In all deference to Eve Ensler, I had a very unfortunate experience with my vagina recently.
I was alone at a crummy Mexican restaurant and went to the bathroom. Not being an exhibitionist, I naturally thought I had locked the door behind me. Apparently this was not the case. Just as I was at the crucial hover/wipe stage, a college kid, complete with the frat boy uniform of white t-shirt, backwards ball cap and adorable grin thrust open the door.
I howled in embarrassment.
He just muttered “oops” and shut the door.
I shuffled back to my seat, completely horrified. But it occurred to me that I wasn’t even disturbed that he saw my vagina. A bevy of Hollywood starlets illuminated by paparazzi flashes has cured me of any embarrassment on that level. What upset me was that he saw my pubic hair. I had unwittingly accosted this college kid with my fuzzy coochie, which was way overdue for a pruning. Since he was only about 21, he’d probably never even seen female pubes before. Waxing has been the standard for his entire sexual lifespan. I was mortified by my own laziness. How dare I subject him to something so awful, so disgusting so…passé as pubic hair.
I sat there, humiliated and alone, convinced everyone was staring at me. Over the din of crunching tortilla chips, I could almost hear people whispering about the lax waxer in the corner. To hide my face, I grabbed a napkin and began jotting down vagina slang: beaver, bush, muff, bearded clam, pussy. I noticed they all had hairy connotations, even though pubic hair is nearly extinct. The age-old question, “Do the carpets match the curtains?” has no relevance. We’re all expected to have hardwoods now.
A look at pubic history shows that English prostitutes in the 1600’s would shave off their pubic hair because of lice. But in order to look like “regular, respectable women” for their clients, they attached pubic wigs called “merkins”. Japanese painter Hokusai’s 1820 erotic masterpiece, “The Dream of The Fisherman’s Wife” was more shocking because of the pubic hair on display than for the fact that she is having sex with two octopuses.
The Pubic Wars of the 1960s between Playboy and Hustler magazines established that showing pubic hair (even just a few hairs) separated softcore from hardcore. This was revisited in 1994 when The Black Crowes released their album, “Ameroica”. The cover art borrowed an image from Hustler that depicted a few stray pubes peeking out from under some American flag underwear. The album cover caused a furor, and the record company wound up airbrushing the pubic hair out.
And what about my redhead friend Nancy, who in 1993 sent a pubic hair through the mail to me while I was studying in London? It seems that when she noticed one of her red pubes on the white bathroom floor, she was filled with such pride in its glossy beauty that she taped it to a letter for a cross-Atlantic journey. Of all the personal items I lost in the shuffle of breaking up with my boyfriend back then, that globe-trotting red pubic hair is what I miss most.
By my second margarita, I had written all over a small cocktail party’s worth of napkins and decided it was time to convene a meeting of the minds. I arranged the first ever (to my knowledge anyway) NYC Beaver Tribunal. It was made up of several professional women. There was Nadia*, the 34 year old Public Relations director, Nicole the 26 year old Interactive Marketing supervisor, Marissa*, the 35 year old artist, Emily*, the 33 year old recruiter, and Colleen*, the 32 year old TV producer.
(*Names have been changed to preserve some sense of dignity.)
We meet at Beauty Bar in the East Village, where we commandeer the back room. Beauty Bar has a vintage beauty parlor theme, and it’s decorated with glamorous 1950’s and 1960’s advertisements as well as wigs, hairspray bottles, face creams and makeup from a bygone era. Patrons can sip cocktails while they get their nails done or gossip under antiquated hairdryers. Seated amongst old school beauty accoutrements, we planned to discuss new school pubic hair.
But unlike the curlers, eyebrow tweezers and nail polish bottles that surrounded us, the results of this beauty treatment are not generally seen by the Crate and Barrel cashier, the guy that bags your groceries, or the person in the cube next to you at work.
The question is why something so private has become such a public discussion.
I begin our meeting by mentioning a co-worker of mine, although not by name. She is your stereotypical TV professional. She’s almost a sit-com version of the real deal: stylish, Type A, accomplished. But a male friend of mine revealed that she has “Brillo Bush” and now that’s all I see when I look at her. The expensive suits and perfect nails have melted away and now all I see is “Brillo Bush”. She has gone from successful to slovenly with one bit of unsubstantiated gossip.
So I throw the ball out there: Why has hairlessness become the standard?
The first person to open up is Colleen. “I felt empowered when I first waxed,” she says. “It was like when I first bought a pack of condoms. This was a decision I was making on my own, to take control of my sexuality.”
Nadia chimes in with, “I cum faster when I’m waxed. Time is money, right? My college boyfriend would never go down on me. Back then I didn’t wax. And I have really coarse pubic hair. Now I think that’s why he wouldn’t go down on me.”
Marissa interjects, “But do you really think that’s why he wouldn’t? I mean, I have always felt uncomfortable about my breasts. So I’ve always pushed guys away from them. Maybe you felt uncomfortable about your pubic hair, so you subconsciously blocked him.”
