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.