‘The Union of Earth and Water’ by Peter Paul Rubens
When I was ‘coming of age’ in the 80’s and 90’s, pubic hair was sort of a non-issue. We shaved enough to not show when we wore our swim suits, but that was the extent of it. I don’t remember ever feeling like pubic hair was unfeminine or undesirable, and I certainly didn’t think it was dirty – it was just a natural part of adult human bodies.
I never even really noticed that pubic hair removal was becoming more of a ‘thing’. I do remember raising an eyebrow when I first heard of Brazilian waxing, but since I wasn’t interested it quickly faded from my consciousness. I assumed it was a small niche market, as I couldn’t imagine the expense and discomfort of the upkeep was something most people would acquiesce to. As it grew in popularity, I was deep in my work as a pit bull rescuer, and then motherhood, and it just wasn’t on my radar.
Over the last couple years, as my tween daughters have brought more and more popular culture to my attention, I have begun to notice the change in the perception of pubic hair as something undesirable. My first realization that the complete removal of pubic hair has actually become The Norm was listening to an Amy Schumer bit on the radio, wherein she described the cultural expectation that women be hairless, and a session with her waxer. It dawned on me that our culture’s view of pubic hair has shifted fundamentally, and I began to notice the language people used to describe it. “Gross”, “dirty”, “disgusting’, “smelly”, “unfeminine”. (Those words were in no short supply in the comments on my facebook page when I shared Dr. Jen Gunter’s post on the topic of pubic hair). Ads for pubic hair removal promising a ‘clean’ look (the implication being that the hair is dirty, or that the hair makes the woman dirty). In short, our culture now EXPECTS women to be hairless, and deviation from that expectation is considered dirty and unfeminine.
How did this happen? We were making progress in the late 60’s, the 70’s, even into the 80’s. Womens’ bodies were held to much less stringent ‘standards of perfection’ as women burned their bras, let their hair down and embraced sexual liberation. We were ‘allowed’ to be fully sexual adult human beings (oh Madonna, I will never forget the torpedo bra). And pubic hair is a characteristic of sexual maturity. It was normal. Everybody knew it was normal. Every sexually mature adult had it. No big deal. I may have been insecure about my thighs, or my height, or my acne, but I don’t remember ever being insecure about my pubic hair.
Body hair, and more specifically pubic hair, is an indicator of sexual maturity. Not all cultures remove pubic hair or see it as undesirable (see: our own culture 30 years ago). Pubic hair on a woman indicates that she is sexually mature. So what does it signify when we associate the REMOVAL of pubic hair with ‘femininity’? (1) That a fully sexually mature woman is undesirable? That to be ‘feminine’ a woman must resemble a pre-pubescent child? That a woman’s body is not acceptable the way it is naturally? (2,3) Those are certainly the messages I glean from this cultural expectation placed upon women.
And what of the perception that pubic hair is “dirty”, or that pubic hair signifies dirty genitals? This is perhaps the most unfortunate belief to stem from this cultural expectation. Pubic hair serves a purpose. Like the hair in our noses and ears, it actually PROTECTS the delicate skin and mucous membranes of the genitals from dirt and bacteria we may be exposed to in the environment. There’s a reason we’ve retained pubic hair even as we’ve evolved to be more hairless elsewhere – it provides a biological benefit. And removing it can open you up to bacterial and fungal infection and faster spread of STDs (should you be exposed). (4)
Hey – if you enjoy removing your pubic hair, more power to you. This post isn’t meant to judge your personal choice. We need to STOP associating hairlessness with cleanliness though – not only is it inaccurate, the truth is that the hair is there to keep you cleaner. And we need to recognize the culturally imposed idea that hairlessness is ‘feminine’, as the truth is exactly opposite: pubic hair signifies sexual and reproductive maturity. Sexual and reproductive maturity are what makes a woman a woman and not a little girl. Sexual and reproductive maturity are what make a woman truly feminine, as before sexual and reproductive maturity there is much less physical distinction between the sexes. Promoting a hairless ideal as ‘feminine’ infantilizes women. We need to do better for our daughters. They deserve to know that their bodies are healthy and desirable in their natural state as they mature into adults. That their bodies are not ‘gross’ the way they naturally are. And if they want to remove their hair, great! Lets just make it clear, to them and to ourselves, that it is a cultural fashion trend, and not something they must do in order to be ‘feminine’ or ‘clean’. They are feminine simply by growing into a gloriously sexually mature woman. And hair does not make them dirty, it in fact helps them stay clean. And our sons deserve to know what women’s bodies look like in their natural state, and that that natural state is not ‘dirty’ or ‘gross’.
This fashion trend is another way our culture tells us our bodies are unacceptable the way they are, and marketers have created mythology about cleanliness to further shame us into giving them our money. If it’s something you want to do, and you’re fully aware of the cultural issues and the potential health risks, then wax away. But lets stop with the ‘dirty’, ‘gross’ and ‘unfeminine’ language. Because it’s just plain not true.
1. Toerien, Merran, and Sue Wilkinson. “Gender and body hair: Constructing the feminine woman.” Women’s Studies International Forum. Vol. 26. No. 4. Pergamon, 2003.
2. Chapkis, Wendy, and Gon Buurman. Beauty secrets: Women and the politics of appearance. Boston: South End Press, 1986.
3. Ussher, Jane M. The psychology of the female body. Taylor & Frances/Routledge, 1989.
4. Trager, Jonathan DK. “Pubic hair removal—pearls and pitfalls.” Journal of pediatric and adolescent gynecology 19.2 (2006): 117-123.
5. Tiggemann, Marika, and Suzanna Hodgson. “The hairlessness norm extended: Reasons for and predictors of women’s body hair removal at different body sites.” Sex Roles 59.11-12 (2008): 889-897.