American pubic grooming trends have evolved over time, and there appears to be a correlation with age, where younger people tend to remove more hair than older people do. Speaking anecdotally, not many women I know of in my age cohort ( 40-ish) go completely bare.
I and many of my friends came of age at the end of the first Reagan administration. This is the era when cell phones first became available to the masses and I had a huge crush on Philip Michael Thomas.
Trimming up around the sides of a swimsuit was about as far as most young women went. Porn from that bygone age features the luxuriant gardens of adult women.
Later, when Clinton was in office, I house-sat for a middle-aged dude who left a fan of Playboys out of his coffee table, for reasons I won’t speculate about here. I noticed that the women in Playboy were removing far more hair than I was. This was the era of the French style. In those waning days of the Camaro, pubic hair was gradually disappearing too.
Today complete deforestation is the pop-culture norm. I think vulvas are awesome in and of themselves, but some women go on to bling up the denuded area with crystals and feathers and whatnot. Yes, really. They remove their pubic hair and replace it with hair from other animals. Pubic area styling is the epitome of first-world problems in my opinion, but it’s also fascinating human behavior.
In June, my friend Lorraine Berry posted a Facebook link to an Atlantic article by Ashley Fetters called The New Full-Frontal: Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct? about the growing trend among college-age women (and men) to go completely bare. The comments on Lorraine’s page fell into the familiar patterns of discourse I’ve had with my own friends:
“That hair is there for a reason.”
“I’ve come so lately to this awareness! (That it isn’t cool to have pubic hair anymore.) I’m sure it’s ‘cause I’m way far away from my 20s, but this makes me sad for my [young teen] daughter.”
“Fashion is dictated my misogyny...when we quit being swayed by these horrid, cruel, and unhealthy influences, the pedophillic hints of this waxing trend right on top of the pyramid, maybe they’ll fade away.”
Then the Vagina Monologues came up on the FB thread, of course. One of the monologues depicts a relationship of coercion and abuse in which the man forcibly shaves his wife. One commenter said that when she showed up all-bare at a medical clinic, the doctor wanted to know if her husband was abusing her.
One of my meatspace friends made an interesting argument linking the denuded vulva trend with the youth-obsessed fashion industry’s fetishization of emaciated models who have the underdeveloped bodies of children. They’re probably not menstruating anyway, and removing pubic hair sort-of completes the regression. Bare vulvas cross a mental line of demarcation into pedophilia for many women my age, and few of us are completely comfortable with the idea of men who look like boys.
Nodding along in agreement with my grumbling feminist sisters, I wandered over the Atlantic to read the article myself. It’s a really fun read, and well worth checking out. Fetters interviews a 22-year-old Barbie-like college student named Sophia Pinto:
“Every four to five weeks, the East Asian Studies major undergoes a cosmetic procedure known as a Brazilian wax. An esthetician pours wax heated to 140° F (roughly the temperature of a steak fresh off the grill) onto her labia and spreads it like butter on bread. Half a minute later, she swiftly peels away the hardened wax -- and with it, a full crop of pubic hair, freshly ripped from the follicles. [...]
Indiana University researchers Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick found in a recent study that nearly 60 percent of American women between 18 and 24 are sometimes or always completely bare down there, while almost half of women in the U.S. between 25 and 29 reported similar habits.”
Herbenick adds an unsettling anecdote:
“Herbenick recalls one encounter in which a popular, well-liked college student in a class she taught openly professed that he had never hooked up with a girl who had pubic hair, and would frankly be disgusted to undress a woman and discover a veil of genital fur.
‘Some girls talked to me and wrote in their papers that they had always had pubic hair, and in a couple cases never did anything to their pubic hair,’ she said. ‘They never thought it was a problem. But when he said that, they went home and changed it. They really started to feel ashamed about their bodies.’”
This is unfortunately exactly what I expected. A man who is completely icked out by hair is still too young and immature for sex with anyone but himself in my opinion, those young women should just ignore him. It occurred to me that there may be sexually active young men out there today who have never, ever encountered the full and glorious bush of an untamed adult woman.
Then I read this:
“But, [Hebenick] says, uncovered, demystified genitalia can just as easily be a symbol of empowerment. ‘Many women have started to feel a sense of ownership over their bodies -- an autonomy,’ she says. ‘If they want to take it off, they take it off. If they want to grow it back, they grow it back. If they want to shave it into a heart, they shave it into a heart. But they're doing it because they want to.’”
