journalism

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Seeing as pubic hair is my current area of interest, my friends and colleagues hit me up with pubes-related stuff any chance they get.

Most recently, a couple of friends directed my attention to a recent podcast that was produced as part of the Stuff Mom Never Told You series.

For your amusement, this image has been lifted from http://laughoutloud.us/photo/mow-the-pubic-hair-tattoo/

Over the course of a chatty, 20-minute-long podcast called “Why Do Women Remove Their Hair Down There?”, two young-sounding women, Kristin and Molly, talk up the idea of pubic hair removal. They cover all the basics in a very superficial way (though what else are you gonna do in a 20-minute summary?) — from the history of hair removal among women, to citing studies about contemporary hair removal practices. All in all, the piece isn’t particularly critical — mostly, the refer to articles and chat in generalities about pubic hair removal.

If you’re interested in having a listen, go here:

http://podcasts.howstuffworks.com/hsw/podcasts/smnty/2011-07-11-smnty-remove-hair-down-there.mp3?_kip_ipx=598193178-1311179908

One friend who suggested I tune in to the podcast wrote me with some of her concerns about their generalizing. She raised an important question around one of the studies that Molly and Kristin cite near the end of the study. Here’s what my friend wrote:

“They cited one study saying that 18-24 year olds are responsible for most of the hair removal, but talked about them growing out of it or trying different practices when they got older. I thought that it would only be possible to know that if they did a longitudinal study. Instead, I thought that 18-24 year olds could be part of a new standard of pubic hair removal, one that could very well continue as they got older, resulting in completely waxing 50-year-olds in 25-30 years from now. What do you think?”

I think she nails it with her question. I find it hard to believe that a young woman disgusted by her own pubic hair at, say, 18, is suddenly going to come to terms with it at 45.

As part of my research, I interviewed a woman who runs a very popular salon which very much caters to the undergraduate student body here in Kingston. While she did say that the majority of her clients were young women, she said she did have women coming to see her for Brazilian waxes who where in their sixties and seventies. She told me that she didn’t think 60 year old women were coming in to do it because they were seeing it modeled in porn or any such thing. She truly believed they were coming in for waxing because of a desire to want to be “clean.”

The same woman suggested that older women tended to come in for waxing if they were starting new relationships (suggesting a natural tie-in to sexuality), or if they’d be urged to try it at the behest of their daughters.

Obviously, we’ll have to wait to see what the outcome is, but as I’ve written before — there was a time when women didn’t remove armpit and leg hair… and that’s pretty much unheard of in dominant North American culture now. Though anecdotally I’ve heard that pubic hair is “making a comeback” in mainstream pornography, I do find it hard to believe that women will modify their own body practices to reaccept something that many have already dismissed as ‘unclean’.

Anyone got thoughts on this?

 

 

 

 

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If you haven’t already seen it, urge you to seek out an article that ran on the Huffington Post website yesterday.

Called “Looking Through the Bushes: The Disappearance of Pubic Hair”, the article is written by Roger Friedland, a Professor of Religion and Cultural Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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.”

(Interested in reading more about hook-up culture? Try “Hook-up Culture’s Bad Rap,” a smart article by Kate Harding that was on Salon.com last year)

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…)

 

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When people find out what I study, they’re either a) intrigued, b) uncomfortable, or c) defensive.

In fact, one of the most popular defensive tactics is to either tell me that women remove their pubic hair for their own pleasure (and thus I should not be critical of the practice), or to try to justify it as a lesser problem because “guys are feeling pressure to do it too.”

So here’s what I have to say to that:

As much as it concerns me that young men are feeling increasingly societal pressure to do away with their body hair (the result being more and more young men who may be feeling insecure about their bodies as-they-are), I don’t think it’s fair to compare them.

As far as I can tell, a man doesn’t view his bits as less-than-worthy if they are wearing a furry sweater.

There’s a lesser chance that he will be seen as someone who is “not taking care of himself” if he is not meticulously groomed (he may merely be viewed as someone who has better things to do – or he may be cultivating the scruffy look).

To speak generally, consumer culture simply doesn’t target men the same way that it targets women.

So when we DO hear about men getting intimate wax jobs, we’re still a little amused. We can cavalierly toss around terms like ‘metrosexual’ (the wikipedia definition of which is “a heterosexual urban man whose lifestyle, concern for personal appearance, and spending habits are likened to those considered typical of a fashionable male homosexual”) and speculate about what would compel him to press hot wax to his family jewels.

We certainly wouldn’t judge him if he opted to let it all grow in for awhile.

I’m thinking about this today because yesterday I happened upon a really great article on the topic in The Good Men Project called Waxing Insanity. The article, by Ted Cox, tells the hilarious tale of his first Brazilian wax and its resulting discomfort, all while exploring how our culture views body hair on men and women. It’s definitely worth a read. Here’s his most-excellent concluding line:

“But I do know this: any guy who expects his partner to get waxed, if he’s not regularly getting waxed himself, deserves to be set on fire and run over by a fucking bus.”

Read the whole article here:

Ted Cox gets a Brazilian wax and considers our relationship with pubic hair — The Good Men Project Magazine

 

 

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Hair is such a fascinating, complicated topic. This stuff GROWS out of our bodies! And as much as we trim, wax and will it away, it tends to grow back. When it DOESN’T grow back – like in the case of bald men – there are industries there to sell you products to encourage it to start sprouting again.

And yet, we have such different relationships to the hair on our heads and the stuff on our bodies. Hair on men’s bodies is generally taken to display a sort of rugged masculinity (although that seems to be changing).

Hair on women’s bodies, on the other hand, is called “superfluous,” “excess”, or “unwanted.” As I’ve written before, while it was generally standard to hear those terms applied to things like leg, armpit, and facial hair, pubic hair wasn’t necessarily viewed as superfluous. It was kinda your thing, to do with what you will. Now people of both genders (but especially women) seem to be understanding that doing away with your pubic hair is just par-for-the-course body maintenance.

I recently came across an interesting article in The Western Front – the online edition of the student paper for Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

The article, written by Dr. Emily Gibson, explores pubic hair removal as “an unwinnable battle.” Dr. Gibson opens her article with “I must have missed the declaration of war on pubic hair” (see? I’m not the only one!), and then goes on to describe why fervently trying to abolish it is hard on the body. In fact, she says it can even cause harm.

Here are some of the best bits:

“Pubic hair removal naturally irritates and inflames the hair follicles left behind, leaving microscopic open wounds. Rather than suffering a recurring comparison to a bristle brush, frequent hair removal is necessary to stay smooth, causing regular irritation of the shaved or waxed area. When that irritation is combined with the warm, moist environment of the genitals, it becomes a happy culture media for some of the nastiest of bacterial pathogens, namely group A streptococcus, staphylococcus aureus and its recently mutated cousin methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA). There is an increase in staph boils and abscesses, necessitating incisions to drain the infection, resulting in scarring that can be significant. It is not at all unusual to find pustules and other hair follicle inflammatory papules on the shaved areas.”

Whoa, people. If ever you needed to justify not whisking it all away, here’s the support material.

She also writes that “freshly shaved pubic areas and genitals are also more vulnerable to herpes infections due to the microscopic wounds being exposed to viruses carried by mouth or genitals. It follows that there may be vulnerability to spread of other sexual transmitted infections as well.”

Here’s a link to the original article:

http://westernfrontonline.net/opinion/17-opinion/13354-pubic-hair-removal-an-unwinnable-battle-physician-says

 

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