The Hairs About Our Secrets

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Tearing a strip off Brazilian-style beauty norms
Thursday, April 12th, 2012

The first time I went for a bikini wax, I had no idea what I was getting into. Friends with standing appointments and a landmark episode of Sex and the City had prepared me for pain, but—now in my thirties and having survived the various types of pain a feminine life can bring, short of childbirth—I thought I’d be able to handle it.

Hairs
What happened next is mostly a blur. I was led, by a gentle woman about my age, into a salon where Toronto’s affluent husbands ritually send their wives for Queen-For-a-Day retreats. If you’re going to entrust your private parts to a hot-wax-bearing stranger, so I thought, you want to know you’re in good hands. (And whatever differentiated a discount wax joint from a top-drawer one, I didn’t want to know.)

 

It still amazes me to think that, in spite of having worked as a fashion editor for a national newspaper, I didn’t know exactly what I was in for. The semiotics of bikini waxing are tossed around in women’s magazines, but rarely defined. In a time when everyone seems to have at least a functional understanding of how Viagra works, regardless of age or gender, ignorance and euphemism abound when it comes to intimate depilation. Gee Beauty, a go-to salon for Toronto socialites, offers a link on its website that leads to a page (“Down Below”) with abstract filigree whorls and curlicues representing options called “Upper Management”, “Houdini”, and “GIG” (the airport code for Rio de Janiero).

This spa of record proposed a Traditional bikini wax ($37), a French wax ($57), and a full Brazilian ($88). I went with the French partly because I have long trusted that country’s approach to fashion and food and assumed this might represent some universal quality of goodness (French toast, French braid). In other words, I had chosen the pubic equivalent of a pair of Louboutins or a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.

Reader! I am a wiser, worldlier woman now.

In a treatment room, I lay covered from thigh to armpit by a towel. The first cue that we had left behind any pretense to bodily inhibition was the lack of a “privacy thong.” In most spas, this item will be offered where nudity arises, even as a token. Apparently I had checked my modesty, and who knows what else, at the door. The aesthetician lifted the towel, assessed my pubic area with a professional’s dispassionate interest, and went to work.

With quick, practiced movements, she took fabric strips, pressed them down onto the wax she had applied to my thighs and front, and tore them off. Recalling the home leg waxing efforts of my teens, it wasn’t bad at first. But she had to crook open my legs to continue, and I felt suddenly bad without quite knowing for whom, or what I had done.

When you grow up in a country like Canada, chances are the only people who see your pudenda are your lover and your gynecologist. If you are a nice girl, your own mother may not even have seen your “private parts” since you were in preschool. Certainly, you haven’t flashed your BFF in some college bar. I wasn’t sure what was more disturbing, the eye-watering rips of the waxing strips or the sure way the aesthetician knew to lay flat her palm against my genitalia to minimize the pull. I had no precedent for an experience so equally intimate and clinical by nature.

When she began to wax my actual vulva, I realized that life as I knew it, which generally consists of a pleasant triangle between a job, an apartment, and Whole Foods, was revealing another universe. I thought of the network of designer shops outside and its professionally blow-dried shoppers who drink Prosecco in the afternoon. As if I had been granted X-ray vision, I could now see what most of them must do, too. Below the enviable perfection of the surface, there was something so undignified about this ritual that it seemed to discredit its own worth. I wondered what drove them to it.

At a certain point the aesthetician asked, “Do you want me to do the back?” I didn’t know what might remain to be done, but I recognized another euphemism when I heard one. “Just do whatever you normally do,” I said. “Give me what most people get.” It was clear at that point that this might be my life’s one bikini wax—it made sense to go the whole hog.

Counter to the era of blog-influenced and confessional journalism we live in, I don’t want to describe what happened next. But the emotions of it mirrored the testimonials of those who have been abducted by aliens—violated, disoriented, a sense of time loss. Afterwards, in the lounge area, the soft burble of a water fountain and the atmospheric lighting seemed unduly harsh. My arms and legs shook as if I had delivered a speech.

As a waiting attendant handed me a cup of soothing tea, I spotted an actress friend. Alex was reclining in a spa robe, waiting for a massage. “What did you get?” she asked.

I told her that I had just been for my first bikini wax. She winced.

“I had that once,” she said. “I thought, if someone’s going to do that to my asshole, they should be paying me.”