I had never thought of that. I had always assumed that we, especially women, remove our pubic hair in order to be fuckable. To bring ourselves closer to that fashion industry ideal of emaciated prepubescent androgyny. Bald-vulva empowerment was a whole new concept for me. Maybe, if pubic hair is associated with hidden estrus, the alopecia trend gives us an opportunity to fully embrace our own arousal. I decided to do further research. It’s all so anthropologically fascinating!
To delve deeper into the topic, I wrote an appallingly unrigorous survey that I expected about a dozen of my friends to respond anonymously to. I asked some general demographic and political affiliation questions and then tried to get an overview of current attitudes and trends with questions about personal grooming, grooming preferences, and so on.
I posted a link to the survey on my Facebook page and also spammed Lorraine’s Facebook page. I sent email links to a few other friends and to the editors of two skeptical sites I read regularly, White Coat Underground and Skepchick. Skepchick generously posted the link on their public page. After hiding the couple of duplicate responses, there are 256 distinct responses! My best guess is that about a dozen responses are my friends and people from Lorraine’s page, and rest are Skepchick readers. The respondents are a limited, self-selected group, obviously. Not everyone is willing to talk about this stuff, and not everyone reads sites like Skepchick, unfortunately.
I feel obligated to narrate my own responses to the survey first:
I identify as and am anatomically female, heterosexual, white (mostly Norwegian ancestry), liberal democrat, bachelor’s degree, in the 40-100 age bracket. I’m an atheist, and occasionally earn enough money by writing in public to support my coffee habit for a few days. I think all women who want it should have access to birth control in all its forms, and all adults who love each other should be able to legally marry. For fuck sake, yes to equal rights for women and minorities. Why is this even an ongoing issue?!
My own pubic grooming has for decades been the “American” style: all hair trimmed short and removed (shave or wax) completely only outside the hem of my swimsuit. This is for reasons of safety as well as habit. I am inherently ungraceful, and the potential for serious self-injury increases dramatically with the amount of hair I remove.
I’ve been married for 12 years, am sexually active (these are not mutually exclusive realities....) with someone I care deeply about. I have no preference beyond basic hygiene regarding my partner’s pubes. I don’t typically see strangers naked, so I can’t speak to grooming trends in locker rooms. I don’t believe I should influence a partner’s grooming, nor do I believe a partner should influence mine. I shave my underarms and legs, pluck eyebrows, and also pluck the occasional dark hair that sprouts where moustaches grow on men.
I do think pubic hair is mildly icky. Before reading the Atlantic article, I did think going totally bare was infantilizing and creepy. Now I’m not so sure. I think people manage to clean themselves with or without hair, but I don’t know whether or not slick skin increases sexual pleasure. Both children asleep is the strongest influence on my willingness to engage in oral or any other kind of sex, but I must admit that I’m self-conscious about receiving oral sex if I have neglected my own grooming. So, yes, I am mildly embarrassed by my own pubic hair.
Some of the survey responses are hilarious, and some are deeply moving. I’m grateful to all the respondents, and particularly those who took the time to write extended comments. The data and the comments will require far more time to sort through, but here’s a quick overview of the basics while I work on a detailed future follow-up article. Just a note that the math doesn’t always work out across the board because some respondents chose not to answer some of the questions.
Non-binary included people who identified as androgyne, neutral, genderqueer, and none.
Grooming Habits by Gender, Brazilian (remove all the hair)
39.5% of women, 26% of men, and 37.% of non-binary respondents go American, while 32.2% of women, 39.6% of men, and 37.5% of non-binary respondents go all-natural/un-groomed.
Respondents were surprisingly monolithic in the category of religious identity. 19 are Agnostics, 207 are Atheists, 11 are Humanists, 2 are Buddhist, 2 are Catholic, 2 are Christian, and 8 are Other. There’s also 1 Pagan, 1 Pantheist, 2 Protestants, and 1 Quaker. Interestingly, none of the Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Others, Pagan, nor Pantheist does the full Brazilian.
Respondents were overwhelmingly college-educated, but none of the PhD or greater respondents does the full Brazilian.
