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I'm a Smart, Liberated Woman -- So Why Do I Pay a Stranger to Pour Wax on My Genitals and Rip Out the Hair?

Behind the hedonistic and masochistic ritual of the bikini wax.

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These days, while hair has faded from Rachel’s immediate consciousness, it’s still a prominent part of her journey. She remembers her therapist in eighth and ninth grade telling her that getting rid of all her body hair wouldn’t solve all of her problems. “It’s no longer a centerpiece of my existence,” she says. “I can’t conquer my body entirely and I no longer try to. I realize that seeing your body as something to fight made me hate it.”

I told Rachel about my conversations with women who preached empowerment mantras for waxing and hair removal.

“I struggle with anything that puts a positive empowerment spin on [grooming] because I think it can be, but I think that that’s often less honest and more like us trying to spin it and claim agency when it’s doing wrong by other people,” Rachel says. “For me, it’s pretending that the culture isn’t influencing how we think about body hair, and pretending that it’s just a personal preference. For me, [that] is doing more harm to ourselves than good.”

Rachel says women need to talk more and recognize how we’re influenced by the media and body image.

“Body hair, weight, Barbie, domestic violence, violence against women, male gaze, street harassment, to me it all feels connected,” she says. “Because to me, hair removal is a kind of violence against women. Just one that we’re tricked into doing and paying for ourselves.”

So I asked Rachel why she participates in hair removal at all.

Rachel thinks maybe removing hair from the entire vulva is more violent than just the sides, and she has dissonance herself since she removes hair from her butt; she sees the contradictions. She tried to start her next sentence over and over, several times, and then said, “I hate when my opinions are rationalizations I’ve made to myself to make myself more righteous and, like, afford my viewpoints and put down others. And I’m aware of that. On some level it probably is that. But for me, to wax the vagina itself is a violence against women.”

I asked Rachel what she meant by vagina, minding the difference between “vulva” – the whole package of external female genital organs – and “vagina” – that which connects the vulva opening to the uterus. She slid over so her legs were no longer under the table, made a V-shape with her hands over her dark cotton summer dress, framing her pubic bone along her bikini lines, took out a piece of paper and drew a four-quadrant diagram of herself front and back, groomed and ungroomed. She pointed to pen speckles of hair along her diagramed upper thighs and ass. When grooming, she removes all of that, and her direct bikini lines so she can wear a bathing suit without anything showing. But she keeps her pubic hair in a thick, bushy triangle over her pubic bone.

Recently, Rachel went swimming for two days in a row without waxing, yet a little shaving. It was good enough. She no longer feels the need for perfection. She went to the beach with some friends. She had a long hair peaking out of her bathing suit. Her friend gasped her name. “I was like, ‘Oh well,’” says Rachel. “And I went to the water and forgot about it. For someone who’s been obsessed with hair for so long, that’s amazing.”

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Multiple women interviewed blamed the porn and adult entertainment industries for popularizing female vulva waxing and grooming practices, especially current hairless trends. Whether those who mentioned or criticized porn were women’s health professionals or self-proclaimed feminists, it was unclear if anyone’s reproach was rooted in substantial evidence.

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