The obvious question is, Why? How can a painful, cumbersome and expensive practice be so much better than a hairy vagina? Waxing has repercussions that may last for weeks—repercussions that, more than any other argument against it, call into question its sexiness. As the bikini wax grows in, ingrown hairs require frequent, decisive first aid. I was astonished to discover after my first wax that the mechanics of urination, something I can’t remember having thought about, had changed; it was impossible to go to the bathroom without making a mess. Some of the wax can linger from the procedure, causing the buttocks to adhere to each other. If you fart (and I was surprised to discover how much I fart; perhaps they’d previously gone unnoticed) it sounded like a couple of wooden boards clapping together. In attempting to become as sexy as possible, I had become appalling to myself.

The history of hair removal is not a straight line. Many of us think of the nineteen-seventies as a kind of Golden Age in pubic hair, as typified by the au naturel illustrations in The Joy of Sex. It would be logical to assume that it’s all gone downhill from there, at least in square footage—first from a bit of shaving in the nineteen-eighties to the full Brazilian wax, as it became known after it was imported to New York City by seven Brazilian sisters, and which has since become the porn industry’s new normal.

But at different times in history and across cultures, attitudes about hairiness have waxed, so to speak, and waned. In an eighteenth-century text, the critic John Dryden wrote disparagingly of “that effeminate Custom now used in Italy, and especially by Harlots, of smoothing their Bellies, and taking off the Hairs which grow about their Secrets.” The ‘natural’ look of the nineteen-seventies—as with men’s beards, which are also seeing a resurgence in these heritage-oriented times—may have been a trend (a reaction, perhaps, to the relatively groomed and plasticized ideals of the generation before). Let’s not forget the spirit with which post-WWII women, endowed with shorter skirts and the availability of mass-market nylons, practically to a woman, began to shave their legs.

The current cultural climate of waxing is something of a war. A few years ago, the state of New Jersey proposed banning Brazilian waxing to discourage infections brought on by unlicensed practitioners. Last fall, The Atlantic published a long essay, “The New Full-Frontal: Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct?” Noting the normalization of waxing among college-aged women, it speculated that waxing may reflect the influence of pornographic images on a generation raised with laptops and WiFi.

In Canada, Perla Porto is a legend in bikini waxing, recognized as much for her painless technique as for her bedside manner. She was referred to me by a number of people.

“We are trying to change” the image of waxing, said Porto, a petite, stylish young woman who still remembers her first Canadian client as having asked her to please “not touch my vagina too much.” It struck Porto as contradiction in terms: wanting an end without the means.

“In Brazil, it’s so normal for us to go for waxing,” said Porto. She thinks part of the reason is a difference in attitude about touch. “I’m going back in a few weeks to visit. My mother and my sisters will be waiting for me hairy.”

Six years since that first reticent patron, Porto now has twenty-seven hundred clients and sees an average of twenty women a day. Her oldest client is seventy-two and her youngest client is twelve. She pointed out that waxing has a different profile in her home country, land of tiny bikinis and water sports, and is associated with hygiene. She studied three years to become an aesthetician; courses included history, anatomy and how to identify sexually transmitted diseases. By her definition, an aesthetician’s role falls somewhere between that of a hairdresser and a public health nurse.

Porto’s work suggests that the sexualization of waxing is relatively subjective; in her country, the practice is more akin to what leg shaving is here—basic everyday grooming. “We are hairy girls,” she told me. “In Brazil, we don’t look at if a woman is fat or has a good body, but we always look at if the woman is hairy.”

I put to her the “what’s happening to our daughters?” concern raised in The Atlantic and forever lurking, I think, in the background. To a certain kind of feminist, the removal of pubic hair is misogynist and, in the case of a full Brazilian, flatly unacceptable. At worst, it signals the infantilizing of the womanly body—at the very least, the pornification of the bourgeois bedroom. “You are not a little girl, and you won’t feel like a little girl,” Porto replied, flatly.

One of the most perplexing things about waxing is the ubiquity of the “landing strip,” a feature of my own wax, and visibly on parade, in various states of re-growth, at the gym. Why do so many of us think that a vertical, domino-shaped patch of hair resembling nothing that came from nature is superior to none?

Is it an abstract reminder that one could grow hair? That we are still “women,” whatever in a hairy context that might mean? Or is it a fear to bare all, in a literal sense—not letting your hair down too much? What, in essence, does pubic hair mean?

“I think it’s a photographed aesthetic,” Leanne Shapton, a visual artist in New York City, told me. “It’s not a real aesthetic.” Shapton runs her own publishing company, J&L, and the assessment makes sense—repeated viewing overwrites the specifics of an image with its context. Just as Wile E. Coyote’s latest ACME kit symbolizes schadenfreude, so the French bikini wax stands for sexy, in our culture, without having to be anything.

