I’m so grateful so many of you are reading and commenting. I’m also thrilled by how many are re-posting my writing on Facebook using the ‘like’ button (though somehow I just messed everything up and now the evidence of those many ‘likes’ seems to have vanished from the end of each post. I’m still tweaking the technical bugs – thanks for your patience).
So here’s where I want to go with things today: I’m going to keep to the generalizations as I get ramped up. My hope is to get into individual interviews and more pop-cultural and critical looks at things as I go — but we’re just warming up.
A few thoughts for today:
It probably isn’t news to any of us that gender is performed — and that femininity is usually created in opposition to masculinity (I’m writing this in a university library where I am seeing it play out all around me). When it comes to mainstream definitions of men and women, we often play things out in opposition to one another.
So, where the masculine body is naturally hairy, the feminine body should always appear smooth and hairless. Where rugged men wear five o’clock shadow, well kept women are plucked and bleached. Male hair is short and utilitarian, his skin is rough, and his face natural and unadorned. Being ‘feminine’ means wearing make-up and having high maintenance hair. The female body left untamed is, as a matter of course in our society today, unacceptable — or at the very least, sort of weird and pitiable.
(That’s not, of course, to say that men aren’t being targeted in new and creative ways by the fashion and beauty industry — but the notion of the man who is overly concerned with grooming is still more often than not seen as a little suspect. With women, it’s the opposite — she who is fails to pay sufficient attention to her beauty regiment is the problem. Men also tend not to monitor one another in the same way that women do).
But here’s where we go back into the pubic hair question:
Whereas other parts of the female body have always been up for public scrutiny, until recently what you did with your hair-down-there was between you and whoever got to see you naked. By setting standards for how it should be tended we’re declaring (to young, heterosexual women in particular — at least because that’s where my attention is focused right now) that there are right ways and wrong ways to groom oneself.
Get it right (with time, money, effort and pain) and you’ll be able to walk around feeling sexy, confident and in-control. Get it wrong…and you may as well dress yourself in paper bags and give up washing your hair — because you probably won’t be having sex anytime soon.
I think the reasons for the normalization of pubic hair removal are complicated. While it’s easy to make generalizations about how pubic hair removal keeps grown women looking child-like in a culture that fetishizes youth (and more than a few people have addressed this issue in their comments and to me, off-line), I think the reasons are inherently more complicated than that.
It could have, as I have suggested, something to do with our love of good hygiene. Pubic hair’s role, of course, is to help keep the genitals protected while giving those mysterious phermones a place to hang out — and some have argued that modern day living (and regular showering) makes it redundant now anyway.
But one of the most cited influences for the new hairlessness is pornography — which is having a profound impact on all of us, whether we watch it or not. The internet makes even the most hard-core material available to any of us, whenever we want it, in the comfort (and privacy) of our own homes.
In her 2005 book, Pornified, Pamela Paul writes that the average age for first encountering pornography on-line is now eleven years old. (And she was referencing 1995 statistics, so it’s quite likely that kids are even younger than that, these days).
For many children, what they encounter online — where the mainstream stuff (again, I’m going to generalize) is often horrifically degrading to women — becomes the basis for their sexual education, setting the bar for what’s ‘normal’: particularly for what sex looks like, and how women are supposed to look and behave.
And it is pornography, it seems, that first normalized the removal of pubic hair. In her essay “Clean Porn: the Visual Aesthetics of Hygiene, Hot Sex and Hair Removal,” writer and academic Susann Cokal describes how the smaller screens associated with at-home consumption have impacted body practices in pornography: getting rid of pubic hair improved visibility and helped foster intimacy with viewers.
So it’s not surprising that a generation of young men and women raised with hard-core porn think pubic hair is gross. It’s now so unusual in mainstream porn that it has spawned its own fetish: “hairy women.”
But in a culture where we’re all supposedly trying to increase our “erotic capital” (a term coined by the academic Catherine Hakim), emulating what is seen on-screen becomes completely understandable. Women — particularly young women — today are not only expected to be beautiful, but to be ‘hot’ (as in sexually desireable). And there’s nothing ‘hotter’ than looking like a porn-star, right?
Of course, the women coming of age now have been raised in the era of ‘girl power’ — a clever “post-feminist” capitalist ploy where being scantily clad and objectified is now your choice. It’s empowering! Ariel Levy’s 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs sums it up well by describing young women embracing ‘raunch culture’ and things that were once the exclusive domain of men — like porn — in the name of equality. The problem for women, of course, is that it ends up looking like the same old objectification. When it comes to sexuality, young women are still having to be more concerned with how they look and act, than with how they feel.
I met a young woman recently who took issue with my research, defiantly defending her right to wax away her pubic hair (which, to be clear, I was not attacking – merely questioning). “What about oral sex?” she asked me defensively, suggesting that an unwaxed woman might be a less worthy recipient. In a social climate where blow-jobs are now first-base material, I’m worried about what we’re telling young women about sex: men are entitled to oral sex (now handed out at parties like a party trick) — but for women to be recipients, their intimate grooming must be up to code.
So again, I want to reiterate that I am not opposed to women doing things that make them feel good. What I’m worried about women feeling obliged to do things that they may not want to do, but where they may not feel that they have a whole lot of choice. And that’s what I’m looking at with my research.
Instead of embracing our bodies as they are, women are being sold products and expensive services in a bid to make their ‘lady bits’ more appealing — but to whom? and why? And when a woman, for example, chooses to have herself ‘vajazzled’ (yep- that’s when you have your pubic hair waxed off, only have to have it replaced by glued on crystals, a practice made famous by actress Jennifer Love Hewitt) who is she doing it FOR?
I don’t necessarily have the answers, but I’m certainly doing my best to find out over the course of this research.
Obviously, fashion goes in waves — but I am still waiting for the day when leg and armpit hair come back in to style (I mean really: is NOT shaving really a viable choice for women?)
When it comes to pubic hair, I fear the wheels of capitalism are already well in motion. The multi-billion dollar beauty industry is always looking for new turf — and tapping into women’s body insecurities through their vulvas is, I’ll admit it, kind of brilliant. Is it any coincidence that labiaplasty (cosmetic surgery which snips away at the labia to make it more aesthetically pleasing and “tighter”) is now one of the fasting growing surgeries in the United States today?
More soon. Thanks for reading.