Once upon a time there lived a girl who’s skin felt smooth and soft. She wore colourful halter-tops, culottes and mini skirts that showed off her silkiness. Then one summer she began to notice hair appearing in places it had never had before. Not only that, her eyebrows were becoming unruly and what was once soft, pale down was now a dark, thick forest of hair. Eeek! What was to become of our lovely girl? Voices from above and beyond told her it was womanhood.
Puberty and Body Hair
Puberty comes with a bundle of concerns, the physical changes being high among them. As hormonal changes occur, pubic and auxiliary hair grows and it is a sign that the body is becoming sexually functional in both male and females. Male sex hormones called androgens help stimulate facial hair development in males about two years after the start of pubic hair. Males also grow hair on the chest, back and on the arms and legs. Their pubic hair is longer, although finer, than women’s. The longer hairs are partially due to the fact that the hair is growing faster and for a longer growing phase for males. Fully formed hairs on the thighs are over three times longer in young men than in young women. The growth period in men is 54 days and in women it is 22 days.
Women have substantially less androgens than males so their auxiliary and pubic hair growth is less extensive. A man’s pubic hair grows up over his stomach, forming a triangle with its peak near the navel. A woman’s pubic hair ends more or less as a straight line a few centimetres above the mons. Men also tend to have more hair covering their butts.
This increase and difference in quality of body hair is a big change from childhood to adulthood. Males get the brunt of it, while females get somewhat less. However, perception of body hair is different for males than it is for females. For the most part, male auxiliary hair is seen and celebrated as proof of masculinity. Many boys keep count of each facial and chest hair as they develop. They keep wearing shorts during gym class. They may not show off their hairy legs, but they don’t hide them either. For girls it is often different. Since their increased hairiness is a sign of sexual maturation, it does represent womanhood and femininity. Yet because hairiness is a typical male characteristic, girls often see it as something they want nothing of. So with the blessing of popular culture, as well as the support of thousands of years of hair removal rituals crossing many diverse cultures, they get rid of it.
Myths, Beliefs and Practices
Early myths equated hairiness with animalistic tendencies. Certain philosophical thinking held to the belief that man was not an animal so being as physically different from our closet relatives, the monkeys as well as other beasts, was seen as a highly valued characteristic. It thought that this belief led to the very common human aversion for body hair. Another myth that still exists is that hairiness is a sign of increased sexual prowess. Endocrinology has found no one explanation for sexual desire, its existence or lack thereof. Sexual response is a very subtle thing and how one perceives oneself may be as ore more important than the physical status of the body and its hormones. Regardless, many advocates of controlling sexuality have thought that the modification of body hair would result in the manipulation of people’s sexuality, especially as a signal of someone’s sexual availability and desirability. By either keeping it there, altering it or by removing it, one makes a sexual statement.
Here is a look at what people, both past and present, have believed about body and pubic hair and what they have done about it.
Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome
Neither men nor women in ancient Egypt were allowed to have any body hair. It was thought to be ugly and unhygienic. The rule in ancient Greece was complete depilation for women (except for head hair). Pubic hair in young boys was considered a special delight, but they were required to remove their leg hair. In ancient Rome, women removed or shaped their pubic hair as a mean to please men. Complete removal of pubic and auxiliary was customary.
Uganda, Trobriand Islands, South America, Bakitara and Rhodesia
The Dodingo of Uganda practiced the complete depilation of body hair including pubic hair. They would use a special resin that was applied and allowed to dry. Then it was torn away, hair and all. Afterwards, the skin was treated with soothing vegetable fats. A young bride before her wedding had to under go this as part of the ritual before marriage. Similar customs existed among the people of the Trobriand Islands and South American Indians. The African tribe of Bakitara would have young girls approaching marriage have all their body hair shaved off excluding the pubic hair which would be plucked by her mother. This painful experience would last one week. For the Ba-ila in Northern Rhodesia, young adults would remove their pubic and underarm hair by rubbing warm ashes to these areas and then pluck the hair.
India and China
In India, having rich and cared for hair on the head is a positive social and psychological statement, but hair elsewhere on the body is unwanted. In North India, pubic hair is especially unwanted, while underarm hair and leg hair are not a customary concern. Among the Chaubes of Western Pradesh, female pubic hair is thought of as ganda (dirty) and is considered by males to be an impediment during intercourse. Married women take excellent care of their head hair and remove their pubic hair. Widows, while grieving shave their heads and let their pubic hair grow. After their bereavement period their head hair is unkempt and they do not shave their pubic hair. Like the Bakitara, before marriage in North India and Pakistan, a preparatory ritual for the new bride is removal of her pubic hair.
In Republican China (1911-1949), an observation about the relative absence of pubic hair in different “races” was emphasized in popular sex handbooks. A person’s hairiness was thought to reflect qualities of the mind. An excess of hair were said to be signs of deregulation. The lowbrow Secrets of the Bedchamber (1938), for example, stated that lewd women generally developed an abundant tuft of hair in areas of the body where they experienced vice.
Samoans and Turks
People have modified pubic hair as an expression of their value of sexuality. Among the Samoans, female pubic hair is admired. Virgins (whatever their definition of that may be) have their pubic hair oiled and combed. 16th century Turkish harems had women decorate their bodies. They would remove the pubic hairs and then dye the area with henna. It was considered a sin to have hair in the “private parts”.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese have had a puzzling relationship with sexuality, the genitals and pubic hair. The sight of genitals and by extension the sight of pubic hair is considered obscene in Japan. Nudity, sexual sado-masochism, extreme anal sexual acts, and fetishes involving bodily wastes are commonly accepted in different kinds of media, but pubic hair is a no-no. To protect the public from the sight of pubic hair and genitals, pornographic material of non-genital sex is popular and images which do contain the taboo is censored either with black dots or less subtly with large knee length shaggy wigs for the genitals.
