On Body Hair + Being A Better Woman
On a recent trip away, my friend and I were invited to go to the beach in the city. We have both known each for quite a while and are both comfortable with discussing our bodies and undressing in front of each other to change, much like close friends do. When approaching the topic of shaving our legs, arms, and bikini area we both decided to opt for not. We just didn't care to, and it was something that we both wanted to discuss but did not want to really get into much detail about. This was something that was itching inside of me, but I was too confused about where to start. Like, why did we ever shave at all? I felt much better not shaving, I had not been shaving for close to a year now, with little hiccups here and there. However, these always left me feeling defeated and a little foreign to the body hair I had become reaccustomed to. Well, you all know me, I set out to find some answers. That's how "back porch chats" started. Jill and I have some lovely women friends who are all confident and opinionated and like to talk openly. We decided to sit down and have a chat with them about body hair and why it matters so much in our society today, what happened to leaving it be free. Before we dive in, here's the low down:
We are five women, each from different generations (almost), ranging in approximate ages: 20, 31, 37, 45, and 63. We wanted diverse opinions, and each of us are very different from each other! At the end, I will collect my own thoughts and opinions based on what I have heard, my research, and my own personal experiences. So here we go!
A little history to get us started... In May of 1915, Harper's Bazaar printed an ad featuring a model wearing a sleeveless dress with her arm posed over her head and a bare armpit. This became highly popular in the upper classes, and with snappy marketing strategies, made its way into the middle class. In 1922, Sears Roebuck began to offer the first women's razor in their catalog, the same year they began offering sleeveless and sheer dresses. As advertisers' business went up, so did the general opinion among women that they had to shave. They were easily convinced that they needed certain products, special things, that were the best choice out on the market to remove their hair.
Leg shaving was harder to catch on, as hemlines became longer again in the 1930s. On the other hand, beauty and fashion writers tried desperately to bring about a negative opinion about leg hair, comparing it to leprosy. It wasn't until WWII when Betty Grable's pin up appeared, and women desperately wanted to emulate her look, that the trend took on. They wanted short skirts, sheer stockings, and shaved legs. The only way this look worked was if the leg hair was removed so it didn't poke out through the stockings. Nylon was a valuable material during the second world war, so more women went bare-legged, and thus shaved to appear to have stockings on.
Pubic hair was less popular to shave up until the 1970s. This began the porn fetish of young teenage boys. In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress which required men and women be treated equally by law. The bush was everywhere, especially among feminists, and they believed their hair was a badge. This challenged the demur love-seeking girl with one who was not afraid to enjoy having sex. What was ironic about this came from the rising popularity of published porn magazines. In 1970, Penthouse published the first shots of pubic hair and in 1974, Hustler published the first "pink shots" of labia in its pages. The same year, Larry Flynt published Barely Legal, a tabloid featuring full frontal shots of eighteen-year-old (and younger) girls, who had hardly any hair to begin with. This sparked the teenage girl fetish, which led to movies like Taxi Driver featuring an underage Jodie Foster and Pretty Baby featuring an also underage Brooke Shields, both as prostitutes.
This fetish quickly grew popular as feminism rose to challenge men's predominance. It was not until the 1980s that porn stars began shaving it all off. In 2002, women began entering beauty salons to have the Brazilian Wax, or removing all of the hair in their pubic area. This became popular around young women in college. They assumed this was the proper look for sexual encounters, and soon women in their 30s began to follow the trend, but they wanted to keep a landing strip so they didn't look prepubescent.
So what does this all mean? Well, I wanted to find out and gather some real opinions from women I knew and trusted. It all began with, "To shave or not to shave?" which gathered some talk straight away. Melissa, our 37-year-old was quick to jump on board with her own personal care, saying that she, "shaves her legs and pits every single day," and that she has, "strong opinions on waxing," enough to get it done once a month. She loves the clean, silky, and scented feel of not having any hair anywhere. The other women were more relaxed, saying they shaved their bikini lines and their legs at least once every two weeks. Our oldest, Linda, said she hardly grew hair anymore, but had only tried shaving her pubic hair once, finding it too uncomfortable to attempt again.
As we moved along with conversation, topics came up like, "Where do you think your need to shave came from?" and, "What does your man prefer?" I discovered that a couple of us had been taught by our mothers to shave, the rest shown by friends or older girls, and our 31-year-old, Ashley, experimenting by herself in the bathroom at age 12. All of us began shaving our legs around the same age, 10 to 14, and we were all influenced by peers to do so. In my own experience, I was approached by a young boy who told me that my legs were hairy and that I should probably shave them; I was 9-years-old. Immediately afterwards, I asked my mother to teach me how to shave my leg hair, and had been doing so ever since. Melissa agreed that she's in the process of teaching her 11-year-old daughter the art of shaving and purchased her a goodie bag filled with products geared towards women's shaving.
What was interesting to me, throughout this discussion, was that almost every single man we had each encountered sexually, either preferred women having hair or did not have an opinion (at least not stated to us) about it. This conversation leaned more towards pubic hair, of course. Melissa, who removes everything, claimed that she had been with one man who was 28 that said he preferred she waxed and would go down on her if she did. That really struck a chord with me, especially considering his age. The other women, save Melissa, have not really experienced the men of my generation, the ones who have only had a singular preference: no hair anywhere. It has been something that has haunted me, and I am sure other women my age, since before high school. You hear from one person that you are supposed to shave it all off, or else boys won't like it. Something that's been engrained into my brain as a way to be ready for sex at all times.
