I just came upon a really well-written and interesting post written by a young woman who has wrestled with the question of how and why to love her own pubic hair. Interestingly, she doesn’t love it, but she doesn’t love that she doesn’t… her writing on the issue is really great — raw and real. These are the confessions and the conversations that make the internet so amazing.
A second, similar entry on the Feminist Dating website — called “A Bushy Dilemma” — is also worth a read. Both articles raise all kinds of issues around socialization and body-hatred (an important issue that never seems to go away, no matter how we wrestle with it).
The site itself doesn’t seem to be particularly active, which is a shame, ’cause it’s got some good stuff on it.
Because Chy isn’t doing anything that we might normally think of as courageous: risking her life to save another’s, walking a tightrope across a vast space, speaking up when nobody else is. She’s just letting her hair grow. That should be a normal act, not a courageous one.
But in a culture where female hairlessness is normal, photographing your legs au natural takes a good deal of bravery, indeed. In not only pointing out, but then choosing not to remove the hair on her face, Chy takes it one step further. She dares people to comment, defiantly asking questions about what it means to be perform gender.
After all, in North American culture, body hair has come to be viewed as one of the easy-to-read distinguishing characteristics between men and women. Men have body hair, while women (regardless of how biology may throw that assumption into question) are smooth and hairless. Right?
In their essay “Gender and Body Hair: Constructing the Feminine Woman,” scholars Merran Toerien and Sue Wilkinson consider the effort required in “producing an acceptably feminine appearance,” in contemporary North American culture, pointing out that the “process of conforming is made more complex by the assumption that femininity should appear ‘natural’. The result: a cycle of effort to maintain the illusion that femininity is effortless,” requiring that women make both the “effort to be hairless and make the state of hairlessness appear ‘natural’.
That’s how we’re all kept busy, hiding any evidence of hair growth, embarrassed by our underarm stubble, keeping our shorts on at the beach if we’ve been neglecting our bikini lines. The message: keep it under control, ladies, or keep it covered.
In choosing to hold on to her body hair, Chy defiantly reminds the world that this, in fact, is what women look like if they choose not to spend time waxing and plucking and otherwise asking the body to conform to a societal norm. As she writes:
I am most proud of my decision and what I look like when I am in the presence of children. Every child or young adult who sees me and notices my body hair has evidence in their lives that women are not all hairless (which I believed when I was little and had me feel alone). The more I love my body as it is, the more I can hope to rupture the assumed agreed upon limits of beauty.
There was a time, of course, when it seemed more acceptable to bear your hair (like, say, during feminism’s long-departed second wave). Lately, as I’ve been exploring in this blog, every last inch of hair (whether it’s in your pants or on show below your knees) seems to need banishing — and more disturbingly, many young women seem oblivious to the fact that hanging on to it is an option at all.
The more we are exposed to alternative ways of being in the world (including hairy ways of being in the world), the more we’ll be able to see that there are lots of different options when it comes to being attractive.
For now, the newest generation of trailblazers should be commended for their courage…
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’.
Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that (impending faculty strike aside) the end of my Master’s degree is in sight. I’ve been writing this blog as part of my research project, along with a weightier paper that is sort of bogging me down these days.
As passionate as I feel about the issues I feel lurk around the edges of discussions about body hair (issues of gender performance, self-esteem, sexuality, societal expectations on young women, etc etc etc), there are days when I just can’t find the will to get focused. “PUBIC HAIR!” I sometimes think to myself, “AHRG!”.
