hair as power

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Vulvapalooza!

Well… I have become a very bad blogger, indeed. Sorry about that. You give the girl a Master’s degree, and then bam.. she gives up on you and stops posting regularly. You, my readers, have been on my mind, but my mind has also been pulled in a million other directions lately. I’ve started a new job in a new city, I’m moving, I’m trying to sort out the “what’s next?” questions… you know. Life – it’s busy.

But I haven’t forgotten about pubic hair! Every day, things pop up, crying for attention on the blog. And every day slides past without me getting to posting. So – here we got again! Though I can’t promise daily posting, I will do my best to keep the conversation alive here at The Last Triangle.

Today seems like a good day for me to direct you to a site a new Danish friend of mine sent me. The project, called ‘Kussomaten’ was initiated by a feminist group in Denmark. Women basically sat in a booth and had their genitalia photographed. The goal of the project (and this is crucial to note), was not pornographic – it wasn’t about taking under-skirt photos for arousal purposes. Instead, the goal was to highlight the diversity among female bodies — something I know I’ve written about in this blog before (especially whenever the issue of labiaplasty rears its sanitized head).

So: if you’re reading this at work, or are in a room with a bunch of people you’d rather not see you look at a screen full of vulvas — don’t click on this link now. If you aren’t, or you’re fine with opening a discussion around labial diversity, here’s the link:

http://kvindekenddinkrop.dk/kkdkpix.html#

It’s a fascinating site — the diversity really is amazing.

Looking forward to your comments!

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As I mentioned in my last post, I am very keen on having more voices represented in this blog (not just mine, telling people what I’ve observed). I’ve been asking you to send in your own stories and am pleased to report that I’ve got a great one to start with.

This was submitted recently by “Tocxica” — I’ll let her take it from here:

I Used To Be An Avid Shaver

I used to be an avid shaver. Every other day whether I needed it or not, all of my “hair down there” would be ritualistically culled by my mighty Venus razor. Why? Simple, that’s just what you did. As a child of the 90’s I grew up with the mindset that pubic hair was dirty and unattractive. Who told me this? Well…no one in particular. But it just was. Right? You never really spoke about it. Boys did, but not girls.

Porn was the cause of both my systematic shearing of my pubes and later my refusal to ever shave again. I was twelve when I first discovered the nasty secret of the curly hair that would someday soon be overtaking my lower parts. Some boys from my class were crowding around a magazine and on the centerfold was a nude woman with a thick bush of hair between her legs. It didn’t take long for me to overhear the disgust my classmates had for the hair, or for the jokes to set the thought into my mind that any woman with hair between her legs was a freak. I would never get hair between my legs like that. And then just a short year later, I did.

Fast forward five years and a landfill full to the brim of dull razors, while working on my senior project for school “Sex in Society” I am given a lovely copy of a French erotic magazine with full on bush. At first I was shocked. I asked the person who had given it to me if this was fetish porn. “Nope, just regular old porn.” She said with a strange, confused look on her face. Okay, so it wasn’t some weird French hair fetish porn. I began to look beyond my initial shock at seeing a woman with pubic hair on the cover of an apparently normal pornographic magazine. I noticed the beauty. Why had I spent my entire adolescent life trying to keep myself from looking like this? Why had I suffered the nicks and irritation, the ingrown hairs for Heaven’s sake! It was an epiphany. I didn’t even know what my natural pubic hair looked like! I had begun shaving it as soon as it appeared!

Now I’m married with a daughter and a chipper outlook. Until recently that is. I was playing around on Facebook (a guilty pleasure of mine) when I came across a link posted on a debate page I belong to. Accompanying the link were these questions ‘Being totally shaved/waxed “down there”, is it creepy and “fetishizing the look of prepubescence”, or just a personal preference? Does your s/o weigh in on how you maintain that area?’

