If you’ve been following along, then you already know that I was a guest on Vancouver’s talk radio station, CKNW, on Saturday night. The producer was in touch a couple of days before to clarify what we’d talk about and to let me know when they’d call, etc etc. But it was after I learned that the show would also be interviewing the founder of Julyna, Vanessa Willson, that I started feeling weird. All of a sudden (and even though the producers assured me otherwise) I had the strange sense that I was being led into an on-air cat-fight about an issue I didn’t think it was worth fighting about. I was close to bowing out.
Before I did, however, I decided to drop Vanessa a line directly. I clarified my position and told her that my intention wasn’t to go on the air and attack her or her campaign — I was merely going to raise a few critical points related to the normalizing of pubic hair removal, and talk about my blog/research. I also left her my phone number.
To my great surprise, she called. Even more surprising (since we’d be been painted as such opposing forces in the media), we had a really great chat.
Vanessa Willson and Jessie Behan, two of the Julyna team
What I realized right away is that in the same way that I was painted into a corner by the media, Vanessa has been, too. While the campaign made her out to be a slightly ditzy, Sex-in-the City-esque character who came up with the idea for her campaign while sipping a girly drink in a Toronto restaurant, she was a far more thoughtful and considered interview.
I realized that there were major pieces missing from the Julyna story we were being told.
A nurse based out of a downtown Toronto hospital, Vanessa is quick to acknowledge her own openness when it comes to talking about the kind of stuff that might make others squirm. “I talk about sex a lot,” she laughs on the phone. “I’m like the guy on the Family Guy who says pervy and inappropriate stuff. That’s how the Julyna conversation started.
You can read more about that conversation here.
But here’s what you haven’t heard (and it changes things profoundly):
Vanessa, 29, runs in a circle of women who don’t, generally, have pubic hair. Most of them are dedicated waxers. “The most anyone has is usually the landing strip or the Charlie Chaplin,” she explains, “and most of them have nothing.”
So in suggesting to her friends that they etch shapes into their pubic hair in support of cervical cancer, Vanessa was being far more radical than I (or anyone else) could have understood. After all, in order to participate in Julyna, Vanessa’s most-hairless friends would have to do something kinda radical: they’d have to grow IN their pubic hair.
And in fact, her original proposal was even more unexpected.
Her original proposal was that everyone GROW OUT their pubic hair and NOT TOUCH IT FOR THE ENTIRE MONTH OF JULY.
(that’s certainly a far cry from what the media has portrayed, and is, in fact, closer to what I suggest in the Huffington Post story)
But as Vanessa explains it, the grow-it-all-out idea was quickly shot down.
“The reaction I got was ‘absolutely not’,” she laughs. “Even the committee members said ‘we’ll do it because we’re ballsy women, but nobody else is going to do it’.”
Vanessa says that’s when they decided they had to take a different approach.
“You have to work with what you’ve got,” she explains. “What we have is a society of women who are self-conscious and have been since the beginning of time. But you have to work with what you have. So we though, how can we get women on-board? That’s why we changed it so that women had options, from not touching it, to taking it all off.”
(Because they didn’t want women who are permanently hairless (thanks to laser hair removal) to feel left out, they are suggesting women can even get Vajazzled or decorated with henna.
“That’s what makes it great,” she says. “Just like ‘Movember’ (which encourages creativity in moustache grooming), women can be creative.”
Obviously, Julyna isn’t totally off the hook. I’ve still got a few issues with the campaign (mostly related to using titillation to link women’s bodies with cancer research). But as I told Vanessa, I am impressed at how well she’s done considering that she only came up with the idea in November and didn’t really get the campaign going until March. She’s put a tremendous amount of energy into the project and had no idea it was going to blow up in the media — or generate the amount of controversy — the way it has. As she explained it, she’s a nurse, not a PR maven.
And at end of the day, Vanessa started her campaign in the spirit of pubic-hair celebration. “I am asking women to bring it back,” she says with a laugh.