Back when the personal was the political, women liberated themselves from male standards of female beauty by throwing away their razors or tossing out those smelly tubes of Nair. Hairy legs were de rigueur for a while, and the maxi skirt enjoyed a brief vogue; when it was over most women went back to shaving their legs and carefully scissoring the springy hairs that obtruded from the crotch of whatever increasingly tiny wisp of cloth covered their pudenda. They might have had a bikini wax once, but it was so painful they couldn’t bring themselves to keep doing it after the honeymoon, so they trimmed their bushes into tidiness or just let them grow wild and even gray, hardly giving them another thought.
But the distance between a bikini wax and a Brazilian is greater than just a few meters of defoliated pubes. Aesthetic ideal or cultural signifier, the naked pudendum is the new normal, and not just on reruns of Sex and the City. Pubic hair has all but disappeared on young women today; if there’s any left, it’s only a "landing strip."
That this is a trend became clear to me after I joined a new health club. Previously I belonged to the Jewish Community Center, where the women wear bathing suits in the hot tub, get undressed in curtained shower cubicles, and put their underwear on before they drop their towels. But when the JCC closed for remodeling, I joined a gym whose female clientele is mostly young, fit and single. In the locker room I try to just admire their taut bodies instead of envying them, and usually I don’t stare.
But it’s hard not to notice when a woman well past puberty has a hairless pussy, especially when she flashes it right in your face as she climbs past you in the sauna to a higher, hotter perch. Poor thing, I thought, she must have just gone through chemo, or maybe she has a zinc deficiency – I had a friend once who did, her eyebrows simply fell out and didn’t grow back for a year. But then a couple of other similarly Xtremely groomed women came in, and when they got to comparing the pros and cons of waxing versus shaving, I realized I’d stumbled on a trend. A few years late, maybe, but somehow I missed that reality show about a Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon whose pudenda agenda includes not only crotch electrolysis but also injections of botox and restalyne to plump out thinning labia.
At a loss to understand why anyone would lay out big bucks to have someone pour hot wax on her private parts and then rip it off, I presented my bona fides as a reporter and posed that question to the women in the sauna.
"Men expect it," said one of them.
"Since when?" I inquired.
"Since they started watching porn on the Internet," she replied. "That’s how they think we should look."
"Like little girls," said her friend. "They’re afraid of women who look like women."
"Then how do you explain their fixation with big breasts?" asked someone else.
"How do you explain anything about them?" shrugged another wwoman, and everyone laughed.
I told my new BF’s about John Ruskin, who before his marriage had only seen the female form bare and classicized in paintings and sculpture; confronted on his wedding night with his bride’s pubic hair, he fled the bridal chamber, thinking her grossly deformed.
"My boyfriend won’t do um, certain things when we have sex if I haven’t waxed or shaved," said an attractive brunette. "He says it’s disgusting." Her friends nodded knowingly.
"I used to just trim it, but now I’m totally commando down there," chimed in a youngish redhead. "Not shaving your pubes before a date is like not taking a shower or wearing dirty underwear."
"I waxed until I got married," commented a plump, fortyish newcomer to the conversation. "Then I did it once in a while, until I had kids. After I was divorced and started dating again, a man I went out with - actually, he was my divorce lawyer - said when he sees all that hair down there, it means a woman’s no longer open for business. So I started waxing again."
"I’ve been with guys who got off on shaving me," remarked a young woman whose tattoos included an intricately detailed peony in a place you’d never expect one to flower. "At first I thought it was creepy but now I’m really into it – it’s, like, another place to decorate, you know?" She stood up unselfconsciously and showed off the jewel that glinted in the center of her flower. "And men get really turned on by it."
It was the kind of discussion that not only makes me realize how old I am, but also makes me glad I’m not young anymore; after all, if you wait long enough, nature gets rid of your pubic hair for you. (I’ve always thought that was one of the real indignities of age, so when an older woman of my acquaintance told me Melatonin had rejuvenated her thinning bush, I tried it; I haven’t noticed much regrowth, but I’m sleeping a lot better these days.)
I don’t know why it should surprise me that women are so willing to subject themselves to a painful, pricey or perpetual process like pubic depilation to gratify men’s desires or allay their fears, even those whose mothers once threw away their razors as a political statement. What surprises me is that they don’t realize that in doing so, they’re making one, too.