The other question that I felt strongly about when hearing the responses was, "Does having or not having body hair make you feel beautiful?" Not one person, excluding myself, said that keeping their body hair made them feel beautiful. This was interesting, though, because a few were quick to jump to the conclusion that, "I wouldn't want to open a magazine and see hairy legs or anywhere else." That made body hair gross and almost like taboo when thinking about viewing other women, but not necessarily themselves. Linda also came in with a reference to John Lennon and Yoko Ono posing nude for their album cover Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. She remembered when that album was released and upon seeing the photograph immediately thinking, "They look like normal people."
So does that lead into the idea that after marriage, we finally reach this level of "normalcy" as women when it comes to body hair? Each of us are mothers and agreed that during pregnancy we did not attempt to shave at all, especially during the later months, the ones where you cannot see anything below your bulging belly anyway. This was actually around the time that my revelation to keep my body hair began, along with some insecurities based on what my life would be like after giving birth, or what my OBGYN might think of me.
A few years ago, an article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed discussing the topic of classic art pieces and the lack of female genitals. In western art history, most women who are painted or sculpted are also hairless. Bosch, Titian, and Michelangelo each painted hairless pubic areas, and Manet painted the infamous prostitute Olympia without hair. It was not until around 1800 when Fransisco de Goya painted La maja desnuda, displaying an ordinary woman with exposed pubic hair. Goya was later brought before the Inquisition for this piece's erotism.
So why is the vagina such a taboo idea, yet the female body has been idolized throughout history? Is it men's desire to be predominant or perhaps something much less complicated than that? Well, everything I've read is based on opinion and theory. There is no research with point blank answers on why the female body is consistently covered or changed. As far as my reading has gone, pubic hair marks a woman's sexual desire. To display it is beyond modesty, beyond "being a lady."
However, our body hair is there for a reason, that is something I believe wholeheartedly to be true. Within my discussion with our panel of women, I was the most interested in Melissa's portion of the conversation because she was my true opposite, but she was also someone that I used to be, used to emulate. She wanted to be rid of "dirty" scents and truly believes smelling like "Lancome and Estee Lauder" is the best way hygienically to remove any unpleasant odors. This is something that I no longer agree with, though I do admire her differences and authenticity to herself as a woman. Among the many medical reasons for pubic hair, including protecting you from STDs, STIs (something I think it really important), keeping important oils, and helping to retain normal pH levels, there is an important scent you are getting rid of by removing the hair down there!
Did you know that ovulating strippers get twice the amount of tips than those that are on their periods? Or that television experiment where two groups of women walked into a bar, one wearing floral perfume and the other wearing their vaginal scent on their necks, to see who could attract more men? Guess who won. Pubic hair is used to announce your capacity to reproduce. It releases pheromones that signal a readiness to conceive. Being hairless is something that we now associate with cleanliness, while having hair makes you feel more animalistic, or is compared to "manliness," as Ashley seemed to put it. Our sense of these pheromones is our only link to love-making and mate selection, while removing it makes it an idea shaped by the imaginations of young men, something pornographic. I believe Roger Friedland said it best: "There is a deep historical irony here: Young women are pursuing sexual pleasures that were made possible by a feminism that also asserted the beauty of the natural feminine body. For these women, their sex is no longer dirty, but their bodies are."
Which leads me to my conclusion and the reason why I am keeping my body hair. Part of it has to do with sex, as most of the conversation seemed to. Don't laugh, but my revelation came from reading Outlander. I know, you're all rolling your eyes because I talk about this book ALL. THE. TIME. But hear me out, in the novel the protagonist, Claire, falls back in time to Eighteenth Century Scotland. There are several erotic scenes within the books, but one factor predominantly stands out and is often mentioned, both partners (Claire and Jamie) have all of their body hair, and it is part of their sexual desire, part of them, something they do not question, something they both enjoy. It is a comfort and reminder to them of each other. If you have been watching the second season on Starz, you know that Claire was peer pressured by her friend Louise to get a full frontal wax. Later, when she encounters Jamie, he is surprised but enjoys it immensely. That really upset me, because in the books he is angry with Claire for removing her armpit hair, leg hair, and pubic hair. Maybe even devastated, one could say.
After being in a relationship where I felt forced to shave myself for my partner's pleasure and preference, it suddenly seemed absolutely ridiculous that I felt controlled by my body's natural state. Something that made me a woman without having to try or to prove myself to any other man or woman, was something I wanted to keep in my life forever. There are studies that claim young women who do not love and feel loved while having sex tend to not orgasm. The practice of love-making is slowly depleting as women rise higher in academic fields and employment; men are wanting to dominate somewhere, and the bedroom is where that is happening. Being hairless seems to be our last ditch effort to stay feminine.
When I brought this up, Linda was quick to question my motives, comparing me to the feminists of 70s. "Are you doing this to start a movement? Are you fighting against society?" To which my instinctual response was, "No, I don't think I am." But I've had to sit back and really figure this one out to myself. Part of this is fighting society, fighting men, and fighting for women. I want to say no because I don't enjoy confrontation, and I don't want to be the leader in a movement for something as important as this. I believe that body hair is important. It is a normalcy of the human body, something that I find particularly beautiful and fascinating, something that demands to be acknowledged for all of its flaws and beauties. Because what truly is a flaw? It shouldn't be something that allows us to live, to reproduce. So, I've decided that my answer is a definitive no. I am not fighting a revolution, I am making a lifestyle. I am turning myself daily into a stronger woman, body hair and all, for me and no one else.
[If you enjoyed this blog post (or didn't) let me know in the comments! I would love to hear your opinions, experiences, concerns. These "back porch chats" are something I hope to continue in the future and would love to have any of your ideas for topics that the five of us could discuss (: ]