Always up for a good debate I scanned the comments before tossing in my two cents as well. My stomach dropped. Out of nearly forty comments absolutely NONE were pro-pubes. Quite the opposite in fact. There were comments like “GROSS!” and “pubic hair is so dirty and nasty, whoever wrote that artacle[sic] is obviously some dirty hippy”.

Having been on both sides of the hairy fence, I decided to weigh in about why I love my pubic hair. How it hurts when it first begins to grow back, how time consuming the upkeep is, and how it hurts when you’re shaved and your partner isn’t. I also went on to ask why every single one of them considered pubic hair to be so horrible. The most coherent response went exactly as follows “here is my reasoning…i dont want hair in my mouth, why would my husband or my girlfriend want it in THEIR mouth? second- i HATE having blood from my period stuck in the hair during the day- i dont have time to shower every time i change a pad, i shower 1-2times a day. third- i work out, i dont want stinky sweaty hair down there while i work out. fourth- i dont like it it “sticking” out of my swimsuit or sexy panties”.

This response made me want to rip my hair out. Seriously? Unless your partner is taking “carpet munching” seriously, there shouldn’t be any hair between their teeth. God forbid you have blood on you during your PERIOD! The horror! The third reason was my favorite. In fact, I giggled about it for a good three minutes or so before replying. Perhaps you’ve picked up why I thought it funny. When exercising correctly, you get sweaty and stinky. That’s why they have showers at most gyms. If you aren’t breaking a sweat, you aren’t doing it right. Her final reason was the easiest for me to reply to. “Try to buy clothing that fits properly then.” I’m no longer very popular with them now.

This led me to ask a few friends of mine their views on pubic hair. Being used to my open discussions on sex and sexuality they answered right away. Here are two of my favorite responses; “ok so, down below i like to keep it where I look like I’ve never hit puberty lol 😉pastedGraphic.pdf annyywhhooo on others , such as my ex gf sometimes she was shaven sometimes not, I didn’t exactly mind as long as she didn’t look like a chubacca that would kidnap my chin….when it comes to oral sex I think I prefer at least trimmed on girls as well as guys (oh no a lesbian has given a blowjob lol) I don’t mind a little hair just but looking like your vagina came from the 60’s or 70’s doesn’t do it for me lol” and “Trim it, but don’t shave – I hate to scrape my face on someone’s 5 o’clock shadow. And long and scraggy is just a turn-off. Always makes me wonder if they even wash…”

Do I feel like a hairy freak? You betcha! Do I care? Not at all! I love my pubic hair! Why wouldn’t I? It’s part of the awesomeness that is me. I’m all for personal preference, but I do wonder why my (in most cases) liberal monster friends are so disgusted by their pubic hair.

-Tocxica, October 2011

Male, female, young, old — if you’ve got a story or opinion to share, please send it to me at mdault [at ] meredithdault.com



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Sorry for the silence — I’ve been distracted by a million and a half other tasks these days. I was in Ottawa, Ontario on Monday for a meeting, and as I made my way there, I saw the most interesting poster taped to a pole.

GROWING OUR PITS FOR TITS! it crowed in bright pink and orange. Naturally, I stopped.

The poster was advertising a new fundraising campaign encouraging women to grow out their armpit hair for (you guessed it) breast cancer research. Using the name “Unshaven Mavens”, to two organizers Malorie Bertrand and Amie Beausoleil want women to go au natural for the month of October, while raising money for the Rethink Breast Cancer charity.

Here’s how it works: on Saturday, October 1st, 2011, participants will apparently gather for a “Pit Start & Clean Shaven Day”, wherein they will “shave their underarms clean of any and all hair.” For the next four weeks, all participants will grow out their armpit hair “for the world to behold”. Progress will be celebrated (and photo-documented) at “weekly pit stops” at an Ottawa bar. The rules are pretty simple: “no shaving, trimming, shaping, bleaching allowed. We’re aiming for Sarah Silverman growth here.” The month-long growing frenzy will culminate in a “Red Carpit Bash” where in women will win awards for their efforts (both in raising funds and in growing hair).

