One of the questions I often get asked when I talk about my research is how much longer I think the trend for full pubic hair removal will last. I’m hesitant to give an exact expiry date if I’m honest. But I think this question opens up into broader discussions about what impact social, political and economic change has upon our bodily surfaces, and how embodied ideals of womanhood and femininity can both shift and remain constant over time. More revealing than any answer I might be able to give about the potential longevity of the Brazilian wax, is the asking of the question itself. It demonstrates an understanding of pubic hairlessness as ‘current’, constructed, transitory, and it encourages conversation about where the norm has originated from, and why women in particular feel pressured to conform to it.
My Google Alerts notified me recently of an online survey examining men and women’s pubic hair grooming preferences, undertaken by Cosmopolitan.com, and suggesting that pubic hairlessness remains a predominantly more normative expectation for women’s bodies than it is for men’s. It identified that the majority of men (58%) still preferred a female partner’s pubic hair to be either entirely removed or at least shaped into a “landing strip”, while the majority of women surveyed (57%) asserted that they did indeed rock a completely hairless look. So far not so surprising results perhaps - especially considering the scholarly work undertaken by psychologists such as Tiggemann and Hodgson, and Toerien, Wilkinson and Choi, demonstrating the various motivations which underlie the participation in extensive pubic hair removal amongst young women since the 2000s.
As an historian of female body hair removal in the twentieth century I explore how the recent normalisation of pubic hair removal builds upon pre-existing cultural constructions of the female body and sexuality in relation to hygiene, age, race and class. I also endeavour to examine the temporal specificity of pubic hairlessness by asking: why now? What does it reveal about the way in which twenty-first century British society has interpreted what is sexy, what it is to be hygienic, what is appropriate?
As part of my investigation I have turned to the ideas of the self-proclaimed ‘inventor’ of The Brazilian Wax herself: Janea Padilha of the J Sisters salon in New York. In her self-help book/autobiography Brazilian Sexy published in 2010, Padilha recounts the story of how she first recognised a gap in the hair removal market whilst observing a woman on the beach in Brazil:
"She was wearing a very tiny thong bikini. I remember how natural she looked, how sure of herself and how beautiful her body was…. It’s seared into my mind, because right then, as she leaned forward, her butt cheeks relaxed, and I saw it – this line of hair that went all the way up the sides of the thong! A lot of hair. More hair than I could have though could be on that part of the body. It was such a surprise to me, because I had no idea that women had hair like that… Of course women don’t know about this hair, because it is truly the one place on our bodies that we never see. And I started thinking how much better it would look, and how much better it would feel, if that hair was gone."
There are a number of things I want to pick up on here. Firstly, Padilha’s initial celebration of natural beauty, and the linking of this to natural confidence. Of course the depiction of ‘natural’ beauty conceals the constant vigilance, work and discipline such an ideal necessitates. It is interesting to note that Padilha’s perception of natural beauty diminished as soon as one of the woman’s body parts ‘relaxed’. In relaxing control – this ‘beautiful’ woman let slip the underlying female grotesque. I think it also interesting that Padilha repeats for emphasis the quantity of hair that was surprising. It didn’t just elicit her disgust because it was ‘a matter out of place’ to cite Douglas’ theory of pollution, but because body hair quantity has become a distinguishing factor in our current cultural construction of gendered bodies. This can be traced back to the establishment of endocrinology as a medical specialism in the early twentieth century, and subsequent demand for types and quantities of female body hair to be categorised for diagnoses of fertility ‘abnormalities’ and ‘gender dysfunction’. Finally, Padilha speculates upon the transformative potential of hairlessness, not just aesthetically, but it’s emotional and sensational benefits as well. Padilha reminds us that no matter how beautiful we are we can always improve on the mind and body through work and regular surveillance.
