by Roger Friedland
“Beaver!” “Beaver up the stairs.” Some guy in chinos at my Los Angeles public high school would shout out as an up-skirt view opened on a staircase. In the 1960’s, a high school girl’s pubic hair marked the site we all wanted to see, to touch, to enter. Pubic hair was iconic. It marked pleasures yet to come. We all hoped to get there.
In the avant-garde literature of those days, pubic hair was everywhere. In a hallucinatory scene in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, finally published here in 1962, Johnny has just doused himself and Mary with gasoline. “He is a boy sleeping against the mosque wall, ejaculate wet dreaming into a thousand cunts pink and smooth as sea shells. Feeling the delight of prickly pubic hairs slide up his cock…..”
“He’s never seen it,” a friend recounted to me about his good-looking, sexually active collegiate son.
What, I asked?
“Snatch,” he replied. “It’s like a princess phone. He sleeps with girls all the time. He’s never seen a woman’s pubic hair.”
My years of “third-base” are now a half-century past. Just like the rain forest and the ozone layer, pubic hair has been disappearing on young, fertile, desired and desiring bodies as my own body has aged.
I think you can see the world from down there, or at least now that the bush is being cleared, how our world has changed. Emile Durkheim, the French founder of sociology, took intimate moments—acts of suicide in his case—as a way to gauge the state of social solidarity. We can do likewise with the waxing, shaving, sugaring, plucking and even lasering of female pubic hair. Its disappearance tells us something about womanhood, the state of love, the human and the relation of body and soul. Pubic practices are rites by which we construct who we know ourselves to be. What are they telling us?
What began as a following of the inward movement of the bikini line—maxing out with the thong—has morphed into removing all a woman’s pubic hair. The shearing is accomplished with disposable razors or increasingly via the Brazilian wax, in which hot wax is applied with sticks, then cotton cloths are laid down on top of it and ripped away, taking it all off front and back, right down to the soft little hairs subtly cloaking the bottom. The shave—with quick, rough re-growth and ingrown hairs—can require almost daily attention. The wax lasts four weeks or so, but it hurts, women report, particularly that very first time. The cheaper the version, the more the pain: The less expensive, low-grade product takes off the first layer of your skin with the hair. Salons hand out rum shots and apply numbing creams; clients take drugs and anti-inflammatories to get through it; women do breathing exercises and shout out profanities. As the hot wax gets ever closer to the center stage, the pain level rises. Some women cannot bear it. The waxing of the mons has become a feminine frontier, a marker of one’s ability to endure pain for the sake of beauty.
Beverly Woxell, a tall voluptuous mother of two and a well-known aesthetician in Santa Barbara where I live, had to go up to San Francisco to learn to do the Brazilian wax: It had been forbidden at the beauty college where she obtained her training. When she put it on her menu in 2002, she intended it as a sideline to facials and massage, but a new generation of college women looking to partake in the casual carnality of the hook-up scene, mobbed her practice. Now she does Brazilians all day long.
The young women want, she explains, to be ready for sex, “to be hip, and cool and in the know. They want to look the part, act the part.” They’ve seen the super models who are freshly waxed before putting on the expensive bathing suits and lingerie. “We all want to think,” Woxell says, “that we are a little, tiny bit like that.” It is, she argues, just like a designer bag. “Every girl wants to have Louis Vuitton or designer sun glasses or that one designer purse.” Today, Woxell says, if young women have a casual, un-waxed sexual encounter, they are afraid “it might ruin your reputation.”
The thirty and forty year-old mothers have followed in their wake. “They take their panties off and it is like Jack in the Box,” she says. “Come on its Valentine’s Day, “she cajoles them, “let’s see what the shock factor is with your husband.” Often they can’t do the whole thing. They want to keep a “landing strip” or a “Dorrito chip.”
“‘I can’t look like my twelve year old,’ they say.’”
What does it mean? Hair can do a lot of symbolic work. In science fiction movies, alien creatures are the hairless ones. Hairlessness marks the post-human. Yet it is also marks the divide between human and animal. The hairy ones are closer to nature, to animality. Just think of Jacob and Esau. Esau, a hunter beloved by his father, has hairy skin; Jacob, a mother’s boy of the tents who cheats his brother out of his birthright, does not. Body hair historically has been a mark of manliness. Femininity was located in the hair on a woman’s head, not on her body. For men, it was the reverse: Real men had chest-hair. No wonder a lot of girls find the first appearance of pubic hair unnerving, ugly, even nauseating. A lot of women who wax say they “hate” that hair.
