Article: It’s Not (Pubic) Fair! Women’s Bodies, Sexism, and the Troubling Topic of Pubic Hair

It was a rainy Friday morning when I and about thirty other undergrads found ourselves slumped over our desks. Our dear Art History lecturer, who was one of the most enthusiastic, caring, and flaky people I’ve had the pleasure to meet, was regaling us (as best she could) with the complexities of the Pre-Raphaelites when she choose to share a particular anecdote:

Many may have heard of the great Victorian artist, art critic, architect, poet, and social commentator, John Ruskin, and his tumultuous, unconsummated marriage to the beautiful Effie Gray, but not everyone is privy to the particulars.

Rumor has it that, upon seeing Effie’s naked body for the first time, Ruskin found himself repulsed by the sight of Effie’s public hair—a feature absent on many of the classical sculptures of women that he was acquainted to.

Some people in the room gasped. Others chuckled. But the majority of women (my lecturer included) simply looked to each other with a sense of silent solidarity and rolled our eyes dryly.

Why?

Because we expected no less.

Because, despite the 100+ year divide between us, we can still relate to the situation that Effie Grey found herself in on her wedding night.

This particular piece of hearsay has since been contested by various historians in recent years, yet the rumor persists because, to most women, it is still a grimly familiar reality. Real or not, the ability of this gossip to persist is indicative of a wider culture that is not only obsessed with female body hair, but also with its absence.

The Bare Naked Facts

In 2015 Scott M. Butler, PhD, MPH, surveyed  1,110 university-aged participants in a study to determine just how obsessed we were with the removal or maintenance of pubic hair. The results were rather drastic. Of the individuals involved only 5% had allowed their body to go au naturel, whereas  whooping 95% had removed their pubic hair at least once within the 4 weeks prior to the survey.

Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with deciding to engage in personal grooming. One could easily argue that movements towards body positivity and the respect of body autonomy promotes everyone’s right to treat their body as they wish. And, as far as I’m concerned, you could have a full bush down there, a vajazzle that spells out ‘smash the patriarchy’, or anything in between. ‘You do you’ is definitely in play when it comes to an individual’s pubic hair.

But the problem is that most western women—whether consciously deciding to or not—aren’t shaving primarily out of personal choice. For the vast majority of us shaving isn’t presented as an ‘either or’ option, but as a necessary aspect of being a woman in  society that caters primarily to male pleasure.

Don’t believe me?

Well, of the 95% above that stated they participated in pubic grooming in the study above women were found to be significantly more likely to be hair-free (with 50% of women going bare vs. just 19% of the men) whereas men were significantly more likely to prefer a hair-free partner (60% vs. 24%). Hmmm, anyone sensing a link here?

The study’s concluding remarks are also very telling:

Women are likely to report stronger associations with feelings of cleanliness, comfort, sex appeal social norms or their peer group, and affordability as reasons for their chosen public hair style. Women also report more experiences with genital side effects of pubic hair removal.

This study couldn’t make it any clearer. Women (at least of university-age) are much more likely to bare the itchy side-effects of the constant need to groom and yet most still do it out of some form of societal obligation or appeal to their sexual worth. We literally suffer due to the pressures that society places on us concerning pubic hair. If that’s not enough to make a person as fired up as hot wax then I don’t know what is.

But When Did This All Begin?

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Some people are keen to blame the popularity of a clean shaven mound on trends in pornography, stemming from the 1980s. For pornographers there is a practical element to the removal of pubic hair. If people are paying to see sex then it’s beneficial to see as much as is possible. A clean shaven vulva enables much more in terms of visibility and allows viewers to see the act of sex in much more detail.

Of course porn is a fantasy—a highly controlled version of our deepest desires manifest on the screen. But that’s never stopped anyone who saw food porn online from trying to ascertain or replicate their own version, and the same can be said of porn too. When we see something that is considered to be the ‘ideal’ then not only do we internalize that notion but we also seek to emulate it. At least in theory.

Others have also criticized the fashion industry. The design of women’s clothing (and clothing in general) has always been inextricably linked to gender and body politics. One need just look at the complicated history of pockets on female attire to see that this is the case.

The pressure to conceal body hair so that it doesn’t go beyond the barrier of the dreaded ‘bikini line’ is all too real for many women. Thus as female underwear got closer to the hairline so, too, did the need to trim back, culminating in underwear such as the thong (or the even more extreme  C-String) demanding a rather comprehensive grooming regime.

Thinking beyond underwear for a moment, the shaving of armpit hair is also heavily linked to the fashion industry. Gillette released their first razor for women in 1915—a time period that has been closely linked to fashions that revealed more than they used to. In doing so there was a new market for female consumers, by getting them to remedy the issue if visible body hair (as if such a thing were an issue to begin with).

