Interviews

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The other day a video popped up on a friend’s Facebook feed. It featured a small image of what appeared to be a t-shirt on a mannequin. There was a big, blurry circle in the mannequin’s crotch area.

Next to it was this headline: controversial window display in Halifax, N.S. turns heads. Figuring it might involve pubic hair, I could resist clicking the link. I wasn’t wrong. (you can watch it for yourself here).

It took me to a news segment that aired earlier this week on CTV news in Halifax. Before running the item, host Steve Murphy looks at the audience and says “we caution you that some of you may find this offensive, and it may not be appropriate for younger viewers.”

Which is what made the item so extra hilarious. In short: it’s a very short news item about an “art installation” that’s getting “mixed reviews” in a store-front window on Barrington Street in downtown Halifax. Apparently a whole whack of people are incredibly offended by it and there’s a petition circulating to have the work taken down. The news item, which is shabbily put together, clips a couple of people talking about how terrible they find it, along with a few who shrug their shoulders and say they don’t really know what it’s about. While the item fails to credit the artist entirely, it does clip the curator, Scott Saunders, who makes a couple of valid points about how there is much more offensive stuff going on  in the windows of the sex shops down the street. He says the work is about “Canadian identity, sexual politics, and the idea of Canadiana.”

At no point do we ever get to see what everyone is so upset about because of the HUGE, BLURRY CIRCLE shielding us from the display’s horrors.

Well here, ladies and gentlemen, is what the news needed to protect you from:

That’s right: a mannequin wearing a T-shirt reading “Canada: Go Beavers!” and a furry, pubic-hair-esque loin cloth. Though she is not mentioned in the controversy, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the artist is Bonita Hatcher, a NSCAD grad.

Here’s a wider view of the entire window:

(Sorry it’s so small! Halifax’s alt weekly, The Coast, posted a great photo to Instagram, too). 

Curious to know more (and so thoroughly dissatisfied by the news item), I booked a call with the artist.

Our chat was wonderful – hilarious, energizing, and informative. Bonita immediately filled in some of the blanks around the window work for me. Firstly, the news item omitted some significant details: most significantly, that the beaver featured in the lower left hand corner of the window IS COMPLETELY SHORN! That’s right – in what sounds like a painstaking process, she SHAVED A TAXIDERMY BEAVER. She then cut up a bit of an old (beaver) fur coat, adorned a particularly phallic piece of it with red ribbons, and turned it into a loin cloth. She had the T-shirt created especially. Though it’s hard to read at first, the beaver in the image is hairless.

Bonita, who is in her early 40s with a background in marine biology, was as appalled as anyone by the upset her piece had elicited among Haligonians. She said she was most fascinated by the fact that there was nothing ACTUALLY offensive in what she had created — a shorn beaver, a furry merkin, and a printed t-shirt. It was, she pointed out, up to viewers to make connections if they wanted to – and in order to do so, one had to be properly equipped (a shorn beaver, for example, has no meaning in itself unless you know that ‘beaver’ is a slang term for a woman’s genitalia).

While Bonita told me she hadn’t sought out to make a statement about pubic hair (in fact, the shorn beaver was originally part of a larger piece addressing ‘Canadiana’), normalized pubic hair removal among women has fascinated her for some time. She described re-entering the dating scene after the end of her marriage and coming to terms with what a ‘Brazilian’ was (“it took me awhile to figure out what it was,” she recalled, “I remember going ‘oh-my-god, are you kidding me?’ In my mind, if I had a hair caught in the elastic of my underwear I would cry.”

For Bonita, who only started making art as an adult has always been interested in feminist art and performance. In one of her first performances at art school, she cut off her clothes and painted herself with latex. “I got that stuff out of the way,” she laughs, later wearing a wedding dress 24-hours a day for a week in a bid to explore the idea that traditional female wedding garb serves to cover the body from head to toe and restrict movement.

I don’t even think that Bonita has a precise grasp on what she was trying to say to the world with her “controversial” window display — but she definitely managed to make a statement. The shorn beaver is visually clever, the phallic merkin, provocative. It’s not entirely clear whether we are supposed to celebrate the hairless beast and lament the loss of his fur, or whether we should be re-embracing our own Canadian short-n-curlies, but in a sense it really doesn’t matter. The work does (as Bonita intended) start a conversation that is definitely worth having.

Bonita also let slip that she’s intended to start selling her “go beavers’ T-shirts. I can’t wait to stroll the streets of my city in it this summer. No blurry circle required.

 

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So firstly, allow me to apologize for my total AWOL status — all I can tell you is that I’ve been busy. As you are probably already aware, I started writing this blog as part of my Master’s thesis project, which I backed it up with a longer-than-anticipated paper (in which I included excerpts from the blog and comments from readers like you). The paper was a bit of a slog for me, but I got through it.

Last Thursday, before a committee of three, I defended my project and successfully earned my Master’s degree (I’ve been decompressing ever since!). I want to thank all of you for your thoughts and encouragement around this project and the kind of stuff I have been writing.

But even though I’ve earned the degree, I’m not yet ready to give up on the blog or on thinking about the politics of pubic hair. This issue isn’t going away. There’s lots more to say.

That said, as I ease myself back into the working world, I would like to change things up a little bit. Up until now the primary voice you’ve been reading is mine. Sure, I’ve interviewed people and included their opinions in my entries — but at the end of the day, it’s all been mediated through me and my experience.

What I want now is more variation and input from readers. I’d love to have more guest writers expressing themselves here. I need more variety in the voices we’re hearing from: I’d love to have more input from men, from women of colour, and from people who challenge the boundaries of gender. If you’re feeling shy about your writing, feel free to dash something off and submit it to me for editing. It’s your ideas and experiences I am after — not perfect writing.

I promise to post more frequently than I have done for the last few weeks! And I really look forward to hearing from you and to including your experiences and writing in my posts. (You can submit your writing to mdault [at ] meredithdault.com)

 

 

 

 

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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