they may not want to do, but where they may not feel that they have a whole lot of choice. And that’s what I’m looking at with my research.

Instead of embracing our bodies as they are, women are being sold products and expensive services in a bid to make their ‘lady bits’ more appealing — but to whom? and why? And when a woman, for example, chooses to have herself ‘vajazzled’ (yep- that’s when you have your pubic hair waxed off, only have to have it replaced by glued on crystals, a practice made famous by actress Jennifer Love Hewitt) who is she doing it FOR?

I don’t necessarily have the answers, but I’m certainly doing my best to find out over the course of this research.

Obviously, fashion goes in waves — but I am still waiting for the day when leg and armpit hair come back in to style (I mean really: is NOT shaving really a viable choice for women?)

When it comes to pubic hair, I fear the wheels of capitalism are already well in motion. The multi-billion dollar beauty industry is always looking for new turf — and tapping into women’s body insecurities through their vulvas is, I’ll admit it, kind of brilliant. Is it any coincidence that labiaplasty (cosmetic surgery which snips away at the labia to make it more aesthetically pleasing and “tighter”) is now one of the fasting growing surgeries in the United States today?

More soon. Thanks for reading.


 

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Whoa- firstly, let me tell you how thrilled I am by the response my last blog post got. I not only value the comments readers posted to the blog proper, but also all the thoughts people sent me through email, or through posting to my Facebook page. I have to say, there are days when I wonder whether this project is a worthy undertaking. Getting reader feedback and comments definitely make it clear that it’s worth pursuing and that there is lots of stuff to talk about. Pubic hair! Who knew?

My hope is to cover a whack of issues related to pubic hair over the next few weeks and months (heck, even years if I can keep it up!). Your comments give me important stuff to think and write about. Some important issues came up yesterday that I hope to address in the next little while. They include:

  • the issue of pubic hair removal as symbolically returning the female body to a child-like state. Someone brought up the struggle of championing adult womanhood in a cultural milieu that seems bent on valuing youth (the commenter made the provocative suggestion that all women want to look like 13-year-old boys: “skinny, gangly, hipless and hairless”).
  • someone else suggested that our culture actually fears powerful, adult women — hence the desire for women to be hairless, and to remove the hair that marks their bodies a sexually mature, especially as women gain more political and economic clout in our culture.
  • Another reader proposed the idea that pubic hair removal is just a trend (“albeit a shitty one”). Could be? Let’s discuss (though I suspect leg and armpit shaving was once seen as a ‘trend’ too…)
  • Yet another brought up the popular reality television series ‘America’s Next Top Model’ — particularly one episode that focused its attention on wannabe models showing up ‘un-groomed’ to photo shoots (ie. a move that brought on the wrath of Ms. Tyra Banks, Power Supermodel). Whether it was official declared or not, it sounds like the message was clear: there ain’t no place for pubic hair in the mean, fickle race to be the prettiest girl in the room.
  • And also important: a male commenter asked why this blog was not addressing the issue of men and pubic hair removal. And I just want to be clear that I’m not disinterested in male issues. I hope I’ll get a chance to talk about everything! Because this is part of a thesis project, however, I am having to give myself some gentle parameters — which, in this case (and for now at least!) is to focus my research on women.

More soon.

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