Nadia mulls this over as Emily admits, “I just feel so much cleaner when I’m waxed.” All the waxed women nod vigorously. “Oh yeah. Absolutely,” they say. “So much cleaner.”
Maybe this waxing trend isn’t driven by popular culture. All this business about “female cleanliness” seems to be straight out of Leviticus.
Colleen says, “I just visited some high school friends in Florida. They’re all married. When I talked about waxing they all looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Oh…she’s single. She doesn’t get it.’ They don’t wax because they don’t want to have sex with their husbands. They want to keep them OUT. I couldn’t believe it. None of them wax. It’s like they’ve made a pact.”
I take a sip of my vodka tonic, picturing a Pinky Swear Anti-Wax Pact Ceremony taking place at a TGI Fridays in Orlando, followed by strawberry margaritas.
“I got waxed in Florida once,” says Nadia. “She didn’t do it right. She didn’t wax the lips. So when she left the room I grabbed the wax and took matters into my own hands. I don’t recommend it. I managed to seal my lips shut. I was revirginized!”
Looking around the room at these smart, attractive women, I began to wonder how the pressure to maintain hairless nether regions took root. What was the tipping point? Was it like Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hats and gloves, in which one influential woman inspired legions of copycats? Was there a great cultural moment that I could pinpoint? Of course, for centuries Islam has dictated the importance of removing pubic hair for religious reasons. But this particular revolution seemed more inspired by Carrie Bradshaw than the Shaw of Iran.
Just how had waxing to the point of Barbie genital smoothness consumed our culture to such an extent?
At this point, the youngest person in the Beaver Tribunal, Nicole, pulls out an essay she has written on the topic, culled from her lone waxing experience. I wasn’t expecting anyone to treat this like the SAT’s, but I’m pleased she’s taken it so seriously. In her best valedictorian voice she reads,
“In the case of what we are speaking about tonight, pain is the result of warm liquid wax applied to the inner crevices of my genitalia…and then ripped off to ensure that each and every pubic hair associated with those crevices is now extricated from my skin, all the way down to the hair’s follicle…Unless you’re a masochist, I can only conclude that most of us suck up to this pain to please others. So to all those men out there who prefer and encourage women to wax their most sensual and sensitive parts, I ask them this: what would you do if the genital grooming trend of today asked of you what it asks of women? Would you wax your balls monthly to appease the stylistic desires of us women?”
We applaud, wishing we had graduation caps to throw in the air and ask what her boyfriend thinks.
“He asked me to wax again, and I told him if he’d start running again, I’d start waxing. So then he actually started running. Then I said I’d wax my vagina when he waxed his balls. So far, he hasn’t done it yet.”
I wonder aloud if Nicole’s boyfriend will be the first man in history to begin training for the New York City marathon because of pubic hair.
Colleen says, “I was dating this crunchy granola type guy once. He barely even used deodorant. When he first saw my Brazilian, he thought it was kinky. He’d never seen that type of thing before. But after a while he got greedy, because one night after sex he said, ‘Don’t you think it’s time to make a waxing appointment?’ And I thought, ‘Don’t you think it’s time for an appointment with the shower? Or a stick of deodorant?’”
“I had a guy like that too, says Nadia. “We met in the wintertime. I’m not going to lie, I don’t wax as much in the winter. We were in bed together and asked me why I hadn’t waxed. I said something like, ‘Well, you know, it’s winter. I usually do it more in the spring.’ So he said, “Can spring come early this year?”
We all shake our heads in sympathy, disgusted by this perverse interpretation of Ground Hog Day. And it got me to thinking: where did this specific expectation come from? It’s not like hairstyles or skirt lengths that change with the times. This is an intensely private stylization. Nor is hair something that has stopped people from enjoying sex in the past. I’ve been to a 1970’s porn theme party, where we laughed at early porn classics such as “Deep Throat”, “Behind the Green Door” and “Debbie Does Dallas”. People seemed unhindered by the vast pubic jungles they sported back then. What happened over the past 35 years?
“1990’s porn.” answers Nadia. “At least that’s what this guy on JDate told me. Porn went mainstream and guys got used to things looking a certain way. They wanted women to look like that in real life too.”
At last–a concrete answer. Today’s porn has become more hardcore and readily available. Porn really has gone mainstream. No one has to stand in a line at some seedy theatre or even the video store anymore. Porn is available anytime on your home computer, or (for some daring risk takers) at your work cubical. Shows like “The Girls Next Door” show porn stars as being cuddly and childlike, sleeping in pink rooms and giggling together. Even little girls stand in line with their parents to get Playboy merchandise signed by Hef’s girlfriends. Things once considered risqué have been sanitized. There is less and less disconnect between expectations of porn stars and everyday women.
