August 2011

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I may be on holiday at the moment, but it doesn’t mean I’ve given up thinking about pubic hair. In fact, I spent last night at a bar talking to a couple of smart women about that very topic. Every time I have such a conversation, I’m grateful for how much young women are willing to share when it comes to discussing their bodies and sex. I inevitably laugh or feel moderately horrified (though less-so these days) by what they tell me.

Yesterday was particularly fun because of the ages of the two women I spoke with. One was 24, and a regular pubic-hair-remover. The other was 38, and non-remover (their body practices seem to be generally in accordance with my previous research). Our ‘interview’ was conversational, over snacks and wine… a fun discussion, more than anything.

The conversation was a follow-up to one I’d once had with the 24 year old (I’ll call her Angela) around the issues of body hair and body hair removal. She’d said something along the lines of “growing up, I always just understood it’s what women had to do: remove their leg, arm pit and pubic hair.”

Naturally, I was curious about where young women get those kinds of messages — and hence the follow-up chat.

Angela is funny and blunt, and one of the first things she said yesterday was “I remember I once saw pubic hair dye at Winners, and I thought ‘weird… who has pubic hair?”

Angela grew up in Halifax and works in the media. She recently broke up with a long term boyfriend and has been experimenting with more casual liaisons for the last year or so. With an undergrad degree in Cultural Studies, she also has the education and theoretical background to be able to think critically about the world. But when it comes to her own body, Angela knows what it takes to make her comfortable with it.

“No guy has ever asked me to get rid of (my pubic hair),” she told me, explaining that she started removing it herself when she was about 15 — six weeks into a relationship with her first boyfriend, and just before things got sexual.

“I had tried shaving it off before, but I’d never been consistent (until then). But (my boyfriend) wanted to go down on me, and I was like.. shit…I have to do something about this. And it wasn’t ‘cause he was like, you’ve got to clean that up. I just felt it would be cleaner, and more pleasant for him. And it wasn’t explicitly said, but it was for me to be more comfortable.”

She says it was pretty ubiquitous among girls her age by then — in fact, Angela says she can only remember one friend sporting full pubic hair when she cast her eyes about the change room after gym class in grade 10. “I was like…whoa.. surprised. Because nobody else in the change room was rocking that.”

But while it’s easy to imagine that the pressure to remove comes (explicitly or not) from men, Angela says that’s never been the case. As she explained it to me, “no guy has ever asked me to get rid of it.” She did admit, however, that she thought it would be “shocking” for a guy her age (24) to see pubic hair.

“I can intellectualize it all I want,” she laughed. “We can bring up Foucault…or any cultural theorist, but when it comes to shower-time, I’m hacking it off.”

It was the presence of the second woman (aged 38, who I will call Claire) who really helped illustrate the profound change in body practices between the two generations.

Claire laughed (for example) when Angela presumed that our generation had had thong underwear when we were young (I laughed, too). In fact, while Claire remembers growing up with the idea that pubic hair removal was an unusual practice (she remembers seeing a film as a young teenager that made her feel it was a little deviant), Angela knows it as normal.

When Claire and I asked her how she first understood that she was supposed to remove her pubic hair, she pointed to advertising.. especially ads for La Senza underwear and the like. “You buy the same panties as the girl in the ad, but they look different on you, because you’re packing something,” she explained. That’s when Claire and I laughed again, because we couldn’t think of many examples of women in their underwear that we would have seen growing up, except maybe those depicted in the Sears catalogue. Ours was, after all, a pre-internet world.

I’ve often wondered how age will impact things for young women currently growing up without ever seeing your pubic hair. Will they allow it to grow in when they’re older? Is it (as some have suggested) merely a youthful fancy that will pass like all fashions?

After talking to Angela, my guess is no.

“You get used to seeing yourself in a certain way,” she told me with a shrug. For Angela, removing her pubic hair is just another way of performing femininity. “Why do I put highlights in my hair, or why do I wear skirts? Or why do women wear high heels? I think women do a lot of things to ourselves that really don’t make sense.”

She’s definitely got that part right.

