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Why Is American Society at War with Women's Body Hair?

The drive to convince us that female body hair is unnatural and unclean has been alarmingly successful, but attitudes are beginning to change.
 
 
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Photo Credit: TheFuturistics on Flickr

 
 
 
 

On John Ruskin's wedding night, legend has it, the critic fainted on finding that – unlike the Elysian statues of his fantasies – women had body hair. Monday is the 114th anniversary of Ruskin's death. Who would've predicted that instead of laughing at Victorian prudery, many men still expect their sexual encounters to entail pudenda, pins and pits as marble smooth as those of young Ruskin's imagination?

But there's a change in the wind, a turn in the worm: oh yes, something's in the hair. Though I'm no astrologer, I think 2014 might just be the year of the bush.

In an unlikely about-face, Cameron Diaz has proclaimed that pubic hair is there for a reason, and to remove it is tantamount to saying, "I don't need my nose". This is odd, as just under a year ago she cheerfully told Graham Norton a cute story about pinning an ungroomed friend into the shower and forcibly de-fuzzing her. (I hope the poor woman's nose is still intact.)

While Diaz was making her new hairy allegiances public, clothing label American Apparel filled its New York shop windows with be-merkined mannequins in sheer undies. A spokeswoman says they're trying to spark up conversations about the kinds of femininity deemed beautiful and sexy.

To add to these media events, a UK Medix poll recently found that 50% of UK women did not groom down there at all. It must be admitted: 2014 is looking voluminously rosy for those of us who love our lady gardens.

But what's behind the last decade of wax in western culture in the first place?

Many are quick to blame porn; and porn undoubtedly has a role to play, but I know plenty of women who never need to clear their browser history, yet still denude their bottoms. (Of course, this doesn't preclude pressure from their partners.) And when you apply the age-old journalistic trick of following the money, what does the porn industry have to gain from regular real-life girlfriends looking like shiny cyber girlfriends? Not a whole lot. It's the "beauty" industry that profits, and which is driving the trend.

Before the first world war, virtually no American woman shaved her legs. By 1964, 98% of women under the age of 44 did so. Before that war, underarm hair was not a cosmetic consideration. Fashions up to that point, while often clingy and form revealing, covered up most of a woman's skin. But female fashions became ostensibly freer, and Gillette's first razor for women came out in 1915, triggering aggressive advertising campaigns on behalf of more than a dozen "beauty" companies. Female body hair was suddenly deemed unsightly.

The capitalist drive to convince us that female body hair is unnatural and unclean has been alarmingly successful. The removal industry is worth millions, and uncountable women are ashamed of and distressed by their post-pubescent hair. But the industry is greedy. It must now convince the world that female pubic hair is dirty too. It must now convince people that male body hair is equally unacceptable.

So why, if women were so easily duped in the 20th century, are they seemingly wilier now, seemingly more willing to reject the shame heaped on their hairy privates? I think one answer is that privates usually are quite private, and – give or take a few spanners – our partners tend to love us as we are, in a way that wider society does not. I think another answer is the discomfort and the invasiveness of pubic waxing. I had my first (and last) Hollywood in August as research for the book I'm writing, and I could not believe how painful it was. Or the rash and itch that set in as it grew out. It's too much. It's too far. We resent the pressure, and we resent being made to feel ashamed.

The comedian Kate Smurthwaite has a skit where she describes being in the showers after swimming, when two little girls run into the changing room, point at her fluffy bits, start giggling, and run out again. Kate, of a generation confident of the normalcy of bush, shrugs and thinks to herself, "they'll grow the same thing soon". But then she thinks about how they'll also grow leg and armpit hair. So she stops shaving.

Hollywood mania was a similar jolt for me. How could I try to claim that my pubic hair was feminine and acceptable when I was so ashamed of the hair on my legs or under my arms? I realised that I was Ruskin: unable to deal with the reality of the female body, squirmy about my own sexual maturity. So, as others are doing in this, the year of the bush, I decided it was time to stop swooning, and wake up.

 
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