I'm a Smart, Liberated Woman -- So Why Do I Pay a Stranger to Pour Wax on My Genitals and Rip Out the Hair?
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“My body image issue was hair, not weight,” said Rachel, a 23-year-old feminist, artist, and activist living in New York City, who stood out amidst the choir of female voices with whom I spoke. Wedged in a paradox between self-empowerment and cultural norms, she told me her story over iced tea.
“I was the girl who had hairy armpits when I was eight years old,” says Rachel. “I didn’t realize not everyone had pubic hair at age nine, or didn’t have hair here”—pointing to the middle of her chest. “I remember my cousin in her thirties looking surprised when I admitted I had hair on my sternum. And hiding in the bathroom at camp…and boys saying things, and girls saying things, and begging my mom to let me shave my thighs.”
Rachel’s sister was left unscathed from bullying, even though they both have thick and prevalent body hair. Growing up they tried laser hair removal, electrolysis, waxing and shaving, all of which sometimes made things worse. She and her sister got charged more for waxing. Some waxers made fun of them and laughed. It felt horrible and terribly shaming. For Rachel, body hair became all-consuming, something she simultaneously loathed, yet protected, even affecting her relationships with men; she didn’t want them to notice the hair on her butt. “It’s something I don’t have control over,” she says. “The hair sort of has control over me.”
Then Rachel got to college, where she had positive sexual experiences with men who didn’t shame her for her body hair. “To see your beauty through someone else’s eyes first,” she says, “that’s sometimes how it works. That’s one path. And for me it wasn’t the only thing.”
Rachel discovered and embraced feminism. She performed in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. And she took a book-making class for which she made a book about pubic hair. “It actually made me look at hair and see it as more attractive,” says Rachel. [The book] “actually changed my perception of beauty.”
Inspiration for the book came from a visit to the Museum of Sex in New York City the summer before Rachel’s senior year. She saw an old French postcard with text about how, around the turn of the twentieth century, women were shaved in order to make their body hair less inappropriate.
“Our ideas about beauty were created by attempts to make something less real, less sexual, less sensual and womanly,” says Rachel.
In the book-making class, Rachel explored how hairlessness became our ideal beauty using art images of pubic hair, including some by Edward Weston and one by Alfred Stieglitz of his wife Georgia O’Keeffe.
Before the book, Rachel romanticized bare vulvas, while still making it a point of pride not to go bare herself. Yet that year, she became unabashed, more vocal and open, no longer feeling dirty or ashamed. She underwent a holistic shift. “It wasn’t necessarily only vulva, but it was pubic-hair related,” she says. “It was coming to terms with being hairy in that place that made me a woman…and no longer feeling as apologetic about it.”
This past year, Rachel joined the dating website OKCupid. She checked off interest for guys who prefer natural or trimmed vulva hair, refusing to be with someone who expects women to shave their legs or pubic hair. For Rachel, having a guy control how she looks and takes care of herself is “a travesty.” Waxing “hurts, it causes infections, it causes bleeding, it causes rashes,” she says. “It’s a point of preference. And I think it’s fucked-up.”