 

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Vagina Love/Hate

embroidered vagina

Two interesting articles for consideration today. This one, that appeared it yesterday’s Globe and Mail, is about how women are pursuing labiaplasty even when they are ‘normal’ “down there”. I’ve written about labiaplasty before: that’s when women have (unnecessary) cosmetic surgery to make their inner labia smaller (ie. more child/barbie doll-like). The article suggests that most women are seeking out the surgery to “improve their appearance” (sorry for all the quotation marks, but I find it hard to write those words without pointing out how silly they are), though some women argue it’s also due to physical discomfort.

I know I’ve said it before, but if we weren’t all so caught up in banishing our pubic hair, our labia would get to hang out and do its thing in true comfort, rather than being stripped bare for scrutiny.

(ahrg!)

And after all that body-hate, some vag-love:

Today’s London Evening Standard includes this story about “a new frankness about vaginas” in which the writer goes on about a movement geared towards celebrating all things vaginal (while also drawing my attention to a disturbing new word for female genitalia – “clunge”).

The author suggests that the trend towards vaginally themed crafts, drawing classes and pop-cultural frankness on the subject is “a reaction against the tyranny of waxing and vajazzling – porn chic culture where young men surfing the internet see only hairless models and are therefore surprised to discover that young women have pubic hair.”

Lots to consider. I can’t wait for your comments.

 

 

 

 

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Those of you who are new to this blog may not be familiar with the series of drawings that Toronto-based artist Julie Voyce has been doing especially for The Last Triangle. She’s finding her inspiration in what she reads here, and then lets her imagination roam, coming up with ideas and images that push boundaries.

I haven’t posted one of Julie’s images for some time now, but I am very pleased that I am able to feature one today.

In creating this image, Julie says she was inspired by something I wrote about virgin waxing — and her imagining what it would be like if all the kids who got virgin waxes as kids grew up to realize they wanted to re-embrace their body hair after all.

Julie writes:

Here it is! The Future! Newly Created Consumer Demand!

It is the year 2035. Millions of little girls were given the virgin wax treatment, and as they grew up, they found they really wanted to have pubic hair!

They became angry because they weren’t given a choice!

A hair dresser by the name of Steinberg Rosamund Lenoir (Rosy L is her nick-name) invents the fashion trend that becomes all the rage! Why have a little hair when you can have a whole lot, thanks to the miracle of super growth injections in any colour desired.

Just shoot yourself up anywhere you want to have fur (in any hue!) and watch that beautiful hair grow, grow, grow!

Pictured here: the distribution most women favour: a little bit of mystery, a little bit of cheek…a whole lot of elegance!

 

For more of Julie’s drawings, click on the Julie Voyce tag in the tag cloud to the left…

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Check this out, people:

Hello Meredith,

My name is Caroline*, I’m 20 years old. I stumbled upon your blog, literally on Stumble Upon, and I have to say that I really liked it. It was refreshing to see someone say that pubic hair was okay. I then realized that I have no idea what I even look like with hair, i’ve been shaving since I ever started growing hair at around 12. I shaved even though it hurt and was super uncomfortable when it grew back. I decided that I’m going to go ahead and let it grow! I’m super curious now as to what it looks like on me.Who knows, maybe I’ll prefer it haha but anyway I just wanted to thank you for helping me realize that it is okay to be natural, and even though I don’t always accept this I feel like I am on my way.

Take Care!

Your now faithful reader,

Caroline*, Los Angeles, California.

(*not her real name)

Let me tell you — I was so thrilled to get this note.

I love love love the idea that one young woman is feeling empowered enough to start to question the messages she’s been internalizing since she was a kid.

I can’t wait to hear how Caroline’s experiment goes. She promised to keep me posted — if she’s ok with my sharing, I’ll pass details on to you…

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Going Down

One of the arguments I hear a lot in support of pubic hair removal is this: oral sex. There’s a message out there (one that I worry a lot of young women are internalizing) that seems to suggest that guys will (often begrudgingly) perform oral sex, but only if women keep themselves meticulously groomed (ie. hairless) so that things are neat and tidy and easy to find.

That’s certainly the message that this guy is promoting:

This guy is particularly obnoxious, because he first makes a big deal about how much he likes performing cunnilingus, but then makes it clear that unless the target area is well kept, it’s not going to get any attention. People: if you keep your pubic hair tidy and clean, it really shouldn’t interfere with oral sex. Here’s a radical idea: don’t get rid of it, just MOVE IT OUT OF THE WAY.