The Crusaders and Europeans
In the past century or so the removal of body hair, including pubic hair, has become more popular among Europeans and other Westerners. The Crusaders are thought to have introduced the fashion to Europeans, but it took quite sometime to catch on. In the 18th and 19th centuries, while body hair was often thought to emphasize the animalistic nature of man and was subsequently omitted from painting and statues, some literature highlighted the subtle provocativeness of having pubic hair. It was often compared to grass and a “carnal meadow”. However, some men were entirely shocked on their wedding nights. They had based their knowledge of the female form on art, which did not include pubic hair. Upon seeing their wives disrobe, they were disgusted by the sight. Why they expected women to not have pubic hair where they themselves had some is shocking to modern ears.
The Hair Foray of America
Paintings and sculptures are no longer the influence they once were. Today in North American culture (USA and Canada), magazines, movies, television and other forms of the modern media contain an incredible amount of imagery of the human body. The majority of media images are of young, Caucasian people. If you look closely you’ll notice that they conspicuously don’t have body hair. None on the face except for eyebrows and eyelashes, none on the legs, none on the arms, certainly none under the arms, and more and more frequently, none in the pubic area. This is the style for both women and men, with the exception of some stubble allowed on the guys.
Shaving first came into vogue among North Americans with the development of the modern safety razor in the 1820’s. However, mostly men, to keep their beards neat and tidy or to be clean-shaven, used it. In the 1920’s the Gillette Company combined the traditional hoe shaped razor with a doubled edged replaceable blade. Also around this time, woman began to wear less clothing, bathing suits became more practical (read you could swim in them becuase they were not made of excessive pantaloons), dresses showed the shapely calves, and sleeveless, strapless dresses became fashionable. Possibly to differentiate themselves from men who had auxiliary hair, women began shaving theirs. Based on the different cultures mentioned above, there exists a long tradition of depilation of body hair and so the desire for North Americans to do so is not unique.
In the 1960’s, when the counter culture movement was beginning, it was trendy for hippies to have auxiliary hair. Not only was long head hair common in both men and women, but so was full leg, underarm and pubic hair. It was perceived as being more natural. This style was popular well in to the 1970’s. For women it played a role in the expression of feminist philosophy. For men it was a symbol of machismo (think Burt Reynolds in his Cosmo centrefold). As women began achieving equality to men, their appearances were becoming strikingly similar.
Nevertheless, shaving was never completely eliminated from North America society. As immigrants from other countries increasingly moved to the West, they brought along their traditions and introduced new ways of removing hair such as waxing and sugaring to the West. It also became stylish to dress in more conformist, structured ways. The 1980’s were the times of conservative excess, while the 1990’s were of minimalist, sleek styles. As the decades have passed wearing less and less clothing has become very fashionable. People’s attention to body hair and the elimination of it seems to reflect these tastes.
A big change can be observed in the presentation of the female body in pornography. In the 1970’s a Playboy model was photographed with full pubic hair and with hair on her arms. A women posing today has her pubic hair trimmed or removed and is shown without arm hair. It is digitally smoothened. During this time in XXX pornography, women went from full “bushes” to orderly “Mohawks”. Men also became less hairy, shaving their testicles, butts and penises. This is especially the case in gay porn where sleek, muscular, tanned bodies can be the epitome of gay masculinity.
Porn stars are motivated to remove hair for practical and aesthetic reasons. First and foremost, it is done to show the viewers the performers’ genitals during penetrative sex or oral sex. Clearly seeing the opening of the vagina, the labias and the clitoris has potential for arousal. Also in the not so distant past many of the mainstream porn stars were dancers and often wore g-strings and thongs when performing. Hair sticking out from the costumes is not deemed suitable or attractive so it is easier to shave it all off than to trim and tuck it in. On a purely sensible note, having less hair can help them avoid matting and friction, which the industrial amounts of lube and extremely hot lights used to making porn, can lead to. Finally, “seeing it all” is a trend in today’s adult entertainment. Seeing the entire genital region gives the viewer a sense of seeing the forbidden. In response to this, the Japanese strictly outlaw the sight of it, while in North America a hairless “pussy” is insisted upon. At its opposite extreme, a woman’s body hair, pubic area and elsewhere, is appreciated as a fetish.
What This All Means For Regular Folk
Shaved and waxed legs and underarms are very common traits among women in North America. Like any body modification it may have some ritual significance linked to a rite of passage. As girls become women they shave their legs and underarms. Having something to remove means you are reaching adulthood. With the case of body hair and its depilation, it is also likely a measure of attractiveness just as it has been in many cultures worldwide and over thousands of years. A hairless body is believed to be appealing.
Less common is the removal of pubic hair. However the trend in porn is making its way into the mainstream. Things began with the bikini wax so that women would not have “stray” hairs peeping out from their bathing suits. Then, the more extreme version, the Brazilian came into vogue. Now, more and more women who do not work in the adult industry are taking it all off.
In earlier times, removing the pubic hair was a way for a bride to prepare for marriage and sexual relations with her husband. A modern North American woman may not be getting ready for marriage, but the removal of her pubic hair is a symbol, even if only to herself, of her sexual availability and attractiveness. However, with all things deemed attractive, it only means this if you think it means this.
Originally published at Seska for Lovers 2001.