From bare down there to trimmed triangles, the way you wear your body hair speaks volumes about the female agenda.
Sometimes, when it comes to feminism, it’s the little things that create the biggest dialogue – which is why a small area of body hair is one of the most ardently discussed feminist symbols. Bikini waxing only became relatively common in the Eighties (women tended to shave or use depilatory creams beforehand) and the Brazilian was considered extreme in the late Nineties, only for Victoria Beckham to announce that the procedure should be made “compulsory aged 15” in 2003. It seemed that we were destined to spend our adult lives desperately trying to remove the hair that comes hand in hand with sexual maturity. But there are now whispers of a backlash. Caitlin Moran has declared that all women should have a “big, hairy muff”. Gwyneth Paltrow revealed that she “works a Seventies vibe”. Scientists are calling for an end to the “war on pubic hair”, claiming it is spreading infection and a 2013 survey by hair removal company Nad’s found that “popular designs for women are the landing strip, heart shape and triangle patch” indicating a preference for some hair down there rather than completely bare. But it seems obvious that what we’re seeing is more than a beauty trend. In the midst of a new feminist wave, many people are voicing their discomfort with the infantilisation of women, of the expectation for women to suffer the pain of a wax to fulfil a male-created vision of what a woman should look like. If it seems extreme to argue that what lies beneath a woman’s underwear can tell us a lot about wider culture, then the history of our bikini line begs to differ…
Words: Caroline Corcoran, Illustration: Lindsey Spinks
In ancient Egypt, women removed all their hair bar their eyebrows and eyelashes, while men kept only their beards, to make the heat bearable and minimise lice. Bronze razors have been found in tombs dating back to 3000BC. In ancient Greece, a hairless body was synonymous with youth and beauty – hence artworks from that period show women with no pubic hair. It was often removed with a forerunner to depilatory cream (‘dropax’ – a mix of vinegar and earth) as body hair was considered uncivilised.
European crusaders discovered the Middle Eastern approach to body hair. According to the Sunnah (based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad), all Muslims (male and female) should remove hair in the armpits and below the navel. Warriors returning from the Middle East brought the practice back to Europe. Northern European men who previously considered excess hair as manly started to discover the merits of trimming, but it was some time before it caught on with the womenfolk.
European women weren’t convinced by hair removal. In Encyclopedia Of Hair: A Cultural History, Victoria Sherrow credits Catherine de Medici (1547-1589), Queen of France, for trend-setting a full bush – it was unacceptable for her ladies in waiting to shave their pubic regions. However, it was deemed appropriate for ladies to raise the height of their foreheads by removing two inches of their hairline and eyebrows. Methods ranged from plucking to poultices.
By the 1700s, prostitutes shaved their pubic regions to stop lice. Scars from sexually transmitted diseases often rendered the genitalia unattractive so merkins (pubic wigs) were used. In Sandra Cavallo’s book Artisans Of The Body In Early Modern Italy she quotes a 1626 account that states “bushiness of hair” encouraged “vermin and filth”. Around this time, American women applied poultices of caustic lye (sodium hydroxide, now found in oven cleaners) to burn away hair on the legs and underarms.
Women in this century did little to their body hair, as it was not on show. In fact, lovers exchanged pubic hair as gifts; the Museum of St Andrews University, Scotland, exhibits a box of pubic hair from a mistress of King George IV. In the more puritanical Victorian era, perceptions started to change. John Ruskin, the pre-Raphaelite art critic, was said to be unable to consummate his marriage due to his disgust at his wife’s pubic hair.
Women’s clothes dictated hair removal. Flapper dresses exposed underarms and the lower leg for the first time – the beauty industry spotted an opportunity. A 1915 Harper’s Bazaar advert for X Bazin depilatory powder shows a young woman with her arm outstretched without underarm hair. The same year, Gillette launched the first razor aimed at women. Smooth skin became associated with youth and femininity and the unstoppable ball of expectation of women to remove body hair was set in motion.
Henry Miller published his 1934 novel The Tropic Of Cancer, noted for its candid sexual nature (the US finally declared it not obscene in 1964) and the line: “She had shaved it clean… not a speck of hair on it… It’s repulsive ain’t it?” But the arrival of the bikini after the Second World War changed all that. New hair removal products hit the market, including the first electric razor by Remington. But women were still more concerned with their legs at this stage.
Bikinis went mainstream. As swimwear got smaller (for men too, with sales of the Speedo soaring), the need to remove hair became greater. Yet, it was still seen as sexually alluring; a wisp of pubic hair appeared for the first time in Penthouse in 1970 to an outraged reception. Not to be outdone, Playboy published a full bush in 1971 (although for male titillation). A year later, The Equal Rights Amendment passed through US Congress, a feminist movement began, and growing your body hair became a motif of the cause.
Brazilian sisters Jocely, Jonice, Janea, Joyce, Jussara, Juracy and Judseia Padilha set up a salon in New York in 1987. In 1994 they pioneered the introduction of the landing strip Brazilian wax in the US: “In Brazil, waxing is part of our culture because bikinis are so small,” said Jonice. Two years later in 1996, The Vagina Monologues began its first run on Broadway, including a scene where a character removes their pubic hair at the request of a partner. Interestingly, it’s seen in the play as a perversion.
The British Association of Dermatologists said Carrie getting a complete wax in Sex And The City made waxing so popular it contributed to the decline of pubic lice in the UK and Victoria Beckham announced that the Brazilian should be “compulsory aged 15”. As the internet made porn more readily available, The Hollywood – where everything is removed – became popular. Salons even saw a rise in men requesting the ‘back, sack and crack’ wax.
Oh lord, it’s the vajazzle. Who would ever have thought that gluing plastic jewels onto your newly waxed genitals would become a thing? Thankfully, Caitlin Moran returned a weighty backhand with 2011’s How To Be A Woman which decreed that every woman should have a “big, hairy minge, a lovely furry moof that looks – when she sits naked – as if she has a marmoset sitting in her lap.” A year later, Emily Gibson, a doctor in Washington State, claimed that bikini waxing causes increased infections by inflaming follicles.
In January, Kate Moss showed pubic hair in a shoot for LOVE magazine. And two days after being crowned ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ Gwyneth said she “rocked a Seventies vibe”. Commentators began to discuss the implications of her grooming choice; women worldwide breathed a sigh of relief. Meanwhile, men came under pressure to keep their hair in check – the 2012 Beautiful Britain survey showed 30% of men visited salons for waxing. Is it time to pass over the baton of hair removal?