This would come as a surprise to John Ruskin, the esteemed 19th century author, artist, and art critic. The story goes that while he had seen plenty of nudes in his artistic studies, he had never seen a real, live naked woman prior to his wedding night. But while the artistic nudes he’d seen were stylized and hairless, his wife Effie had some standard issue pubic hair. Allegedly, he was so appalled by this discovery that he rejected her. Supposedly, he viewed her pubic hair as a deformity, and later had the marriage annulled.
Unlike the traumatized Ruskin, a dissatisfied husband of today would have simply booked their wife a waxing appointment as a Valentine’s Day gift. Men and women are very aware of what a perfect vagina should look like, and ways in which to obtain that perfection. This naturally created an industry for anal bleaching and vaginal plastic surgery. With no hair to camouflage the vagina, saggy lips or other “deformities” are on display.
In fact, all the women I spoke to said after they waxed for the first time, the first thing they did was grab a mirror and really inspect themselves. A male co-worker of mine confided that the only way he respects pubic hair is if a vagina is “really ripped up and busted lookin’. Because no one needs to see that.”
It seems self-conscious women have yet another thing to add to a lengthening list of physical issues to worry about.
But is this vaginal minutia a response to other social changes? Is there a peculiar correlation between this trend and the fact that we had the first woman in history running for U.S. president, more women than men are graduating from law school and the salary-gender gap is closing? We have become a nation of Tracy Flicks even as we’ve been micro-managing our vaginas like Tracy Lords. A conspiracy theorist might assume this is a devious ploy to keep us focused on unimportant things as we are finally making progress in the world; just as the Rosie the Riveters who had been building war planes during World War II were told it was their “patriotic duty” to get back into the kitchen when the men came home.
Then again, nerdy student body president Tracy Flick begat sexy law student Elle Woods, whom I suspect had a perfectly maintained pubic zone beneath that couture pink suit. So maybe we’ve just upped the ante. No longer is it enough to be accomplished and ambitious. We demand physical perfection from straightened hair to pedicured toes and everything in between. It’s quite a high standard we’ve set for ourselves.
Two days after the NYC Beaver Tribunal, Nadia brings me along to meet her aesthetician Liz at Belazza on Eighth Avenue. She mentions the time she was once in the middle of a waxing session and had to field a call from The New York Post’s Page 6. This strikes me as an oddly glamorous New York moment.
The salon is beautiful, well-decorated and playing great music. We are upstairs, where a woman is playing with her baby. Other women are gathered around, and there is cheesecake and wine. One of them is celebrating her 40th birthday. Everyone is laughing, going into little rooms to get waxed, then coming back out for more conversation. Engagement rings are shown off. Shoes are complimented. As we sip wine, Liz says to Nadia,
“I never noticed you have such nice teeth. I never look at your face when you come for your appointments. But I have a loyal client base. If lined up you all up by vagina, I’d know exactly who you all were.”
Looking around at the festivities, I wonder if getting waxed isn’t necessarily a male-driven, porn-inspired desire after all. Maybe women tell other women about it, and it becomes a bonding experience, like brunch or shopping. After all, salons have always been gathering places for gossip and fun. Maybe some women wax just for their own pleasure.
After finishing my wine, I head home, where I read an e-mail from a friend in Seattle. It seems that at least one other woman on another coast agrees with this theory:
“I never considered waxing “down there” until last year, when I realized that most of my girlfriends do it. I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I’m missing something that I shouldn’t be missing?’ and I gave it a shot. At first, though it admittedly felt all soft and supple and luxurious as my friends promised it would, it LOOKED like I had a distinct, triangle-shaped patch of the measles. It was all red and splotchy and U-G-L-Y. I didn’t want anybody spending any time down there for fear that it might be contagious. But sure enough, after just a couple days, the bumpiness subsided and what was left was a smooth Saharan sand dune of hair-free softness. I wanted to show it to anyone who’d take a peek! I was so proud! I felt tidy and prim and clean and dirty-in-a-good-way and like I had a satiny little secret. All was fabulous for about a week– I would tenderly apply lotion to my lovely little lady and gaze at myself adoringly in the mirror– until the little infiltrating hairs started rupturing through my Playboy fantasy…I hated them! I hated my own pachango in a way I never had before! Within a two-week time frame, I had been indifferent about hoochy hair, then blissfully intoxicated by its absence, and then self-hating and hideous upon it’s return! I never knew those little curly DNA samples could have such an emotional impact on me! Needless-to-say, I am now addicted to waxing…”
While this e-mail was illuminating (I’d never heard of “pachango” as vagina slang, and it was a good one to add to my napkin list) in the end, it was my mom’s opinion that I wound up respecting the most. Maybe it’s because she is the most adventurous, yet grounded person I know. But when I finally worked up the courage to call and ask her about this issue, there was a pause. A couple seconds of silence passed before she answered in her harsh Finnish accent,
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you women today, worrying about one pubic hair or 50. Back in my day, the men were just happy to be there.”