People have been giving and receiving oral sex since long before intimate waxing was de rigeur and everyone seemed to do just fine.

What I worry about most is the fact that a lot of young women today say they won’t let a guy near their nether regions unless everything is in tip top shape, while they are expected to give out blow-jobs like they’re shaking hands. It’s a mindset I feel like we’ve got to try and change.

If this guy really is a masterful as he seems to imply he is when it comes to oral sex, he should be embracing it whenever he can get it — not only when the conditions are ‘right’.

And unless he’s keeping his business impeccably waxed, he’s got no right to suggest that his sexual partners do the same. Addressing “women” over YouTube about what they should be doing with their pubic hair is just straight up obnoxious.

Hair removal should not be a pre-requisite for anyone’s pleasure.

 

 

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I’ve been working with a book called ‘The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair’ as part of my research these days. Edited by Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, the book brings together a collection of fascinating articles around women and body hair and general socio-cultural views towards both.

But when I saw the headline ‘The Last Remaining Sexual Taboo’ in Friday’s Globe and Mail, I had to take a look (I mean c’mon, who doesn’t like a good sexual taboo, right?). The article explores female masturbation — specifically the fact that women, especially young ones, just aren’t keeping up as compared with men. The article states a bunch of obvious facts: male anatomy is more… uh…readily accessed and more publicly discussed than the female equivalent. Female masturbation is so often tied to performativity — ie. it’s often done as a turn-on for a partner, but isn’t necessarily embraced as a solo activity.

There are, of course, lots of reasons women should be embracing their own pleasure and their own bodies, most notably because it’s a way of really getting to know your own body and what makes it tick, rather than relying on a partner to figure it out for you.

As one expert is quoted as saying in the article, “young women are not encouraged to take ownership of their bodies or of sexual pleasure.”

And yet, they are expected to keep themselves impeccably groomed, presumably for “themselves”, right?

Anyone else see a problem with this?

Wouldn’t you think that living in an era when women are increasingly keeping their nether regions hairless would mean a lot more self-exploration? I mean really – if you’re going to spend all that time and money keeping everything bare and accessible, shouldn’t you be taking advantage? Otherwise, aren’t you always doing it for someone else?

hrmmmmm.

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Earlier this week I introduced you to Ben, a queer-identified female-bodied man who had some really interesting things to say about around his relationship to pubic hair. If you missed the first part of the conversation, you can read it here.

Ben, 21, uses a wheelchair, and though he is becoming increasingly aware of how much he can do on his own, has had personal support workers (PSW) help with his hygiene since he was a teenager. It was a PSW who first encouraged him to remove his pubic hair. His mother had strong inclinations against the PSW’s opinion that removal was more hygienic. Ben says the tension between those two forces was challenging to manage — but says he never really felt he had true autonomy over his own body. “It was one force saying I should, and one for saying I shouldn’t… and then finally the one force saying I shouldn’t became stronger,” he explained to me.

But then recently, he reclaimed some power with an experience with a female-bodied sexual partner who liked his body as is was — and who modelled a particular degree of comfort with her own body. “I slept with someone who had a bush like me — and that was the turning point.”

Ben says he did try shaving before that turning point. “I had a boyfriend in high school, and I lost my ‘official’ virginity to him…and I sort of shaved.. or just like, tidied up for him. I liked being pretty for him. That was something I enjoyed.. it was an excuse for self-care. It was a way to feel good about my own self and appearance,” he explained, admitting that knowing someone else was looking — in a sexual way, and not in a its-my-job-to-give-you-a-shower way did make a difference.

Ben, who was then 17, says he kept the pubic hair removal process secret, trying discreetly to sweep the hair under his bed. “I have a lot more use of my arms when I am lying down, as compared with in the shower,” he explained with a laugh, “so I would dry shave in my bed and then try to hide it.”

Ben says the shaving felt like a necessary part of becoming sexually active. Before they were intimate, “(my boyfriend) said (my pubic hair) was exotic. He was ok with it, but I knew generally that when I was sexually active I might want to do something about it.”

Ben says he didn’t take it all off in the end, but tidied things up, best as possible to please his partner. Though the boyfriend never complained about the hair “he also didn’t touch it. He would get past it very quickly.”