As fashions change we can actually trace the changing marketing tactics too. Leg razors for when short dresses where in style. Armpit removal when sleeves became sheer and see-through. By 1922 as graced women’s magazines telling them that ‘The fastidious woman to-day must have immaculate underarms if she is to be unembarrassed’. Such ads have arguably a lot more to account for than the porn industry.

But, although razors catering to the western woman experienced a measurable boom from 1915-1945 historians such as Victoria Sherrow have traced the removal of female body hair much earlier. Egyptian women, for example, were also obsessed with the removal of body hair, believing it to be unhygienic and uncivilized. Their preferred method of removal was beeswax and cloth or depilatories made from quicklime and similar alkali.

There’s also logic behind the Ruskin-rumors, as many Greek and Roman sculptures omited pubic hair entirely, especially on the female body.

The history of women in western art is generally a hairless pursuit. Look at the iconic Venus and Madonnas of the ages, the ancient Goddesses and powerful matriarchs, and you will still most likely be met with a hairless body. Manet’s Olympia may have confronted its viewers in many ways, but the model’s legs are decidedly bare, while a defiant hand conceals her vulva. And although Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) is considered to be a radical work of art nowadays it was passed discreetly between potential patrons throughout the years, hidden behind panels and exchanged with hushed whispers.

What’s The Damage?

The Origin of the World (L'Origine du monde), 1866, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
The Origin of the World (L’Origine du monde), 1866, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

But if shaving has such a long-standing cultural history then can it really be all that bad? Well, yes actually. Yes it can.

As stated before , the removal of body hair itself isn’t a problem in and of itself, but the societal attitudes behind it certainly are.

Look at all of the examples of pubic hair removal above and consider the underlying rhetoric. Hair on Egyptian women was directly linked to a lack of cleanliness and social refinement. Meanwhile Greek and Roman art often linked hair to masculinity and animality. The more hair on a body the closer a person was to their animalistic desires (there’s a reason that Satyrs, half-human goatmen, were often shown as sexual deviants with massive cocks). To have public hair was to be impure and to give in to one’s carnal delights. Something that society frowned upon when it came to women.

The hairless beauties that graced the academies and galleries of the 18th and 19th century and hid in affluent patron’s homes also reveal more than just a hairless body. Created to be gazed at—admired as a reciprocal of a primarily male audience—such imagery appealed to and encouraged a male desire for the hairless woman. Once again female beauty was linked to supple skin and hairless bodies. Even Olympia (although mostly bare) is considered radical through the sheer potential of possessing an unshaven bush.

Then, of course, we have the rise of the razor and the non-problem of pubic hair being turned into a lucrative marketing point for a money-hungry market. The rise of the middle-classes (stemming from the Victorian period onwards) left many women with a lot of free time, a fair amount of disposable wealth, and a body of potential insecurities which the latest fashion trend could readily exploit.

The way that razors were marketed—their association to embarrassment and shame—makes it perfectly clear that the modern trend for razors was never about the comfort of women. Instead it was a case of exploiting what was visible and encouraging women to hide away. To be submissive.

There’s a reason why the early feminist movement found such power in the defiance of shaving their pubic hair and it wasn’t just to free up more time for campaigning.

Are There Really No Benefits To Shaving?

By now it should be damningly apparent that the current trend to bare all is a purely cultural construction, and a problematic-as-all-hell one at that. But can this really be the case? Surely for shaving to be so mainstream there must be some benefits, right?

Well there are, but not in the way you’d think.

Outside of cultural expectations one of the main reasons given for keeping up a pubic grooming regime is for cleanliness. As recently as 2016 a US survey of over 3,000 women confirmed this—with 59% saying that they thought keeping things clean shaven down there equated to keeping the area clean in a literal sense. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In reality the removal of pubic hair is linked to an increased risk in the spread and transmission of STIs, more chance of ingrown hairs, and the development of abscesses (which can then become infected). One study even found that up to 60% of women who removed their pubic hair experienced an epidermal abrasion (think rashes, cuts, and the like).

Then, of course, there’s the horrific pain that is endured during the waxing or shaving process itself. Some women brave a bikini wax with the same pride as someone getting a tattoo (though with much more frequency) and I honestly admire the strong individuals who can voluntarily bare such pain of a regular basis. But given that stripping things back can actually cause more damage than harm, is it really worth it?

Again, the issue here isn’t that women choose to wax, but the reasons given. The longer a premise is presented as the norm the more it becomes internalized too and the more liable it is to false narratives and ill-informed justifications. The fact that at least 59% of women are shaving under the false pretence that it is for their own health (when the reality is quite the opposite) is indicative of just how ingrained shaving has become in our culture.

And, surprise, surprise, many of the ‘benefits’ of shaving are linked to the gender-based narrative that had been imposed upon us. Outside of the unsubstantiated suggestion that removing one’s pubic hair can help reduce the population’s overall chance of dealing with pubic lice, most women list feeling more feminine, sexy, or confident when they’ve shaved. More power to anyone who feels this way, but this attitude does sadly propagate the notion that not grooming one’s vulva is unattractive, masculine, or indicative of a lack of pride. All things reinforced by mainstream media, who are all too willing to proliferate sexism for the sake of sales.