Grooming Habits by Age, Brazilian (remove all hair)
Grooming Habits by Age, Natural/Ungroomed
My unscientific, off-the-cuff, n=256, survey seems to confirm my anecdotal analysis that age is strongly correlated with how much pubic hair people remove. I’m really looking forward to compiling the comments and fleshing out a more ethnographic analysis.
Now that I was bare-curious, I decided to find out if clean-as-a-whistle is actually empowering, and cleaner, and leads to better sex. My major bias is that I think empowerment has nothing to do with pubic hair. Maybe it is cleaner. Maybe sex is better.
I Google-mapped my house and clicked “search nearby” for Brazilian wax. I obsessed about online reviews and finally settled on a spa that was a bit of a drive to a swankier part of town. The draw was the amazing reviews.
I drove to a pleasant, busy, bustling outdoor brick and cobblestone shopping mecca. I arrived way too early on a sweltering Saturday and cooled my heels next door in Barnes and Noble. A few minutes before my appointment I was sipping very cold orange-infused water and sitting in a tastefully appointed waiting area. My esthetician introduced herself, led me into a private room and described the process. Then I told her that I was writing an article and asked for her perspective.
She reported that she Brazilian waxes both men and women, and her clients range in age from 15 to 78. Far more younger people get the full Brazilian than older people do. She said she also does a lot of back and leg waxing for men who are athletes, like swimmers and cyclists. The overwhelming reason people give for wanting to go completely bare is cleanliness. She reports that lots of high school girls come in for full Brazilians right before prom, which makes me wonder about kids these days.
She warned me that the wax would be warm, but it wasn’t unpleasant. She spread it in places that had never, ever, been waxed before, and I tried not to be embarrassed by my own exposure to this stranger. The wax hardened while I distracted myself by chatting about writing. She told me to take a deep breath, and then she yanked the wax off, taking a lush labial carpet of hair with it.
I gasped and tried not to cry. (I described this moment later in a text to my Trophy Husband as: “holyfuckingmotherofgod.”) Then I was lying in a pool of my own sweat, waiting for the rest of the hair to get uprooted as quickly as possible. I’ve been waxed before, so I expected it to hurt some. I did not expect it to hurt as much as it did. Sweat beaded on the soles of my feet. I started fantasizing about those surfboard-sized, post-childbirth ice packs the nice labor and delivery nurses put inside your mesh hospital underpants.
After all the hair was gone from the front, I was ready to get the hell out of there. My esthetician assured me that the backside would be much less painful, so I lumbered over onto all-fours, and...she was right! Astonishingly, anal waxing was no biggie.
All of it, top to bottom, took about half an hour. The esthetician gave me a hot towel to clean myself up with and brought me some more of the nice, cold orange-water to drink. She said I had done really well for my first time, which was a kind thing to say. How much, exactly, to tip someone who has pulled hair from the skin around my anus? I’m sure I left far too little.
Out in the car I popped three Advils and a piece of melting chocolate. As I drove onto the expressway, I longed to pull off my underpants. I would have tried, except that I imagined the headlines after the inevitable accident. Paramedics would find my sporty cotton underwear wrapped around the steering column and wonder how I managed to get such a terrible sunburn only on my vulva.
I thought again about yanking off my panties when I stopped at Pablo’s for Danger Monkey coffee beans. No one would know if I went commando under my skirt, would they? But... they serve food there. And if anyone did happen to catch a glimpse of my beet-red girly bits reflected in the bakery case, hipster patrons would flee in terror. Or hold their ground, rooted, in awe of the irony.
I finally tore off my underpants when I got home and aimed myself at a fan.
Was the experience empowering, was I cleaner, and was the sex better? No. Removing my underwear in public is not the kind of empowerment I imagined. I always strive for fastidious cleanliness, hair or no hair. I was too sore to let my Trophy Husband anywhere near me for the first couple of days. Now that I’ve mostly recovered, it does feel really nice not to have pubic hair. I’m not sure yet whether it feels nice enough to endure another waxing.
Ultimately I still think empowerment (and beauty) comes from within, from feeling comfortable and confident about who you are as a person. If going hairless, or vajazzling, or whatever makes you feel good about yourself, then go for it. As long as it’s for yourself and not to conform to some ridiculous, externally-dictated, transient standard of beauty. If you feel comfortable in your own skin and have chosen a great partner, the sex is likely to be amazing regardless of just about any other factor.
A version of this article was originally published on the Anthropologist Underground blog.