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Sunday 12 May 2019

style

Leave or remain?

  • Right now everyone seems to love vaginas – there are two new books out on the subject this year alone
  • But women are still expected to maintain their pudenda in the hairless condition of a child’s
  • Hair removal didn’t take off till the 20th century in Britain but now the industry is worth £280 million a year

By Jemima Lewis

Some years ago, I took my clothes off near a group of teenage girls in a swimming pool changing room. They took one look at my naked body and ran, screaming with laughter, from the room. As the door swung shut behind them, I heard one girl shriek: “Did you see the size of her bush?”

“You cannot love a vagina unless you love hair.” That’s how Eve Ensler began her taboo-smashing play, The Vagina Monologues, back in 1996. But does her maxim still hold true? Right now, everyone seems to love vaginas. There are two new books on the subject this year alone: Vagina: A Re-education, by Lynn Enright, and Rude, by Nimko Ali, which is described as “The Vagina Monologues for the 21st century”.

They have even made their way into the most mainstream of cultural arenas: advertising. The makers of Bodyform ran a campaign last year called Viva the Vulva, much praised for its feminist message of self-acceptance. It featured a singing, dancing chorus of symbolic vulvas – more than 30 of them, including oysters, silk purses and all manner of suggestive fruit.

Bodyform ran a campaign last year called “Viva the Vulva” featuring symbolic pudenda

But only two of these “vulvas” had any suggestion of pubic hair: a chocolate cupcake with sprinkles, and a knitted sock puppet with a tiny afro. The implication was that pubic hair simply isn’t a feature of the average vulva, except for occasional decoration.

To some extent, this is merely a reflection of current reality. In the two decades since Ensler wrote her play, the vulva has undergone a radical change of appearance. The wild, dark triangle that ought to signal sexual maturity has vanished. Women are now expected (not least by themselves) to maintain their pudenda in the plump, smooth, hairless condition that only naturally occurs in pre-pubescent children.

A UK poll (YouGov) last year found that just 4 per cent of British women under 30 leave their bush au naturel. The most popular style for young women is the full “Hollywood” – every scrap of hair removed. Men “groom” too, but less drastically and therefore less painfully – 48 per cent of young men favour a light strimming.

How did this Great Depilation come about? And does it actually matter? No one really knows what pubes are for, after all. Theories abound: the hairs trap pheromones and waft them about to attract a mate; they cushion the pubic bone during sex; they are useful if you can’t find anywhere to dry your hands (as one early German anthropologist suggested). What we do know for certain is that they are a visible marker of the transition from girl to woman – with all the mixed emotions that entails.

Some psychologists believe that arachnophobia, which doubles in girls once they hit puberty, is actually a subconscious horror of pubic hair. Girls have good evolutionary reasons for fearing their own sexual maturity, with its corollary dangers of rape, pregnancy and potentially fatal childbirth. The anthropologist Desmond Morris, in his book The Naked Woman, noted that boys who are scared of spiders usually talk about them biting or being poisonous. Girls, by contrast, shudder over the word “hairy”.

Alternatively (or simultaneously), it may be that adolescent girls want to look sexy – and they learn from a young age that men are pernickety about hair. It was, alas, ever thus. The Queen of Sheba was famously proud of her luxuriant body hair, but it didn’t go down well with the lads. King Solomon is said to have told the African queen: “Madam, your beauty is feminine but the hair on your legs is masculine. Hairy legs are fine for a man but revolting on a woman.”

“Ivory, Apes and Peacocks (The Queen of Sheba)” by John Duncan, c.1909. The biblical queen was proud of her luxuriant body hair

 

Countries with darker-skinned, and therefore darker-haired, populations tend to have long histories of depilation. Wealthy Egyptians went completely hairless to distinguish themselves from the plebeian classes. Sugaring (like waxing, but using honey or sugar paste) has been practised across the Middle East for thousands of years.