Now, if you’re thinking “hmmmm… female body hair being connected with cancer fundraising,” then you aren’t alone. For those of you who have been reading along, you’ll know that I was fairly critical about the ‘Julyna’ campaign that was staged in Toronto in July (the goal of which was for women to groom their pubic hair into a shape and keep it that way for the entire month, while soliciting donations to support cervical cancer research. You can read more about what I think about it here).

The organizers have argued, on their site that since the armpit area can serve as a place for early detection of breast cancer, it makes sense to draw attention to it with a campaign. As the site suggests, “unshaven mavens will be a diverse group of women who all share at least two things in common — a desire to make a difference and the ability to not take themselves too seriously.”

The organizers appear to be operating with a much smaller scope. In an article on the Apt 613 blog last week, the organizers admitted they only had 11 people registered — a far cry from the numbers the Julyna gals were able to pull in. But of course, growing out your underarm hair, while daring in these hairless times, is still nowhere near as titillating (or as controversial) as etching your pubes in a cute shape.

I like the fact that this campaign is actually public — unlike Julyna, where you kept your fundraising efforts in your pants — and would cause quite a stir if young women everywhere began embracing armpit hair. I also like the fact that overall, the endeavour is not ickily tied to female sexuality in the way that Julyna is.

I look forward to hearing what you think (and to hearing how the campaign goes). Just another gimmick? A viable female alternative to Movember? Let me know…

 

 

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A reader, Chy, recently sent me a link to her blog, Without Borders. On Friday, August 5, she wrote a lengthy, eloquent post about her decision not to remove her leg or facial hair. The entry, which is accompanied by photographs, is courageous — and I hate that I’m saying that.

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…

 

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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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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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I’m going to keep things brief today because (as you may know if you’ve been following along) I’m trying to hunker down and get an academic paper written these days. Though it’s been a challenging exercise trying to streamline everything I’ve been reading/thinking/talking about in the last little while, it’s been interesting/exciting, too.

Today I’ve been re-reading a great article by Magdala Peixoto Labre called “The Brazilian Wax: New Hairlessness Norm for Women?” which was published in 2002. It’s a really smart piece — and though it’s not a new piece of writing, it really seems to support thing kinds of things I have been hearing from young women as part of my research. I’ve also been revisiting an article by Merran Toerien and Sue Wilkinson called Gender and Body Hair: Constructing the Feminine Woman (2003) which also has all sorts of interesting things to say.

One of the arguments I’ve mentioned (because it comes up again and again) as a reason that people are opposed to full pubic hair removal for women is because it makes them look like little girls. Now while I think the issue is a lot more complicated than that, I can certainly understand why there is a knee jerk reaction around it. It’s easy to see how hairlessness can be equated with youth, and as such, with the way little girls look before they become women.

As Toerien and Wilkinson write, “given that body hair may be understood both as a signal of (sexual) maturity, and as a symbol of masculine strength, the requirement for women to remove their hair may thus reflect the socio-cultural equation of femininity with a child-like status, passivity and a dependence on men”. (p. 338)

Labre writes this:

“By rendering women childlike, the Brazilian wax can be viewed as supporting women’s submissiveness, inferiority, and dependence on men. At a first glance, the Brazilian wax may seem to increase women’s control over men by enhancing female attractiveness and power of seduction. Instead, the practice reinforces the idea that women’s main role is to attract men while at most providing women with access to secondhand power or power achieved via control of men.” (p. 126)

I think I’ll leave it there for now and get back to the paper… but there’s lots here to think about. I always love hearing people think about the stuff I post — so please feel free to comment or send me an email.