Like an ingrown hair, shaving has well and truly rooted itself in our collective psyche, seemingly benign but causing pain and damage under the surface while all the while masquerading as a natural part of being a modern woman in the western world.

The Potency of Pubic Hair

Pubic hair has power. (Pia Leppänen, 2012, flickr).
Pubic hair has power. (Pia Leppänen, 2012, flickr).

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Really, it doesn’t.

Perhaps one of the only good things about current attitudes towards ‘the bush’ is that it gives pubic hair a large amount of social and cultural potency.

Remember those feminists of the 60s and 70s that I mentioned above? Well for them the decision not to shave was a radical decision to reject patriarchal values and display their defiance of sexism for all to see.

After all, if the patriarchy as an institutional framework aims to control the bodies of women then there is nothing more radical then reclaiming one’s own physical autonomy and making it into a highly visual indicator of one’s political values.

Of course, approaches to activism have changed since then and new issues have emerged in regards to body hair.

With an increasing importance being given to personal choice and self-agency at the forefront of people’s minds, the decision to shave is just as valid among women as the decision not to. This makes logical sense if personal liberation is the priority, but some feminists still object to the effectiveness of this approach—arguing in keeping with the second wave of feminism that personal is political.

Then, of course, there is the matter of visibility and validation for queer, trans, and gender fluid individuals. The reason behind the gendered coding of body hair might be rooted in sexism, but this doesn’t prevent it from being a widely-recognized, nor negate the positive emotions that some individuals may find from choosing to grow or remove their body hair.

For some individuals the mental impact of being smooth vs. being au naturel may literally be the difference between having a healthy personal outlook or struggling with body dysmorphia or other mental health issues. Is there ever a case for rejecting people’s personal gender coding because of how it may passively reinforce problematic societal messages?

How can we reconcile the various discourses surrounding pubic hair without appearing outwardly complacent to internalized sexism or disrespectful to one’s personal autonomy or gender expression?

What’s A Girl to Do?

Now, obviously, I’m not the be-all-and-end-all voice when it comes to pubic hair. Considering the long-standing history and its inextricably political affiliations of pubic hair it’s fair to say that debates around shaving are multifaceted and will continue to rage on for many years to come.

However, I would like to offer my two cents on the issue and hopefully put some people’s minds at ease.

When it comes to pubic hair and shaving I think two values stand out more than anything else—communication and ‘you do you’.

Everyone has a fundamental right to claim ownership over their body. No one should feel shamed or offended for acting upon this right. This shouldn’t be a radical claim (though sadly it is often seen as such).

If you, as an individual, find personal comfort, political power, gender reassurance, or confidence in what you do with your pubic hair (or even if it’s a complete non-issue to you) then fantastic—own that attitude as best you can and as long as it serves you. You deserve to be happy and to feel like your body is your own (because it is!).

Equally if you value bodily autonomy then the polite thing to do would be to afford others around you the same right to their own bodies. This means not judging or otherwise negatively impacting those around you just because they present themselves in a different way to you. We all have our own values after all.

That being said ‘polite’ is not the same as ‘passive’.

If public hair is something you fundamentally believe should be an issue (or is one for personal preference, such as during oral sex) then make yourself known. If others query you about your lack or display of pubic hair then feel free to explain your reasoning. Do so with enthusiasm, respect, and knowledge on your side. If the state of someone else’s pubic hair is of interest to you then approach the topic in an engaging and respectful manner.

Communicate by opening up a dialogue. Listen to people’s responses and remember that we discuss things to learn and not just to reply or come up with an effective counter. Recognize your own societal prejudices and how your upbringing and cultural experiences might have shaped your personal preferences when it comes to shaving. None of us exist outside of our own cultural background.

If pubic hair is a sexual concern for you and your partner then make sure to approach the topic with even more compassion. Try to find a compromise or make your hard boundaries clear without devaluing your partner’s sexual preferences. It’s amazing just how many issues can be alleviated by opening up.

Final Thoughts

Much like an untrimmed bush, the history of pubic hair is striking and divisive. Of personal interest yet often a public concern. Wildly, unashamedly complex upon deeper inspection and almost always closely associated with femininity and sexuality.

But if there’s something we can all agree on it’s that pubic hair is what you make of it.

For some this will mean harnessing the massive cultural sway of the shaving phenomenon to make a personal or political statement. For others it will mean going about their day with only a passing concern for what shaving truly means for them, or society as a whole.

Whatever your position, as long as you present yourself with dignity and respect then you should feel confident in the fact that you’re owning your body politics in your own unique and totally valid way. Ruskin be damned!

commission_peaches_statue_wip4
Artwork courtesy of Delidah, 2016.