Photo: Getty

OPINION

Why are we still pretending women don't have pubic hair?

A new study suggests that women are now claiming hair removal is about hygiene, although there's no science to back that up. Why are we still so desperate to get rid of it? 

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By Marisa Bate on

Somewhere between two and five times a year, I let the patriarchy win. It is my equivalent of wearing a Hooters T-shirt and thanking the cat-caller on the street for the “compliment”. 

For reasons I can’t defend, I voluntarily allow a stranger to rip hair from my vagina, under bright strip-lighting while asking me where I’m going on my holiday. Legs open, principles out the window, I get my bikini line waxed. I always go to Cowshed Carnaby, a gorgeous place, so I can pretend that it’s “pampering” and that I’m indulging in some #selfcare and my anger and pain can be soothed by the nice smells of the store and the kind girls with their knowing smiles. 

My hatred of waxing comes from three places: it’s bloody painful, it is expected more of women than it is of men, especially in relation to having sex, and it’s born from false advertising. Women aren’t hairless and yet I’ve grown up bombarded with images of hairless women and therefore felt shame and embarrassment about having hair. And while I stopped waxing for men a very long time ago, I still feel the embarrassment on the beach or at a public swimming pool (hence the occasional wax). Much like I remember school swimming lessons and the collective horror of the boys in my class because I was the first girl to start growing armpit hair, I still imagine that if I appeared at the lido with visible pubic hair, members of the public would look on in disgust and run in the opposition direction. 

While the suggestion that removing pubic hair is hygienic is easily stamped out by science, eradicating the shame around women having pubic hair is much, much harder

But why is society – including women – still so repulsed by/scared of/in denial of women’s pubic hair? A study published last week in JMMA Dermatology investigated why women are “grooming” – a word used in the US to describe the practise of removing pubic hair. Eighty-four per cent reported some grooming, and 62 per cent reported *complete* pubic hair removal. 

This is probably no huge surprise but what was interesting about the study were the reasons women gave for grooming. While previously sex was the number-one motivation, many of the women who groomed claimed it was for hygiene reasons. And there was also the suggestion in the findings that many women carried the shame I do. A Professor of gynaecology in the US told The New York Times that women would apologise to her when coming in for medical reasons and for not being “tidy” enough. And much like me, the shame attached to pubic hair starts young. The study found girls as young as 13 are grooming. Dr Jennifer Gunter, from northern California, has said that “at least once a week” she hears from young girls who think they need to have their pubic hair removed. 

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Doctors deny that grooming is cleaner or more hygienic. The pubic hair is actually there to protect sensitive skin and to block bacteria for entering the vagina. As Dr Gunter said, “If it is something you do for you and makes you feel better, awesome.” But noting that 59 percent of the survey’s responders said they groomed for hygienic reasons, she added, “Don’t tell yourself it’s healthy or better from a medical standpoint.”

Yet while the suggestion that removing pubic hair is hygienic is easily stamped out by science, eradicating the shame around women having pubic hair is much, much harder. It is desperately depressing but not wildly fantastical to suggest that the hairless woman is something that came from pornography, tipped over in the mainstream, is now mandatory for any woman in the public eye – and still something 13-year-old girls aspire to. From the minute girls’ bodies start to turn into women’s bodies there is shame and embarrassment because of our sex-is-king society that permits and celebrates the proliferation of sexualised, hairless bodies. 

Getting angry about hair removal is so strongly associated with second-wave women’s lib, with bar-burning and men-hating and all the things that make men and women nervous around feminism. And for that reason it is seen as naff or uncool or unnecessarily angry to bang this drum. But I really don’t think there’s anything uncool about being angry about women feeling ashamed of their bodies. I really don’t think it’s uncool to ask why women on the TV don’t have pubic hair but all the women you’ve ever met IRL do.   

The study throws up some interesting questions: why have we now decided to medicalise something that has always been about sexualisation? Do those women really believe they are cleaner for having a wax, or does saying “because my partner won’t have sex with me otherwise” sound as outdated as bra-burning? And if they really do believe it is for medical reasons, they are wrong, so will they keep doing it? 

If women want to wax, I’m not here to tell them not to or to judge them for doing so. But are we really being honest without ourselves about why we do it? At the very least, I hope we find a way for young girls not to feel the shame I did – and on a selfish note, I hope I find a way to stop paying my £25 annual to subscription to patriarchyiswinning.com

@marisajbate

Photo: Getty
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young women and girls
women in the media

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