But then I get emails like this. And it all feels like it’s been (and continues to be) time well-spent:
I just wanted to write you a quick email to thank you for writing your blog. I am a young woman going into my third year of university (also at Queen’s!) and pubic hair maintenance/removal is not something I’ve ever really seen or heard discussed before. I’m very glad I found the discussion on your blog. I know I’ve internalised a lot of messages from magazines, movies and books about female pubic hair as unattractive and gross, and these messages made me very confused and insecure because I started to wonder what everyone else was doing ‘down there’, and about what I should be doing as well (and also, what guys expected). Your blog helped me to realize, though, that I’m not the only one feeling that stress/pressure, and also that the pressure to wax it all off is perverse, and unnatural, and very problematic. Thank you for that! Also, your blog helped me to bring up the topic of Brazilian waxes when my Mom and sister and I were on a road trip earlier in the summer! It was the first time I’ve ever discussed pubic hair with anyone, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to bring it up if I hadn’t had your blog to reference. So thanks for that too! (PS, my mom was completely shocked about the popularity of Brazilian waxes and also that some guys refuse to have sex with women who have pubic hair).
Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing and for reminding me that it’s worth the effort. This is why we need to keep talking, writing, sharing. There’s still lots of work to be done!
Although I did have a couple of great talks with Vanessa Willson, the founder of Julyna, earlier this month, I have to rant a little again today.
That’s because I just found this ‘Julyna’ PSA online:
I find it so dumb and so problematic, that I hardly know where to begin!
So presumably, a bunch of (young, fit, mostly white) men and women are playing Red Rover. The men, moustached (presumably in a tribute to ‘Movember’) are playing on one side, fully clothed. The women are, we eventually realize, naked from the waist down (Women naked? In our culture? say it ain’t so!). The two teams call out to one another using their ‘hair styles’ — (ie. “Red rover, red rover, we call handlebars over”. Guy with distinctive facial hair then triumphs across the space between the two lines). Things get gross and weird, however, when the men call out “Red rover, red rover, we call LANDING STRIP over” and a semi-naked woman (the details of their lower halves have been digitally obscured) runs across the field.
Seriously, people: I know you’re probably just trying to be funny with your little PSA, but a whole generation of young women have already internalized the cultural expectation that they sport little more than a landing strip in their day-to-day pubic hair practices. These young women already hate their bodies and already feel so pressured to look and act a certain way in the world.
(In fact, one very bright and beautiful 23-year-old woman recently tried to explain the weight of looking the way she does to me by calling it ‘the package’.. It is her way of describing the expectations people have of her because of her looks. “The Brazilian wax or bikini wax is part of the package,” she explained. When I asked her what else was in the package, she said “not being fat, being pretty… you know.. having the right attitude”.)
Is this little PSA really the most effective way to push your campaign? (and isn’t it weird to pit ‘Movember’ against ‘Julyna’, as if the two were in competition with one another?)
I recently spent some time rereading Naomi Wolf’s classic text, The Beauty Myth. Though it was first published in 1991, it still feels so relevant in so many ways. I can’t help but recall Wolf’s thoughts on what she calls the “officially endorsed double standard for men’s and women’s nakedness in mainstream culture,” which she says “bolsters power inequalities.”
A few thoughts (from Wolf) on the impact (for example) of normalizing naked breasts:
“The practice of displaying breasts, for example, in contexts in which the display of penises would be unthinkable, is portrayed as trivial because breasts are not “as naked” as penises or vaginas; and the idea of half exposing men in a similar way is moot because men don’t have body parts comparable to breasts. But if we think about how women’s genitals are physically concealed, unlike men’s, and how women’s breasts are physically exposed, unlike men’s, it can be seen differently: women’s breasts, then correspond to men’s penises as the vulnerable “sexual flower” on the body, so that to display the former and conceal the latter makes women’s bodies vulnerable while men’s are protected.”
Wolf later writes this (seems pretty apt right about now – hence the bold font):
“To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all day long.”
On that note, I recently spoke with a vivacious, pretty young woman (age 19) who broke my heart when she told me this:
“I hate my body. Every five seconds I’m thinking about how much I hate it. And when I eat something I’m like…Oh my gosh…What is this going to do? So I feel like when I get (Brazilian) waxed, I feel like it’s something I can control like, really easily. It’s an automatic response.”
I asked her if it was fair, then, to say that she was doing the Brazilian waxing for herself, rather than for the guys she has sex with.
“Yeah,” she answered, “but I think it’s both. It’s a little bit for the guys, because having them like it makes me feel good about myself. So…I guess it’s for me, too.”