I am conscious that alongside this requirement for extra work, hair removal also gives many women pleasure and enjoyment, reminding us that the boundaries between work and leisure, pleasure and pain are often blurred in gendered beauty and grooming practices. As part of my research I have interviewed women between the ages of 18 to 80 about their hair removal habits, experiences and preferences. This has been an important means for me to re-establish women as active and participatory in the negotiation of hair removal norms, in some cases it has also permitted me to record the life histories of women who have felt too uncomfortable to talk publicly about how their bodies deviate from feminine ideals of hairlessness.
Lydia’s story, for example, demonstrates that whilst many women experience hair removal as a chore, for others hairlessness (as an aesthetic and ritual denoting womanhood) is liberating. Lydia had been born into a male body and finally began to transition as a woman during her mid-forties. She described to me the release it was to feel able to remove her body hair:
"And taking all that hair off that day I suppose was about me saying ‘Thank God’ you know, that this is one of the symbols of my imprisonment, as it were, and I’m free of it. So it’s going, straight away."
When Padilha proposed that being hairless would make women feel better, I think it easy to dismiss this from a Foucauldian perspective as a mechanism of power helping to maintain docile female bodies. But as Bartky has suggested, women can feel great enjoyment in feeling ‘feminine’ and to also possess a strong sense of gender identity and selfhood. Lydia echoes this in her experiences of hair removal:
"…you know the whole idea that the female form needs to be smooth and silky and sensual and all of those things… and I like that, I like… you know I like those feelings too, I like when I feel like that, you know I like, I sort of… I enjoy when my body feels that way, I hated it not feeling like that and I like it feeling the way it does now, you know. Now whether I was buying some advertiser created trope that you know I was kind of… I don’t know… you know when I shaved off all my hair, I loved the idea of my body being smooth… and I still do."
Lydia recognises that there are various mechanisms at work here that shape her enjoyment of smooth skin. Her testimony demonstrates the ongoing navigation of and critical engagement with the various ‘prescriptive’ discourses, such as advertising alongside her own sense of subjectivity.
Padilha reveals further the potential pleasures obtainable from Brazilian waxing, and its relationship to identity-formation:
"Here’s the thing – I’ll admit that when I did that first Brazilian on myself, I did it because I thought it would look better… what I didn’t know was that there are lots of other results – some amazing things happen. First of all, it’s a lot more sanitary, because you can just wash that area and get it really clean. No more hair to interfere. When you wipe your self, nothing gets tangled in your hair. It’s as if you were never really clean before… but here’s the best part – the Brazilian makes sex so much better, because there is nothing between you and your man…. [clients] tell me that I was right, that they are cleaning themselves in a way they never did before, that sex is better, that they feel better in many, many ways."
Padilha situates pubic hairlessness in the intersection between improved cleanliness and transformative sexual pleasure. By redefining pubic hair removal as a mode of sanitised sexiness, it distances pubic hairlessness away from the seedy and potentially sinister appeal of hairless female genitalia within pornographic imagery. Brazilian waxing makes pubic hairlessness not only becomes socially acceptable, but changes it into a desirable and aspirational commodity that the sexually proficient, empowered and stylish woman should own. I think it worth pointing out here the cultural capital that ‘Brazilian’ identity was developing within the fashion and beauty industries in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Emerging Brazilian supermodels such as Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosia and Gisele Bündchen were identified as restoring the sexy body to the catwalk after a long period in the 1990s of so-called ‘heroin chic’. This assisted in the production of ‘Brazilian’ beauty as a specific identity, associated with ‘exotic’ glamour, confidence and above all ‘healthy’ looking as oppose to extreme thinness and paleness.
The suggestion that the Brazilian wax can improve your sex life, your relationship with men as well as your well-being echoes this sense of the ‘healthiness’ of the Brazilian identity. It also reflects the contemporary postfeminist emphasis on attaining power through female sexual ‘subjectification’. Getting a Brazilian becomes part of the discourse of the postfeminist ‘make-over’ narrative in which the link between physical appearance and psychological state is often taken for granted, and individualism, choice and empowerment is achieved through consumptive practices.