 

 

 

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Thanks for my friend Lisa Cockburn for sending this great pubic-hair related piece of bathroom wall graffiti from a cafe in Edmonton:

If you’re having trouble reading it, I’ll sum up the fine print:

Tell Us Why You Are Beautiful:

-I smile from my heart

-I started feeling beautiful when I stopped comparing myself to other women

-I see beauty in everything around me…

also, my pubic hair is purple

(to which people have replied ‘That’s awesome!’ and ‘You win, that is fantastic!’)

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Those of you keeping up with this blog regularly will know a couple of things about it: 1) that I am keeping it as part of my Master’s thesis research, and 2) that I am most driven by the question of how we got to the current state of the widespread normalization of pubic hair removal among young, North American women.

Obviously, that statement cuts a wide, generalizing swath: there are all kinds of variations among body hair practices in this part of the world, and they are all impacted by a huge number of forces, including things like (but not limited to) race, class and religion, as well as factors like exposure to pornography and the tendency to read fashion magazines.

But obviously, pubic hair removal is not a new phenomenon for women. Though now widely hailed in mainstream culture as the preferred manner for dealing with the pesky, pheromone-laden stuff stuff, pubic hair has come and gone from fashion over the years.

As Merran Toerien and Sue Wilkinson write in their 2003 article “Gender and Body Hair: Constructing the Feminine Woman” (published in Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 26, No. 4) “accounts of women’s hair removal come from ancient times and diverse cultures, including ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the Tobriand Islands, Uganda, South America and Turkey.”

According to a 2009 article by Sarah Ramsey, Clare Sweeney, Michale Fraser and Gren Oades called “Pubic Hair and Sexuality: A Review” (published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2009) most of what we know about early pubic hair practices has been gleaned through art. In Ancient Egyptian art, women are depicted with “small triangles of pubic hair, with bronze razors placed in tombs for the afterlife.” They also write that “relics from Ancient Greece clearly illustrate body shaving of some form, and Sharia law advised the removal of all body hair.”

Female pubic hair doesn’t make an appearance in European art until the late 19th Century when the Spanish painter Goya added some discreet fuzz to his work “The Naked Maja.”

Francisco Goya, The Naked Maja c. 1800-1803

Before then, nudes tended to be completely hairless — though the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear. Art critic John Berger, however, does have some thoughts (which do seem to make sense).

In his book Ways of Seeing (first published in 1972 after a television series of the same name), Berger makes all kinds of (sort of obvious, but still relevant) statements about how “women are taught, from their earliest childhood, to survey themselves.”

“She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.” (p. 46)

This, he reasons, then affects how women function in the world. Men, he suggests, “act” where women “appear.” “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. the surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

Ok- thanks Mr. Berger (I’m sure your saying to yourself). But what does this have to do with art — or pubic hair, for that matter?

Well as Berger explains (and certainly, he’s not the first or only) the nude women depicted in the vast majority of European paintings (the stuff we all growing up uncritically understanding to be ‘great art’ regardless of our gender) are “performing their nakedness” for an audience of male spectators. Citing art historian Kenneth Clark, Berger writes “nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.”

The spectator (for whom the nude is on display) is presumed to be male (as female viewers, our looking is quite different). She may not have her clothes on, but her nakedness has nothing to do with her own sexuality. Instead, she is appealing to his sexuality. She is just a body, an object, a beautiful thing to behold.

And here’s where it comes back to pubic hair. As Berger writes:

“In the European traditional generally, the convention of not painting the hair on a woman’s body helps towards the same end. Hair is associated with sexual power, with passion. the woman’s sexual passion needs to be minimized so that the spectator may feel that he has the monopoly of such passion.) Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.” (p.55)

Gustav Courbet, L'Origine du Monde, 1866

With that in mind, it’s interesting to consider this painting by Gustav Courbet. ‘L’Origine du monde’ (the Origin of the World) was painted in 1866. Hugely controversial at the time, it is largely considered to be the first portrayal of female pubic hair on an adult body in European painting.

Of course, while this body has hair, she has no head or other body parts. Rather than a coy look towards the viewer, she is reduced to her genitalia…

 

 

 

 

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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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