In the sweep of Western art history of the nude, female pubic hair could not be shown. Bosch, Titian, Michelangelo painted hairless vaginas. Even Manet, when he painted the famous prostitute, Olympia, in 1863, couldn’t bring himself to show it. Pubic hair marked a woman’s sexual desire, her erotic passion: to show it was beyond all bounds of modesty. When Francisco de Goya painted La Maja Desnuda around 1800 for the Spanish prime minister, it was a breakthrough: an ordinary naked woman—neither goddess nor allegory—with pubic hair fully exposed. Goya’s model is looking at you looking at her. The Prime Minister kept it hidden in a private room, shown only to those he trusted. Goya was later called before the Spanish Inquisition for this work.
Pubic hair signals our capacity to make life; the way we know we are no longer girls and boys. It is an evolutionary relic, its function to conduct plumes of sex pheromones into the atmosphere that signal a female’s readiness to reproduce and critical information about male and female genetic qualities. Ovulating strippers get twice the tips as those who are having their periods. Life-making and mate selection are a smelling affair. Shearing genital hair cleans up the zone. It displays free-standing sex organs, separated from reproductive sense, staging a physical encounter between erect boys and open girls in a magical garden where one can live forever.
A hairless vagina is symbolically unhinged not only from reproductive possibility, but from spiritual union, from knowing. The vagina is our template for the ultimate sacred space, a holy of holies where no one else can enter: unseeable, unsayable, the template of pleasure by which the pains of this worldly existence are to be measured. In Hebrew, to engage in sexual intercourse literally means “to know.” This is not just a euphemism. The connection between erotic desire and knowledge is lodged both in our origin story in the Garden of Eden, and written into the word philosophy—philo, loving, sophia, knowledge or wisdom—a loving of knowledge. That loving is grounded in erotics. A woman’s pubic hair veils the passage, marking the sacrality of that space of knowing. Shaving it away stamps it as a mere organ, a passage where anyone can linger pleasantly, where something is done, not somebody known. Pubelessness is an affirmation of the pure body and a negation of corporeal soul, separating the center of one’s flesh from birth and from knowing.
American women are, in fact, striking a pornographic pose, one that first appeared in the hard-core porn films that were increasingly shaping the sexual imagination of legions of young men. The eye of the hard-core porn camera hovers over female body parts; it’s a visual excess of physical acts with a minimum of sentiment. It is not a love story. Porn displays pubeless bodies to emphasize the organs—the female genital slit (and the erect male shaft)—and thereby defines the standard of erotic desirability. As nether hair disappeared on screen guys increasingly wanted sex with girls who looked like the porn stars they’d fantasized about. They asked and women emulated.
A porn body is not a body that loves, a body to which love adheres. It is a uniform for male fantasy and that fantasy has a history. The timing of bushless porn tells a shriveling tale. Pubic hair appeared for the first time in Penthouse in 1970. In 1974, Hustler published the first “pink shots” of labial flesh. But the porn starlets only began shaving it off in the 1980’s. Until then, they cavorted on screen with full bushes. You can see the same—but slower—progression with the more demur Playboy centerfolds.
A friend of mine, now in college, recounted her conversation in 8th grade with a boy who was startled to discover that females had pubic hair, too. He’d never seen it in the porn movies or the magazines.
Two things happened just before the pubic hair disappeared. The timing is not arbitrary. I will reverse the sequence. In the 1970’s the female teen body became an erotic fetish. In 1974 Larry Flynt began publishing Barely Legal, with frontal shots of eighteen year-old girls. In 1976, an underage Jodie Foster played a twelve-year-old prostitute in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver; in 1978, Brooke Shields did the same in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby. Both were underage when they played these parts.
It’s what preceded this that is significant: the female teen fetish went mainstream after feminism rose to challenge male predominance. It was in 1972 that the Equal Rights Amendment, requiring that females and males be treated equally by law, passed out of Congress. Feminists were hairy. Female body hair was a feminist badge—in arm pits, on legs, and particularly at the big V. It was the hairy girls, I recall, who were most likely to demand their pleasures. The feminist was not feminine. Just like Goya’s nude, she looked; she didn’t just want to be looked at. This eroticization of young girls recaptured the pure feminine, the subordinate, hairless virginal female against whom a man was clearly a man.
Feminism did something else as well: it sought to eliminate the sexual double standard, the public, pleasure-seeking man versus the private, love-seeking woman. It was now o.k. for a young woman to be heat-seeking flesh, looking for that spasmic flash. The young women who sought that kind of sex were in the vanguard of pubelessness. The Brazilian wax is part of that new erotic repertoire, a perpetual private reminder that you are always ready for action. “I’m so aware of down there now,” Carrie says in the episode of Sex and the City that brought it to the attention of tens of millions of young women in 2000. “I feel like I’m nothing but walking sex.” The waxed female body is a pure sexual body, its sex a public fact. Looking back you can see that it was not long after women showed their legs and their arm pits—with shorter skirts, nylons and the sleeveless dress—that these hair-coverings were shorn away. The same is now happening with the vagina. Even women who are about to deliver babies make emergency calls to their aestheticians to get waxes. “Everybody is going to be in that room,” one explained to her waxer, “and I don’t want to have any hair.” Pubic space is becoming public space.