Padilha locates the Brazilian wax in the faultlines between the eroticisation and the purification of women’s sexual bodies in the twenty-first century. In doing so, the pubic hairlessness norm reflects a continuation of a long-preceding anxiety and insecurity surrounding female sexuality in western culture’s historical trajectory, and the policing of this through a framework of hygiene and sanitisation of women’s bodies.
That pubic hair has recurrently been perceived as a site of impurity is exemplified by the mid to late twentieth century routinized practice of pre-delivery shaving of pubic hair as part of the preparation for safer childbirth by medical professionals in Britain. Descriptions of the pubic and vulva area as ‘unpurified’ and the ‘danger zone’ in the British Medical Journal in the 1920s illustrate a persistent conceptualisation of the sexually active female body as contaminated and potentially hazardous, and the presence of pubic hair as symbolic of this corruption. Although this method of ‘prepping’ has since been rejected by medical professionals as necessary for maintaining sterility during labour, it is difficult not to see parallels with Padilha’s construction of pubic hairlessness as intimately connected to good physical, emotional and moral health and hygiene.
Brazilian Sexy has been a useful source in my attempt to untangle the pubic hairlessness norm. Padilha helps in thinking beyond the assumption that extensive hair removal simply originates from pornography, to think about how it has been conceptualised around hygiene and morality, empowerment and aspiration, and work and pleasure. This leads me to ask further questions in my next phase of my research about the changing sexual landscape in 1980s and 1990s Britain in which Brazilian waxing subsequently became popularised. I want to investigate how the popularity of pubic hairlessness relates to anxieties brought about by the AIDS/HIV crisis, the mainstreaming of pornography, and the postfeminist discourse of female sexual empowerment. It is my theory that these factors contributed to the constructed appeal of intimate hair removal, particularly Brazilian waxing, as a fulfilment of the coincident desires for the sanitisation of sex, the transgression of sexual boundaries and the fascination with celebrity-focused aspirational lifestyles.
Laura Cofield is an AHRC/CHASE funded doctoral researcher in the History Department at the University of Sussex. Her thesis explores a cultural history of female body hair removal in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain. She is interested in how different generations of women have negotiated body hair grooming and how these ideas have been shaped by discourses around hygiene, feminist resistance, consumptive practices and pornography.
1 M. Tiggemann and S. Hodgson, ‘The Hairlessness Norm Extended: Reasons for and Predictors of Women’s Body Hair Removal at Different Body Sites’ Sex Roles 59 (2008) 889-897; M. Toerien, S. Wilkinson and P. Choi, ‘Body Hair Removal: The ‘Mundane’ Production of Normative Femininity’ Sex Roles 52:5/6 (2005) 299-406
2. J. Padilha and M. Frankel Brazilian Sexy: Secrets to Living a Gorgeous and Confident Life (New York: Pedigree 2010) pp.19-20
3. M. Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge 2002)
4. Lydia (pseudonym) interviewed by L.Cofield. Leighton Buzzard 4 April 2016. Born in 1963.
5. S.L. Bartky, ‘Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power in R. Weitz (ed.), The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance and Behaviour (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2nd ed. pp.76-97
7. J. Padilha and M. Frankel Brazilian Sexy pp.25-27
8. S. Mendes and N. Rees-Robertsm ‘Branding Brazilian Fashion: Global visibility and intercultural perspectives’ in S. Bruzzi and P. Church Gibson (eds.,) Fashion Cultures Revisisted: Theories, Explorations and Analysis (Oxon: Routledge 2013) pp.31-42
9. J. Baumgardner and A. Richards, ManifestA: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2000) P.103
10. R. Gill, Gender and the Media (Cambridge: Polity Press 2007) p.225
11. Cited in ‘Puerperal mortality in 1919’ British Medical Journal 5 March 1921 p.354 and W. Blair Bell, ‘An Address on the prevention and treatment of puerperal infections’ British Medical Journal 14 May 1921 p.694
12. Studies such as M. L. Romney, ‘Predelivery Shaving: An Unjustified Assault?’ Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 1(1980) pp.33-35 have helped in providing to show the lack of evidence linking pubic hair removal to increased aseptic conditions.