The bald generation
There are certain things you learn when you temporarily abandon the sanctity of the public pool and start swimming at a gym. First, pop music at the moment is so ear-bleeding banal that it’s a wonder today’s kids can even string a sentence together. Second, no one has pubic hair anymore.
I discovered this rather unexpectedly yesterday. Having braved the gauntlet of LA Fitness’ aggressive over-branding and made it into the pool to swim my allotted lengths, I emerged like a Rubenesque Venus (or like a large marine beast that wasn’t built to walk on land, depending on your point of view) and headed for the changing rooms. There I found myself surrounded by more thin, hairless females than I’ve been around since primary school galas. It took me a moment to work out what was so disconcerting about the scene, but then the realisation dawned that I was literally the only woman in there who hadn’t been waxed to within an inch of her life. No ‘landing strips’, no tidying up, nothing so half-hearted; indeed no, all my gymming cohorts were as smooth as the days they were born.
The pool where I usually swim has a mixed sex change room with individual cubicles, meaning it’s been a while since I’ve been around large groups of naked women (insert your own joke here). Perhaps this is endemic everywhere and I just hadn’t noticed. Of course I know that the more extreme ends of the waxing spectrum are now fairly mainstream, but when did complete hairlessness become a cultural norm? Did I miss a memo? Have all my recent sexual partners secretly been appalled at my relative hirsuteness? For the record, although I am not one of those women whose versions of feminism necessitates talking about her vagina in public (hello Caitlin Moran! Love the book!), I’m not rocking an aggressive 70s shag pile. I keep my lower regions groomed but I’ve never, barring one experience with an over-eager German waxer who refused to believe I didn’t share her vision, got rid of more of my pubic hair than was strictly necessary.
There’s been plenty written about how the trend for genital hairlessness infantilises women and makes them look pre-pubescent, and how it’s derived from the aesthetics of pornography. Both of these things may be true, especially the former (come on ladies, don’t you think it’s a bit weird to look like you did when you were eight?), but the fact is that shouting about patriarchal oppression is pointless when it’s women doing it to themselves. Not, you understand, that I have any right to decide on individual people’s choices; of course we can all decorate or depilate our bodies any way that makes us feel comfortable, or sexy, or clean, or whatever else it is we want to feel, and no, wearing lipstick does not make you a traitor to the sisterhood. But if this hairless pudenda business is really going to become a new orthodoxy then it’s a good idea to have a think about what it might mean.
Cultural history tells us that the fashion (now compulsion) for women to shave their legs and armpits was instigated by a sustained US marketing campaign that kicked off in Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1915, when sleeveless dresses became popular and advertisers found a whole new area of our bodies that needed to be managed with expensive products. And that’s just one of the things about all this obsessive waxing: not only does it hurt, it isn’t cheap. Do women really need another area of our bodies that we throw lots of money at in order to reach an unrealistic standard of perfection? Doesn’t this new compulsory visibility of the vagina feed into the horrible trend of labial surgery, where even ladies who don’t use their cervixes to make a living feel insecure enough about what they look like to get them altered? It’s a Cosmopolitan truism that men are visual creatures, that they get turned on by looking at things; but when did we all come to believe that these things need to look exactly the same? Who decided on this one primary aesthetic, and why are so many of us so quick to agree? When did hairless genitalia and burlesque underwear become the universal symbol for ‘sexy lady’?
Which brings me to my main issue with extreme waxing. Hair is messy. Hairlessness, on the other hand, as well as looking oddly young, connotes perfection. Hairless bodies don’t sweat or fart or smell because they’re impeccable, smooth, not marred by any marks of grubby humanity. It strikes me that the trend for removing all this body hair feeds into an idea about western women being both intensely sexual beings (nothing says ‘I think about fucking a lot’ like a hairless punani) and also curiously desexed, curiously plasticised, possessed of perfect, managed, plucked-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives bodies, bodies that are completely docile and available for pleasure, producers rather than consumers of sexual value. Sex, like lots of the most fun things, is dirty, messy and smelly, so why, in the name of sex, are we sanitising our bodies? Who exactly does this benefit? A brief straw poll of my male friends suggests that they’re mostly appreciative of us no matter how we’re groomed, although obviously tastes lie along various routes, but there’s no directive that only hairlessness is sexy, so why have so many of us wilfully adopted this as a new standard?
Perhaps I’m just an inveterate hippie and, as a far cooler friend remarked, this is the future. And of course I have no right at all to dictate what other people should or shouldn’t wear, say, do or shave. But fashion is a strange beast. I do wonder whether it wouldn’t be wise, for men as well as for women, if we sometimes stepped back from the dictates of our culture and had a proper think about why certain things become normalised, and whether we really want to be a part of it.
Addendum: An enlightening conversation with a British friend who spent 10 years living in Dubai revealed that the majority of (presumably middle class) women there are consistently hairless, pubic hair being seen as unhygienic. There’s no talk of Brazilians or Hollywoods, it’s just pop into your local lady once a month and get the whole lot ripped out in a matter of minutes, for less than you’d pay for an eyebrow waxing in the UK. No respectable woman, she suggests, would visit her doctor or her gynaecologist sporting pubic fuzz. Waxing is seen as a matter of cleanliness rather than sexiness. Maybe the bigger picture we should be thinking about involves the implications of different forms of culturally enforced hairlessness?