Everything changed for Ben once he had a (female-bodied) partner who not only didn’t mind hair, but actively liked it. “This person would engage it it.. and I was like ‘oh, this isn’t something that you deal with, you actually kind of like it!’, and that was cool.”

Because Ben says he doesn’t really know what gender he identifies with, he says he doesn’t always know whose rules he is “supposed to play by in terms of that stuff, either.”

For me, that’s why Ben’s story is so fascinating. Blurring the lines around gender performance, he has experienced being in the world in different ways. Because of his disability, he has also had different forces impact his own body grooming practices. He is conscious of the messages many younger people seem to have internalized about pubic hair being undesirable. But it sounds like having had a partner who wasn’t judgmental about hair (and was, rather, celebratory!) also provided an important point of comparison (and body confidence).

We should all be so lucky.

 

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Oh, Boys…

You’re facing pressures of your own, no? Though I’d argue that it’s less common to hear of a guy being seen as dirty or disgusting for leaving his pubic hair au-natural, I’m reading/hearing about men facing an increasing amount of pressure to go hairless.

Poking around on the internet this morning, I came across a website selling (surprise!) hair removal products (anyone see a theme when it comes to hair removal?) for men.

I was particularly taken by the narrative they were doling out: that in removing their pubic hair they would be more attractive to the opposite sex, and that, in general, things would be more ‘hygienic’ — essentially the same arguments women seem to be readily internalizing.

This site not only tries to sell men on the idea of whisking away their pubic hair (“Back in the day having a hairy chest and body was sexy but these times have changed. Women now find smooth, clean male bodies more attractive. But pubic shaving isn’t just about impressing the oppisate sex but also about personal hygiene”) but then it actually tries to sell them a fancy electric “bodygroomer”, as well as a special powder for the inevitable post-shave itching:

Here are some pubic shaving tips for guys who are ready for their first pubic shaving experience:

– DO NOT use a razor blade

– DO NOT use an electric shaving machine

– DO NOT use regular body soap

– DO NOT use after shave

So how do you properly shave your balls? Easy, the one and most important tool you need to avoid cuts and enjoy your pubic shaving experience is the Philips Norelco Bodygroom.

Sigh.

Of course you do. WHAT A SURPRISE.

(Seriously, people – how has it happened that we’re all caught up in this? I’d love to hear what you think).

 

 

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As regular readers will know, as part of my research I’ve been conducting interviews with people (mostly young women) about their views on their own body hair. I want to tell you about one of the most interesting I did recently.

The interview was with a 21-year old called Ben who identifies as queer, and as a female-bodied man or CAFAB (Coercively Assigned Female At Birth). We agreed to do a formal interview after having an interesting conversation as two strangers one afternoon. I told Ben about my blog, and he said a whack of smart things that I wanted to follow up on.

One of the first things he said when we met for a formal interview was this: “I completely buy the idea that we/they are… being sold this (pubic hair removal) thing, but I don’t buy the idea that it’s what men want on the ground level. I think it’s what a certain system wants.”

Ben has, from the sounds of it, a healthy sense of self and body. He had good body image modeled for him by a mother who was comfortable being naked (and who had “a mound of pubic hair. I had no real point of comparison.”) When he was 12 or 13, Ben says that his mom started to shave his armpits for him, “which I didn’t want, but it was a body odor thing, not a hair thing.”

Ben only has limited use of his hands/arms, and uses a wheelchair to get around. He has grown up having help from others in order to perform many day-to-day tasks, including many aspects around his own body care and grooming.

Ben says he remembers feeling upset by his mother’s tending of his armpits. “I was also confused, because it was not like her to try and compel me into some kind of feminine norm.” Though Ben says he ultimately gave his mother consent to perform the grooming, he says it was “elicited aggressively.” “It was like, I was persuaded, but I really didn’t have a choice,” he explains.

At one point, Ben switched from having his mother tend to his body grooming, to have a female personal support worker (PSW) — a paid stranger — do the job. “I was more comfortable with that, really, than with having my mom do it,” he explains. But Ben says that on more than one occasion the PSW commented inappropriately on his pubic hair — which was as yet untended. “They would be dressing or undressing me, or showering me. And they would like, ask me why I didn’t shave. Or suggest that it would be a good idea. But my mom was really against it. And so then I was able to say no to them because her authority trumped theirs.”

