Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pubic Hair: Bush or Bare There






Ask lots of women like me, who lived through the 1960s, and they’ll tell you flat out that human hair is considerably more than an enigmatic mix of melanin and water, trace elements, lipids and proteins.

Indeed, in all its myriad variations, hair is downright political. And though some people seldom think of it that way, at least in the US, what we choose to do to our hair - and the often love-hate relationship that we have with it - is likely to be seen as an eloquent, very public statement of our ideological views. In fact, the way we choose to present our hair to the world can be construed as a telling signifier of where we stand on the continuum between ultra-repressed conservative and raging lefty let-it-all-hang-out progressive. Need a bit of corroboration of that premise? Think about the 60s rock musical Hair, a long-haired homage to the burgeoning hippie counter-culture of the era. Wildly popular on Broadway and beyond, it was viewed as a symbol of a particular political ideology, just as the so-called “Afro” hair style, popular among blacks, was seen as a signifier of black political power and pride during roughly the same time.

Even now, particularly for some of our lesbian sisters as well as for women of color, whether the hair that crowns us is long or cropped short, straight or curly, whipped into submission by chemicals or heat or worn “locked” or “natural”, just as it emerges from the scalp, hair is thought to proclaim more about the wearer’s social activism and comfort with the authentic self than any other aspect of personal appearance.

What’s more, like it or not, human hair adorns us in varied manifestations, festooning sundry locales on the human body, which brings me, at last, to my point.

With all of the die-hard hoopla about head hair, regardless of length or texture, whether “virgin” or permed, uncolored or dyed, these days at least, the hair on a woman’s head seems far less problematic than the coarser, more wiry nether-strands that make their home in her crotch.

It shouldn’t come as news to anyone in the US that – at least since the mid-nineties - we’ve been undergoing something of a cultural come to Jesus moment when it comes to women’s pubic hair. Bush or baby-bare, or any configuration in between, to keep it or not can be a pivotal question these days. And while I vociferously defend the right of ANYONE to do what she will with her body, the broader implications of a cultural norm that privileges the wholesale balding of vulva makes me wonder.

Truth be told, over the last several decades, much has been made about the apparent inconvenience of women’s pubic hair. Bolstered in large part by the visual porn industry, pubic hair has fallen into considerable disrepute fostering notions that choosing to keep one’s muff somehow labels a woman as unkempt. Rough. Coarse. Unclean, even - as sad, repressive, and wholly unwarranted as that might seem.

Depending upon whom you ask, the genesis for this phenomenon lies at the doorstep of 7 very enterprising sisters from Brazil – the Padilha sisters –who introduced the procedure known now as the Brazilian Wax in their Manhattan salon in the late 1980s. Widely accepted as the most thorough method of removing pubic hair, the procedure involves the application of hot wax to the pubic area. The subsequent removal of the cooled, solidified stuff takes the hair with it – snatching it directly from the follicles themselves leaving a smooth, naked, baby-soft vulva in its wake. 

Proponents of the process praise its perceived benefits: A sleek look and feel. Skin that’s cool and clean. And for those inclined to the tantalizing glories of oral sex, the benefits seem obvious, both for the giver as well as the receiver. And as far as the public health implications are concerned, to the public good, there’s been a dramatic drop in the number of itchy, scratchy, creep-crawly pubic louse infestations since the fervor over Brazilian waxes exploded on the scene. On the other hand, there’s been an acute rise in the frequency of dangerously septic hair follicles attributed to the rigorous process involved in going bare down there.





Indeed, for those of us who thrive on the complexity of argument, there’s more. For example, detractors of the hairless look include women and men alike who stand firm in their conviction that grown women’s vulvas were meant to sport their coarse and furry locks. In fact, while science still isn’t entirely sure of its purpose, pubic hair is thought to serve as a natural form of valuable protection for our genitalia. If nothing else, it creates a cushion against friction from clothing and other body parts. It’s also thought to enhance the staying power of “pheromones,” those naturally occurring chemical compounds that help in attracting a mate.

But even sans absolute scientific proof of its purpose there’s this: Politically speaking, the cultural imperative to render our vulvas hairless can be seen as an effort to infantilize women, making us seem childlike (less empowered?.. less intimidating…? more easily controlled?) than full-grown women oughta be. And given the notoriously problematic relationship patriarchal societies have had with the notion of female agency – sexual and otherwise – the politics embedded amongst those strands of pubic hair can’t easily be ignored.

Still, regardless of how one feels about the issue, a little contextualization might be instructive here. In certain Hindu groups, Middle Eastern cultures, and in the practice of Islam as well, removal of women’s body hair, including the hair on their vulvas, has been embraced as a timeless necessity. As far back as the middle ages, women in many European cultures removed their pubic hair, primarily to avoid infestation by lice.

And of course, waxing as it’s done today hasn’t always been the method of removal. In ancient Egypt the process involved a gluey concoction of oil and golden honey. Alternatively, and a lot less tastily one imagines, the ancient Romans used a painfully tenacious blend of resin and pitch.

So exactly who ARE these women who wax???... Who DON’T???

As we often do when we assume that ALL people of color feel the same way on any given subject, some folks want to broad-brush the lesbian community by assuming that ALL lesbians align themselves either pro or con about whether the balding of one’s vulva is a desirable thing. 





But the truth is that lesbians vary widely in their viewpoint on this, just as straight women do. And bi, trans and intersex women. And white women. And tall, short, fat, and thin women. Women of color. Get my drift here? 

On the other hand, while age isn’t necessarily a factor in making the decision to keep or get rid of one’s pubic hair, interestingly, though, there’s some anecdotal evidence to suggest that older women and men as well are far more inclined to be respectful of a partner’s decision to keep it furry and natural. 

Additionally, and as the urge to imitate would have it, increasing numbers of men are opting for ditching the crotch hair as well, even while the illustrious female bush is making something of a retro resurgence - a kind of inevitable push-back from women who've gone bare and are anxious to reclaim some semblance of their natural, lush bush-scape once again.

At the end of the day, the choice is a decidedly personal one, made for myriad reasons it seems, not the least of which is that many smart, assertive independently-thinking women simply just prefer one look over the other; one sensation over the other.

But here’s the thing. As my grandmother - and yours, most probably - used to say, variety truly is the spice of life… And political or not, beautifully self-expressive options currently abound for one’s singular chosen appearance downtown. So be creative. Be bold. Satiny smooth or muffed out in all your curly tendrilled glory, I’d urge you to be proud of your choice.


I’d also urge you to be acutely aware of your reasons for making it.





Do you have a personal preference for yourself or your partner? If so, why?


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