Muslims were – and still are – supposed to obey a ruling in the Sunnah to remove or trim all body hair, although the method and degree is open to interpretation. I have a Muslim friend, of Pakistani origin, who says white women are more militant bikini waxers. But attitudes vary according to local culture. In a recent academic study of Saudi women, 100 per cent of those questioned said they had removed their pubic hair. The average age at which they began depilating was 13, although some started as young at eight. Almost 70 per cent said they had been taught how to do it by their mothers.

Cintia Pallotto, who runs a salon called My Brazilian Wax in north London, tells me this is normal practise in her home country, too. “Ah, it’s very different in Brazil,” she says. “We start very young, as soon as you get one hair. Usually your mum takes you for a wax, whenever you start puberty. ” In England, she says, girls tend to start waxing later – around 16 – and even then Pallotto makes them sign a consent form. “You have to be sure they are happy with it and aware how the procedure works.”

Hair-removal at the Beatiderm Institute of Electrolysis in New York City, 1938

Hair removal didn’t really take off in the West until the start of the 20th century, when fashions changed to reveal more skin. In 1915, Wilkinson Sword launched its first marketing campaign aimed at women shaving their armpits, and within two years sales of razor blades had doubled. Today, depilation is a £280m industry in Britain alone.

What began with leg and armpit hair spread to the pubic region after the invention of the high-cut swimsuit. At first, it was just a matter of tidying up the edges. But once internet porn took off in the 1990s, the bush’s days were numbered. Pubic hair gets in the way of gynaecological close-ups. Taking it off makes the cameraman’s job easier, while also creating that illicit pre-pubescent look that so many men seem to want. The modern porn star is required to shave, pluck and bleach her sexual organs into a state of impeccable – and to my eyes, deeply suspect – baby pinkness.

Women began to be targeted by shaving advertising campaigns in the early 20th century

Porn doesn’t just reflect sexual tastes, it shapes them. The average British teenager spends about 90 hours a year looking at internet porn, according to a 2009 survey by OnePoll. In households where casual nudity is not the norm, porn stars may be the only naked adults these children ever see. No wonder 40 per cent of young straight men prefer their women without any pubic hair, according to a poll for US Cosmopolitan. A woeful 30 per cent said they considered pubic hair a deal-breaker in a relationship.

Young women are caught in a pincer movement of internal and external pressure. Labiaplasty – surgical trimming of the inner or outer labia – is now the fastest-growing form of cosmetic surgery in the world. Without the flattering veil of pubic hair, girls can see their own genitals more easily. Raised on the porn ideal, they often find themselves wanting.

Pallotto, who has seen literally thousands of vulvas, says this anxiety is quite unnecessary. “Everybody’s completely different,” she assures me. As for “all this plastic surgery, people tempted to change what they have” – she tuts sorrowfully. “Don’t touch anything that you might regret in future. Respect your body and accept the difference.”

A wise motto, but one that – taken to its logical conclusion – would put Pallotto out of business. There are, in fact, signs of a backlash against the bald pudenda. The popularity of fourth-wave feminism, combined with a new openness towards gender fluidity, has emboldened some young women to grow out their body hair. British photographer Ben Hopper recently put together a series of pictures of impossibly cool, beautiful young women. Arms aloft, smiling sexily, they sport clouds of hair under their arms, on their legs and wisping out of their knickers.

Hand-coloured erotic daguerreotype from 1850

Fashions come and go, in bodies as well as clothes. The ubiquity of the bald vulva has made it seem cheap and a tiny bit boring. Even the porn industry has realised this: actresses such as Sasha Grey, Lily LaBeau and Jelena Jensen have attracted huge followings by growing their pubes back. One shouldn’t mistake this for an ideological shift: porn is a huge industry, in which everyone is looking for a fresh angle. Novelty sells. Still – if porn broke it, perhaps porn can help put it back together.

In truth, I don’t hold out much hope that the untamed bush will ever be completely mainstream again. Disgust is a hard social construct to unlearn. Leg hair has never recovered from that first assault by Wilkinson Sword. Still, I am full of admiration for those young women brave enough to buck the trend. They will find that going natural is cheap, painless, liberating – and the quickest possible way to get a changing room to yourself.

Jemima Lewis is a writer and editor, with a weekly column in The Daily Telegraph

Further reading