Enough said, no?
‘Julyna’ is a silly campaign that has, rightfully, generated lots of criticism, even it’s founders were well intentioned and still say they just want to promote a good cause.
But making a video that not only plays on female nakedness and vulnerability, but actually has men calling out for the ‘Landing Strip’ (a woman reduced to her pubic hair style) in a world where many women already face so many inequalities (and spend so much time and energy on body control) is just plain problematic.
It’s probably one of the smartest pieces of journalism I’ve read on the topic of pubic hair removal in some time (and trust me folks – I read a lot of it).
Friedland introduces us to the issue of pubic hair’s “gone missing” status on women by recounting a conversation with a friend. The friend’s “good-looking, sexually-active son” has never seen pubic hair.
“Snatch,” the friend replies. “It’s like a princess phone. He sleeps with girls all the time. He’s never seen a woman’s pubic hair.”
In his introduction, Friedland muses that the disappearance of pubic hair “tells us something about womanhood, the state of love, the human and the relation of body and soul.” He then continues, brilliantly articulating the crux of the issue:
“Pubic practices are rites by which we construct who we know ourselves to be. What are they telling us?”
Over the course of the article, Friedland then explores some really important issues around the removal of pubic hair. Because he has spent a lot of time researching and writing around what I can only describe as “the hook up scene” among a generation of young, sexually active people, he has some insights into the issue of pubic hair removal that are new to me.
Most significantly, Friedland writes, hairless genitals on women are a symbolic indication of sexual readiness (an issue of prime importance in a sexually charged, one-night-stand driven culture).
I know I’ve written about the link between our ready access to online pornography and the absence of pubic hair on a generation of young women before – but Friedland adds to the conversation so eloquently:
American women are, in fact, striking a pornographic pose, one that first appeared in the hard-core porn films that have increasingly shaped the sexual imagination of legions of young men. The eye of the hard-core porn camera hovers over female body parts; it’s a visual excess of physical acts with a minimum of sentiment. It is not a love story. Porn displays pubeless bodies to emphasize the organs — the female genital slit (and the erect male shaft) — and thereby defines the standard of erotic desirability. As nether hair disappeared on screen guys increasingly wanted sex with girls who looked like the porn stars they’d fantasized about. They asked and women struck the pose.
He touches on the chronology of pubic hair removal in porn (starting in Penthouse magazine in 1970) and creeping more regularly into mainstream images by the 1980s.
Friedland also describes the connection between the eroticization of young female bodies and the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s:
Two things happened just before the pubic hair disappeared. The timing is not arbitrary. I will reverse the sequence. In the 1970’s the female teen body became an erotic fetish. In 1974 Larry Flynt began publishing Barely Legal, with frontal shots of eighteen year-old girls. In 1976, an underage Jodie Foster played a 12-year-old prostitute in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver; in 1978, Brooke Shields did the same in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby. Both were underage when they played these parts.
As feminism encouraged women to avoid being the object of gaze while triumphantly embracing their body hair, “the female teen fetish went mainstream.” As Friedland writes, “this eroticization of young girls recaptured the pure feminine, the subordinate, hairless virginal female against whom a man was clearly a man.”
We often hear that we are now living in a “post-feminist” era, where young women are (theoretically) reaping the benefits of (ahem) living in a free and equal society (cough). One of the ways it sometimes plays out is through a recently modified script, where young women seek casual sex rather than eternally looking for love and babies. Friedland suggests that it is the Brazilian wax that becomes part of this “new erotic repertoire, a perpetual reminder that you are always ready for action.”
Clearly I should stop writing and you should all turn to Friedland’s article ASAP. Before I do, however, let me leave you with one of the most spot-on sentences (describing the hygiene issue around women and oral sex) I have read in a long time:
“Hairlessness, like the vaginal mint, advertises that a vagina has been purified for male taste.”
Thanks, Roger Friedland, for getting it so right. (Now we just have to figure out how to fix things…)
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.”
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.