Monday, July 22, 2013

The Bald Vulva. A Re-Posting

(Re-posted from here.)

It sounds like the national bird (of the US, that is), doesn't it?

The Atlantic has an article about women shaving off all their pubic hair or getting Brazilian waxes down there or even having the pubic hair permanently zapped with laser treatment. I recommend reading the whole piece from the beginning to the end to note how the actual reasons for this trend are subsumed in all sorts of dead-end theories about why young women, quite suddenly as history goes, have decided that a bald vulva is a necessary fashion or health accessory. Nothing replaces that reading as an exercise in learning how smoke is blown into our eyes when it comes to political issues about women. And this IS a political issue.

I'm not really blaming the writer who does do the necessary work of discussing the real reasons. But all the fluff around that real reason, about low-slung pants requiring the shaving of pubic hair (what about men?) to the age-old argument that women are smelly by nature are trotted out, and so is the idea that femininity means hairlessness (even if biology disagrees).

And this bit is really hilarious:
So what does it all mean? Is pubic hair removal a symbol of feminine pride, something that Gloria Steinem might be proud of? Or does it signify submission to a domineering male agenda?
"It's all in how people deal with it," Herbenick says. As she's seen in her lecture-hall encounters, the hairless vulva isn't always analogous to the clenched fist of female solidarity; just as often, it's a telltale sign of oppression or forced conformity.
But, she says, uncovered, demystified genitalia can just as easily be a symbol of empowerment. "Many women have started to feel a sense of ownership over their bodies -- an autonomy," she says. "If they want to take it off, they take it off. If they want to grow it back, they grow it back. If they want to shave it into a heart, they shave it into a heart. But they're doing it because they want to."
They are doing it because they want to? No wider societal influences there? Why don't we have lots of women completely shaving off their eyebrows? They are hair, after all, and unfeminine, and they might smell when you are sweaty after a workout or sex.

The reason, of course is in p*rnography (which so far isn't that interested in eyebrows). It became widely available, in forms which did not require a man to walk into a crummy shop to buy a magazine, about twenty years ago. We now may have a generation of heterosexual men who formed their first ideas about how naked women look by watching p*rn. And women in those depictions do not have pubic hair. This is so that one can see all the dangly bits and the jingly bits better, of course.

Imagine such a man having first-time sex with a woman who actually has pubic hair! Might he not express shock or disgust at this horror? Might she not then feel that she, too, must shave her vulva bald?

That explanation suffices. All the other stories told in the article are either dead-ends or tales about the roads this influence took to get into the popular culture in general. But the direct route works really well, too:
Herbenick recalls one encounter in which a popular, well-liked college student in a class she taught openly professed that he had never hooked up with a girl who had pubic hair, and would frankly be disgusted to undress a woman and discover a veil of genital fur.
"Some girls talked to me and wrote in their papers that they had always had pubic hair, and in a couple cases never did anything to their pubic hair," she said. "They never thought it was a problem. But when he said that, they went home and changed it. They really started to feel ashamed about their bodies."
Fitzpatrick, similarly, finds himself in a collegiate scene full of young women far too obsessed with the hair down there. "It becomes a compulsion," he says.
Fitzpatrick's female friends, especially those who confess to not having waxed in a while, have added a distinct new routine to their social calendars: weekend-evening freak-outs. "When they go out on a Friday night to the bar, if they think they might be having sex with somebody later, they're like, 'Is he gonna judge me? What is he gonna think?'" Fitzpatrick says. Other non-waxed coeds simply skip the bar altogether.
Pinto, too, admits that she gets nervous about having sex toward the third or fourth week after getting a wax. "If I haven't waxed and I suddenly end up hooking up with someone, I'm like, Oh, God. No, no!" she says.
And it's true, says Fitzpatrick: Guys can be, and often are, "absolutely brutal." It's not uncommon for a college-aged man to "go out of his way" to make fun of a girl's pubic grooming habits with his buddies after he's hooked up with her -- even if he's never expressed a preference one way or the other, he says. "Then all of a sudden, instead of just being a girl who's had a fun night with her respective guy, she becomes that girl who has weird pubic hair. And nobody wants that label."
"Weird pubic hair." There you have it!

Two important points about this post: First, do a gender reversal on the arguments. All the arguments for a bald vulva seem to me to equally apply to men's pubic hair. The skin would be softer, the experience of intercourse would be more powerful, with less hairy padding, and so on. But do women shame men into shaving down there? And of course the real point about this first point is the absence of articles like this about men's pubic hair.

Second, and this is very important for any reader I have angered by downplaying "choice" here. We obviously have a choice about how much hair we want on our vulvas or around our penises. But those kinds of choices are never made in a vacuum. As I wrote in an earlier post, the women in this picture look very much alike, because their clothing was influenced by the culture they lived in:

Yet I'm pretty sure if we could have asked them about their choice of hairdo (the "Gibson Girl" of the early 20th century) or the dresses they would have given us individual choice explanations.

We are all affected by the culture we live in, and different choices carry different societal benefits and sanctions. This post is to point out why one particular "choice" has become more common and what drives its popularity.