The politics of pubic hair: why is a generation choosing to go bare down there?

Shaved genitals have somehow become the new normal for an entire generation of women. Surely it’s time we asked why. Louisa Saunders ponders the politics of pubic hair

Last weekend, I went to see my daughter in a university production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, the successful and somewhat cultish play that brings the V-word out from the shadows. On the way in, we were offered marker pens and encouraged to write on a large sheet of paper what our vaginas would say if they could talk.

My younger daughter and I were a little too British to give this novel gimmick our full attention, but I watched what the other women in the audience wrote. “Oh, hang on while I clear the cobwebs away.” “Talk about a lean period.” But then I saw that someone among the largely student, and presumably broadly feminist, audience had written, “I need a shave.” I snatched up a pen and replied (though never having conversed with a vagina before), “No you DON’T.”

Those familiar with The Vagina Monologues will remember that it contains an entire sequence concerning pubic hair. In it, a woman describes in eye-watering detail the painful process of removing her pubic hair at the request of a lover – the smarting, the soreness and the vague discomfort of trying to comply with the fetish of a sexual partner. The play was first produced in 1996 and yes, at that time, preferring to make love to a woman without pubic hair was considered to be a bit of a fetish.

Because I belong to a generation that considered pubic hair to be a given, and because, the Monologues notwithstanding, vaginas are not an everyday topic of conversation, the awareness that young women are choosing to remove their pubic hair has crept up on me only gradually. A gynaecologist friend remarked that she sees increasing numbers of hairless young women in her surgery. A nanny who used to look after my children casually shared her pre-holiday checklist: get euros, arrange cat-feeding, have full Brazilian wax. My 19-year-old nephew told his mother that he had never seen a girl with pubic hair.

Tentatively raising the matter in conversation with younger women, I expected that some of them might share my bewilderment with this still fairly new fad. But I was met with awkward shuffling and downcast eyes, which told me that it might be better to change the subject.

I have come across only one in-depth piece of research that measures the extent of pubic-hair removal among women. Conducted last year by Indiana University, which surveyed 2,451 American women, it showed that among the 18-24 age group, two-thirds had totally or partially removed their pubic hair during the past month, and a fifth had been hairless during that entire period. The prevalence fell as the age of the respondents advanced, but still in the 50-plus age group around 10 per cent had engaged in some total removal during the previous month. There is nothing to suggest that figures in Britain are likely to be much different.

Did this begin in the pornographic industry? Or has pornography merely responded to what is fast becoming the new normal? Images of female genitalia au naturel are now in a very small minority, and a large percentage of pornographic images show no hair at all. The partial or full removal of pubic hair in pornography is so widespread, Joe Slade, professor of media and culture at Ohio University, recently told The Atlantic magazine, that there is now a niche market for those who prefer to look at the fully covered version.

Our sexual lives are a complex and  personal matter and it is not my intention to question the feminist integrity of any woman who chooses to go hairless. There  are those who argue that it is in some way  empowering and that it is something women do for their own satisfaction – wear that  vagina loud and proud. The removal of pubic hair is not confined to man-pleasing Barbies, nor even to straight women. Nevertheless,  the fashion for it makes me uncomfortable. Hairless female genitalia have an obvious association, and that is with pre-pubescent girls. Where there are hairless genitalia, surely the unwelcome suggestion of the childish body is never far away.

Women, more than men, prink and preen our bodies to bend to the rules of attraction – to look more youthful and even, you could argue, more childlike. Leg-shaving, lip-reddening, eyelash-darkening, hair-lightening – all these hint at the flawless childish state. But it is adult women who have sex and, surely, adult women to whom men want to make love.

Removing pubic hair is painful – agony, actually, according to those who have succumbed to waxing the area, which is the most efficient way to go about it. It’s painful when it grows back, and it’s expensive. It is also dangerous. Last year, Emily Gibson, director of the health centre at Western Washington University in the USA, launched an appeal to put a stop to the trend for hair removal because, she claimed, it increases the risk of infection and sexually transmitted diseases. “Pubic-hair removal,” she said, “naturally irritates and inflames the hair follicles, leaving microscopic open wounds.” She also said it was not unusual to see patients with boils and abscesses on their genitals from shaving. And all, it seems, because of a growing feeling that there might be something unacceptable about female genitals in their natural state. To me, this is a feminist issue.

What I find strange about this sea change, apart from the extreme speed at which it  appears to have happened, is that something so widespread is so rarely talked about or questioned. I have never heard women discussing their intimate grooming habits among themselves, even though there are few taboos  when women talk among their own sex. The implications culturally and politically are complicated and not entirely fathomable – but surely worth discussing.

The Vagina Monologues has evolved over  the years, with new pieces added to keep it fresh and topical. If I were the author, I might revisit the part about hair, and give it a little trim  and shave.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

    £22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

    Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

    Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

    Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

    £70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

    Day In a Page

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road