Nitty Gritty: The Great Hairy Debate

The average human body is covered with approximately 5 million hair follicles. While an adult male will have an average of a few hundred thousand more follicles than an adult woman, that’s still plenty of lady hair per inch of skin. Grown adult women have hair everywhere, and yet we feel compelled to remove it with speed and expediency. Even if we don’t remove it, we still feel the pressure to do so by wider society. And like marmite, hair on a woman, especially hair ‘down there’ is an extremely divisive topic for all sorts of complex, intersecting reasons.

According to the average woman will spend $10,000 or £7,500 on shaving products, and a staggering 1,402 hours shaving, in her lifetime. That’s the same as two months of shaving, solid. And I mean solid 24 hour shaving, not spending time doing anything else at all like eating or sleeping or anything that does not further the epic quest for hairless, smooth perfection.

What about the laser option? A quick investigation showed me that it is possible to get laser hair treatment for as little as just over £100 for one treatment, but the reality is that a person will likely need 6-8 treatments to remove the hair and then the cost is closer to £1000. This looks like an improvement on £7,500 over a lifetime, or it would be if the treatment was permanent. So the chances are you’ll have to do it again or reach for the tweezers/razor if you’re really serious about keeping things bare.

When you consider how women will have to spend considerably more money in our lifetimes than men on period related products alone, let alone beauty products in general, plus likely earn a lot less money full stop, this particular ‘beauty’ burden is something we could do without.

I suppose the thing that worries me so much is the current trend for total hair removal of the pubic variety. There are lots of myths about pubic hair. According to one Guardian article, in a survey of American women, 59% who removed hair said they did it for hygiene reasons. But since when did we start believing that pubic hair was dirty? In fact, removal of pubic hair leaves our most delicate areas vulnerable to friction and infection, not to mention ingrown hairs and the very attractive inflammation of the hair follicles or plucked chicken syndrome, as I like to call it.

I recently watched an episode of the sitcom ‘Coupling’ on Netflix. This was a series that centred on the dating lives of six thirty-something human beings, and one I’d enjoyed at the time. The first episode was aired on 12th May 2000 and featured a toilet-based sexual liaison between two characters, the woman being deemed an ‘unflushable’ because of her inability to accept the man’s ending of their relationship. Not only does this play squarely into the women-as-crazy-bunny-boiler territory of popular culture stereotypes, it also reveals something of the turn of the century change in fashion for women’s treatment of their pubic hair. She disrobes in an attempt to distract Steve from another attempted dumping, and he gasps breathless and in amazement, finishing an ordinary sentence with the word ‘…shaved’. Clearly, the joke works in the year 2000 as women were not routinely stripping their vulvas of hair at this point in our collective history. It doesn’t work now. For 2017, he would have to gasp ‘hairy’ and then probably reach for his throat and start retching; such is our current collective disgust for the adult woman’s natural form.

So, it’s fashionable. And it doesn’t take a genius to work out why. Firstly, the pornography explosion has reduced a natural looking set of genitals to a fetish to sit alongside such deviations as a predilection for feet , or the kind of bodily fluids we’d only normally see in a toilet. Pretty much ‘bare down there’ is de rigeur for all adult movie stars, even the men. We’ve become so conditioned to this idea, that to keep hair on our genitals where it belongs is considered at best rebellious and ‘brave’ and, at worst, deviant and disgusting.

Secondly, capitalism. Yep, capitalism. Believe me, if you could sell pubic hair to people, we’d all be wanting mighty booshes. Because it’s free and grows in abundance for the most part, and because hair removal isn’t, we’re told that bare skin is the best kind of skin (except for our heads). It is a culturally accepted norm that we are all aspiring to one kind of beauty standard that is the least easy to achieve and maintain. Not a coincidence, not even a little bit.

And intersecting both the motivations of capitalism and the caprice of fashion, is of course, the ever ubiquitous male gaze. And what are we women for if not for men to look at? And what are our vaginas and legs and underarms and upper lips and, frankly, every little bit of us for, if not for critical appraisal by men? And, of course, those unfortunate women who have internalised so much misogyny that they see other women as competition and nothing more. Our popular culture is soaked in it and we take it for granted. Just look at this quote direct from the website of a company that offers laser hair removal:

‘What men think?

A 2015 study by AskMen asked 5,000 men what (they) thought of women’s pubic hair and a massive 41% of men preferred women to be bare down there, and 38% what they call ‘trimmed’. 15% had no preference or didn’t like to say and 5% like it all-natural.’

Hmm. So let’s dissect this bit of advertising. Audience: obviously female. Yes, men are removing hair to a lesser extent, and that’s not necessarily great either, but let’s not be under any illusions as to who the target market is here and why. And the motivation women must have for removing their hair? That’s right, men. Unashamedly, the male gaze. In other words, it’s normal, ladies! So normal that we’ve gone out and asked 5,000 men what they think of women’s pubic hair! Because obviously this really, really matters. And we’re going to tell you about it just so you know it is your public duty to be a good little woman and make your lady parts all non-threatening and doll-like. And hand us lots and lots of pounds. Because most men like the adolescent look on a mature woman.

To quote the wonderful Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where do I begin with the bad?

And then I have my own personal experiences. I don’t remove my pubic hair as a rule, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t ever done it. I certainly felt pressured by one or two boyfriends in the past to remove my grown up lady hair. I remember feeling very uneasy about it the first time it happened. It was about 12 years ago and the fashion for female pubic hair was still undecided in the court of public opinion. I remember thinking; but he wants me to look like a pre-pubescent child from the waist down? In the end, I relented. I wasn’t happy. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw something I hadn’t seen for fifteen years or more and it looked all kinds of wrong to me. And the bloody itching when it grew back! Never again, I thought, though I think I might have done it one more time. This might have been a coincidence (it wasn’t) but the same boyfriend had a very unhealthy internet porn habit.

Another couple of boyfriends had a thing for hair and they encouraged me not to do anything with it except let it grow and grow. They were one of the clearly ‘deviant’ 5%. So yeah, I kind of went along with it. But then I wasn’t entirely happy either. I guess with both experiences, I’d really rather they’d kept their opinions about my vulva trimmings to themselves, or better still, just not cared either way. I’m definitely down with the 15% ‘no preference’ crowd these days. Because, you know, it’s my body and all that.

In truth, I wish I could be as ‘brave’ as writer Emer O’Toole who describes in her book ‘Girls will be Girls’ how she went for a couple of years without shaving anything. I always feel a wave of admiration whenever I see a woman with hairy armpits or legs, but also a slight shock. That’s my conditioning as well. None of us are immune. I think the bottom line is, that whatever decision you make about your appearance, it is your decision because it is your body, and no one has the right to criticise or shame you because of it. Whether you’re a bare is best, or an au naturale kind of a woman, it’s all good in principle. I guess I’m just more than a little suspicious of this current trend for the ‘immature’ look.

Further reading

The Independent


Statistic Brain

The Guardian

#Issue5 #JoannePriest #NittyGritty

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