For young women the removal of pubic hair becomes a painful rite, my daughter Hannah explains to me, a proud marker that you unashamedly own your sex, that you are ready, accessible, and you demand your own pleasure. It is an erotic sacrifice, not unlike young initiate warriors suspended with hooks in their shoulders. It is a display of badness, not only for the man who dares to get that far, but for other women in the gym or the shower room before whom you show you are willing to go to the limit, to endure a measure of pain for your pleasure, and are thereby owed a measure of awe by other women.
Because women could now forthrightly demand their pleasures—if he got his, she should get hers—they expected their sexual partners to grant them reciprocal oral favors. But there was a problem: American men tend to see the vagina as a smelly orifice, a medium for residues of urine and microbes. “Fishy” is the attribute I remember from the poker games in college. Recent surveys reveal the guys are unlikely to orally pleasure young women outside of a relationship. Some young men I talk to explain that they want their sexual partners to be shorn so they don’t get smells and urine traces on their faces, so that oral contact is more direct. In a society that has banished all human odors through washing, deodorants and cleansers, tooth pastes and mouth washes, it is no wonder that the smell of a woman has also been erased as a baseline experience. Hairlessness, like the vaginal mint, advertises that a vagina has been purified for male taste.
Nature, including sexual nature, can be national. I have been working on the relation between love, erotics and religion among Italian and American university students for several years now. Although waxing kits are readily available, total depilation is rare among Italian women. Men don’t like it if there is not a tuft remaining on the mons. “They would not know where to go,” the Italian women joke. Likewise, hairless pre-pubescent girls are not a big segment of the Italian pornography market. Italian men, who are major consumers of porn, organize their alternative erotic reality around women, not girls. As a result, an Italian woman’s pubic hair tends to be shaped, not eliminated. This survival, I think, is related to the fact that Italians continue, much more than in the United States, to want and to have their sex with love. Young Italian men are romantic—more than their counterparts in America, and indeed even more romantic than Italian women.
For Italian men the smell of a vagina is something earthy. The vagina for them is a prize, a beautiful flower to be admired and won, not as in the United States, a term of disdain, a cunt. In Rome a vagina is una fica, a term deriving from the fig, a great thing, a delightful gift, a ribboned fruit. Among young Romans, the expression fica is a way to convey something extraordinarily good, akin to “cool.” They even make it into a superlative—fichissimo, meaning that something is the “cuntest” and very good indeed. Una fica is not only a sexually attractive woman, it is anything worthy of possession or experience. Imagine an American guy saying: “Wow, that is so vagina!” You can’t.
Reading a woman’s pubic hair is a tricky business. I think the disappearance of female pubic hair marks both a male disdain for a womanly body—its look, its smell, its very nature, but also a woman’s desire to look “clean,” the implication being that their natural bodies are “dirty.” Certainly microbes adhere to hair, but it is not really about hygiene. There’s soap and water, after all. It’s about becoming an instrument of pure pleasure, an active forgetting that one’s body is built to birth and to love. I have been studying student erotics for several years now and one thing is clear: young women who don’t love and don’t feel loved tend not to orgasm when they have sex. Hairlessness, which does not contribute to female pleasure, is entwined with the rise of the pornographic, with love’s erosion as a believable state of grace, with women’s uncomfortable capitulation to sex as a portal to fuller affection. It is a mark of female sexual availability to men on masculine terms, a regular rite of submission. It is conditioned by the fact that just as women are achieving academic predominance and breaking into field after field, the terms of trade are turning against them in the bedroom. Educated women must increasingly submit to the sexual demands of a shrinking pool of suitable men for whom the bedroom is one of the last domains outside of a football stadium where men can be men. And reciprocally for women, it is increasingly only their bodies that set them apart. Bodily hair masculinizes them, so hairlessness becomes a way to hold on to the feminine. Clean is acceptable code for pretty, like the smooth cheeks on their faces.
That women are going hairless is more than another grooming practice that might signal reproductive fitness. It means something. The question is what and to whom? Powerful vectors are at work in our underpants; unconsciously channeling our libido. The disappearance of pubic hair says something about the way we construct our humanness, how we compose our bodies and souls. The disappearing bush is a burning issue.