When I was a kid I would sit on my parents’ bed while my mom would change out of her office clothes and into something more comfortable, more homey. As she stood in the mirror taking off her jewelry, I’d say, “Mom, you’re the most beautiful woman in the WHOLE world.” She’d shake her head, sigh. For the record, I still think that statement is true, and she still doesn’t believe me.
I don’t remember the first time I expressed disgust towards my body. I do know that those feelings started when I was a kid. It was the first time I learned we could hate our bodies, and I learned it at home. From my mom. I wish this was a rare experience, but instead it’s much more the opposite. Many of us — speaking about women, specifically — first learn to hate our bodies through our mothers in our homes when we’re children. That’s the patriarchy.
In this article though, I’d like to address something a bit more specific within the body image universe. It’s something we do frequently, but, like, never talk about: hair removal. Yeah. I’m serious. The hair removal industry is huge: shaving, depilatory creams, waxing, lasers, epilators — most which target women exclusively.
Why do we feel such a need to remove our body hair? After all, body hair helps regulate body temperature. Body hair acts as a protective barrier. The idea that body hair is gross isn’t natural. Part of it has to do with capitalism. We need to buy products — razors, creams — to remove body hair in order for companies — Venus, Nair, Veet — to succeed. But the practice of hair removal existed long before corporate capitalism. In fact, it dates all the way back to ancient civilizations. Smooth, hairless skin has long been a desirable feminine quality in many ancient civilizations’ cultures: Egypt, India, China, Rome. But why? Could it be the patriarchy? That question is rhetorical; the answer is yes.
Society has long told women how to look. Whether this instruction comes from scholars like Charles Darwin or divine teachings like the Kama Sutra, it never seems to come from a female source. At least not until the seventies. Growing out body hair, particularly armpit hair, was a large part of second-wave feminism as women demanded sexual freedom. Now, currently living in fourth-wave feminism, the choice not to remove body hair is both fairly common and usually accepted — though often met with judgement. The history of hair removal is loaded, and it certainly does not stop here.
I want to go on though, because there is one spot on our bodies that really gets me thinking: our pubic hair. Our pubes. Growing up we often already have hair on our arms, legs, stomachs, backs, chests — yes, this hair usually becomes more noticeable during puberty, but it is there before. It’s the pubic hair that surprises everyone. Armpit hair surprises everyone too (‘70s second wave feminism emphasized this area for a reason), but let’s focus on pubic hair for now. One puberty day it just grows in and never leaves — unless you remove it, duh.
Pubic hair has plenty of benefits: reduces friction during sex, protects against bacteria, pheromone transmission (if you’re into that ;), keeps you warm. Most importantly though, it signals the body’s ability to reproduce. Pubic hair physically distinguishes a child from an adult, signaling that one is either undergoing or has finished sexual maturation. Pubic hair does not distinguish a child from an adult in regards to emotional and/or mental development. As we all know, emotional and mental development continues long through puberty. Yay, growing up!
Growing up involves a lot of sexual exposure. We’ve all heard that we live in a sex-obsessed country. While this debate often gets a lot of heat from both the Left and the Right, both of which shove the blame on the opposite side, this claim definitely does hold up to some notable degree. The United States has held PornHub’s top spot as the leading country with the most views per year/day since 2013. Not that the United States particularly cares about promoting informative, healthy sex education, but that’s another topic.
So, if we live in culture that’s so into sex, why are we removing the part of our body that says, “Ready!?” Especially a part of our body that is not regularly seen by that many people. Pubic hair is intensely private, and yet there’s so much stigma around it. At least, there’s a lot of stigma around a woman’s choice on whether she chooses to keep it, remove it, or groom it.
Again, why is there so much say around how a woman’s body should look from parties outside the woman herself? And it’s extremely important to note that other women are not exempt from this stigmatization. Misogyny is real, and it is so internalized.
I looked for answers. I really did. But the best answer I got came from when I did some soul searching, or whatever. In other words, I totally shaved all my pubic hair. I focused on why I was shaving while I was shaving and really looked at my naked self in the mirror afterwards. Maybe that’s too much information, but I’m trying to be real with you right now.
I’ve always been hesitant to fully remove my pubic hair. While I’ve done it a few times before, it’s always been weird to me. When we remove our pubic hair we, in a sense, revert back to a childlike image of ourselves. And seriously, nothing about that is sexual.
This time was different though. Looking at myself, I thought about how I grew up learning to hate my body from the woman I love and value most in my life. To absolutely be cliche, I was a girl then and I’m a woman now. During neither points of these life stages have I fully accepted my body longer than I’ve expressed contempt towards it.
Removing my pubic hair this time actually became a way to reclaim a sort of comfort in my own body. I thought, “How was I supposed to accept my body’s new changes when I couldn’t even accept it before them?”
So yeah, sometimes I shave my pubic hair now. Sometimes I forget. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s just for me.
Can we reclaim hair removal?