What I find particularly interesting about Ben’s story is in the fact that his coming of age involved the input of a stranger functioning in an intimate capacity. Ben talks about the PSWs being “put off” that nobody was doing any pubic hair removal. Without that intermediary, Ben might not have had any sense, at that age, of what his body was supposed to look like, and had little privacy around his own body/body practices.

“Various people would talk to me about how (having pubic hair) was unhygienic,” he explains, “which is so the opposite of true.” One worker was even aggressive about it — and finally (because he had a crush on her), he let her do it.

Though Ben says he has been realizing how much of his own grooming he can actually manage himself, he was taught “1984 style” that he couldn’t. “I just accepted that, and it’s not entirely true.”

Removing pubic hair to please someone else is not so different from what I’ve heard from a lot of other people about what motivates their body hair practices. In Ben’s case, it was initially to please someone who was saying ‘this is how your body is supposed to be,’ (someone who may have have internalized those messages herself through media, etc) if he didn’t entirely agree with the premise. Ben says that he was partly motivated by the fact that the practice would include touching – which he thought he wanted, but soon found he didn’t.

Ben said a whole whack of other fascinating stuff, which I intend to get posted soon. I think there is a lot to consider around his insights on privacy, body practices and gender, and like with the rest of my interviews, I am so grateful that he has been willing to share his stores and experiences with me. More soon.

 

 

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Although they may not seem like immediate bedfellows, body fat and body hair are surprisingly compatible issues — at least when it comes to talking about female bodies. But that’s not always how they’ve always been seen.

Culturally, body weight is often seen (as least in the world of feminist scholarship) as an issue which (quoting Karin Lesnik-Oberstein) “regulates and controls, or produces (the terminology will depend on theoretical orientation), the female body.”

But where there has been lots of writing, analysis and critical discourse about weight, body hair has mostly been seen as a non-issue by feminist scholars.

Though normalized hair removal for women is one of the most fundamental means of body control we’ve got in this culture, it simply hasn’t garnered the same kind of attention that body fat has.

If it’s mentioned at all, as Lesnik-Oberstein points out in her fascinating book ‘The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair’, it is often seen as the issue solely of concern to a certain kind of feminist:

“In fact, it is one of the ways in which (popular or academic) feminists may define, and distinguish themselves from,‘extremist’ feminists: ‘extremists’, then, are, apparently (there are several versions) man-haters and/or separatists, lesbians (seen negatively), bra-burners, women who wear no make-up, do not shave and see themselves as ‘victims’ of the patriarchy, and – often presented as the most damning charge of all, especially by popular writers on feminism – are not ‘fun’.

But as she points out, feminists exploring issues around body weight (and there are LOTS of them) aren’t forced to align themselves along the same kinds of lines. Instead, body weight activism is “accepted as both an area of serious concern for feminism, and by the same measure it is used as a legitimisation of the continued seriousness and relevance of feminism itself in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: as long as women can so visibly be seen still to be controlled, damaged or even killed by their attempts to comply with a patriarchal ideal, feminism cannot quite so easily been seen as superfluous or superficial by those who would wish to claim it as such.”

In other words, freeing women from the demands of constant body control – at least when it comes to weight – is a legitimate concern in feminist scholarship. Body hair barely ever comes in those conversations, even though women may hate their natural (unshaved, unwaxed) legs and armpits as much as they abhor their fleshy bellies or thighs. In each case, the body in question doesn’t measure up to the (culturally created) ‘ideal’.

But here’s where it gets interesting. As Lesnik-Oberstein explains, culturally ‘fat’ women are seen as ugly and unattractive (because the goal is thinness, right?) — but they’re still undeniably seen as female. “Hairy women, on the other hand, are monstrous in being like men, or masculine,” she writes, meaning people are less sympathetic to the cause, because they’re harder to categorize. They “transgress the boundaries of gender.”

Now, nobody is saying everyone should rush to grow out their body hair in order to put the issue back on the feminist map. But it’s definitely interesting to consider the common issues at play when considering body fat and body hair: they’re both used to control and regulate female bodies.

At the end of the day, fat culture keeps women preoccupied with (and disgusted by) their bodies in the same way that body hair does. It keeps women hating themselves and buying things to try and fix what they perceive as ‘problems’.

In other words: it all counts.

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