In the midst of my own first wax, there was a brass light fixture on the ceiling in which I could see my reflection—a woman going through a transformation. The ripping apart, all the things that followed—the ingrown hairs, the feeling of being a plucked chicken—seemed like a small price to pay for validation as an indisputable sexual being. At the time, I was in a relationship that had floundered, and I thought that if I became a sexier woman—maybe a woman unlike the woman I was—it might help. I don’t know why it translated into that form of expression; waxing was in the air. In the discovery that some of my friends had done it and always done it, I wondered if I had missed out on some essential aspect of female grooming. A form of pubic pressure takes hold. It was a surprise to discover that the wax improved nothing so much as my idea of myself, and that’s what made me go back for a couple of years after.

When I asked friends why they did, or didn’t, wax, what emerged was not so much a pubic mosaic of 2012 (waxed, shaven, or as the women’s website xojane.com recently dubbed it, “’70s Bush”), but how hard it is for everyone to discuss how hers got to where it is. The people I thought would be most forthcoming—women who have waxed for years—spoke of convenience, cleanliness. Meanwhile, the people who do it aren’t necessarily the people you’d think. I discovered that my friend with the four-inch Manolo heels never shaves, but my friend the hockey player routinely denudes. Regardless of her pubic situation, I think everyone feels a bit judged: judged for having an opinion, judged for having acted (or not acted) on it. Who knew? In this country, what turns us on might genuinely be one of the last taboos.

Matt Pollack recently made a documentary about his relationship to pornography called Run Run, It’s Him. It’s a chronicle of his years spent (secretly) watching porn for hours a day and the corollary sense of shame not only about the time that passed but what it said about him. I asked him to comment, not about the morality of bikini waxing so much as for a critical opinion, having seen so many naked women, about what the attraction is.

Pollack thinks there’s some merit to The Atlantic hypothesis about the co-dependence of porn and waxing (simply to make it easier to see genitalia), and its normalizing effect on people’s pubic expectations. But the more poignant appeal of waxing comes from the real world. He called it the “psychological intent”: unlike film’s pliant and enthusiastic partners, real-world women are “like sexual gatekeepers,” he said.

“I have to jump through hoops and make witty conversation to get to that point. But the fact that she took the time and went to the effort and spent the money—that’s the turn-on.” In other words, a woman’s bikini wax is an message to her lover that he’s worth the pain.

Like many men I spoke to, Pollack said he is just grateful for what he can get. “I’ve only really seen, like, ten vaginas,” he told me. “When someone decides to let you see that at all, it’s like, so shocking, or a miracle.”

One of the foundational myths of classic feminist theory is that from a patriarchal viewpoint, the female body is threateningly out of control: puzzlingly in tune with the phases of the moon; an emitter of blood; a site for casual pleasure but also (just as truthfully, almost sneakily) of babies. Waxing illuminates just how much this vessel is an enigma to women ourselves. Like the choice to eat with a knife and fork, or buy a gym membership to sculpt the body with exercise, waxing takes something that could be left free-form in hand, applying form and control. Another symbol of mankind’s triumph over nature, even if the triumph is fleeting at best. As with lawn care, it’s a fight against weeds and ingrown hairs, trims and re-growth; “success” being an idealized condition rather than an absolute place.

My own relationship with waxing is less troubled than it was—demystified, waxing seems less about symbolism than about whimsy. It strikes me that in order to be truly liberated it needs to not matter either way: to care about the presence or absence of pubic hair is to suggest that there is a right way to groom. Increasingly, a Brazilian wax strikes me as a pubic cliché, a trend to leave to the Kardashians and the Ugg-wearing, text-messaging demographic. In the last season of Entourage, a bellwether show about celebrity cool, a real-life porn star, Sasha Grey, playing the main character’s girlfriend, walked nude (and, by certain standards, insufficiently ‘kempt’) across the screen. “That’s what a grown woman looks like,” she tweeted to a wave of ‘anti-bush’ protestors. “I’m happy to contribute to making it OK again :). All ‘fashions’ have their cycles!” In the context, it seemed avant-garde.

Grey positions herself as a thinking woman’s porn star—reading philosophy between takes, commenting on US politics. In a sea of Brazilians, having old-fashioned pubic hair might be a way to distinguish oneself; classy, even. In that light, I went back to the same question I’d been asking since the beginning. Why do we think it looks attractive to have no pubic hair? I asked Perla Porto.

“Oh, I don’t think it looks good,” she said. “It’s not beautiful. I think it feels good.” In a swirl of opinions about waxing’s significance (visual and otherwise), sensuality was the one thing nobody had mentioned. Desire, and the desire to improve desire—that’s something men and women alike have always been willing to suffer for.