Are your kids aware of their body hair? Entering their teens and starting to feel self-conscious? Are you in a long term relationship and can’t be bothered anymore? Well, for some reason I’ve always been quite interested in pubes and body hair and quite resentful of having to remove so much of it. It got me wondering whether women elsewhere remove their pubes and if so why.
Growing up in the 90’s body hair was a political issue. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth was still big when I was a teenager and the pressures on women to conform to strict beauty standards were being scrutinised and questioned in the mainstream. I resisted shaving my legs for a while as I entered my teens and was generally very annoyed at having to spend ages shaving and waxing in order to wear shorts or swimwear. Some of my more alternative friends didn’t shave their legs or pubes and I thought that by the time I was my age now, hair removal would be optional and things would have progressed in terms of female beauty standards. Instead, my 90’s triangle seems positively hirsute these days and having no pubes at all is incredibly common. Body hair removal for women is so normative now that it’s abnormal for a woman to not modify her body. Body hair removal goes without saying. And what goes without saying is often what anthropologists hone in on.
So why do we remove our pubes? I think a lot of you will have an answer for this. It’s marketing, it’s porn, it’s new and pernicious and women didn’t have to do this in the past but what can we do? We just have to shave up and shut up. Germaine Greer wrote in the 70’s about how hair removal infantilised women (1970, p. 38) and this has also been super influential. I’ve said it myself in conversation and have heard a lot of other people refer to removing pubes as trying to make women look like children. However, it seems this feeling that it’s a new phenomenon, linked to late capitalism, ways of selling dissatisfaction, plus the ubiquity of infantilised shaven porn stars isn’t enough to explain why we do it.
Unsurprisingly perhaps pube and body hair removal doesn’t seem to be a widely researched area but I have found some interesting articles. One of the best and most recent is by Craig and Gray who raise the paradox of pubes. On the one hand evolutionary biologists say we have evolved pubes as a sexual attractor and to prevent infections, yet many cultures state that pubes are unattractive and ‘unclean’ – the total opposite of what we supposedly have evolved to like and need. I’ve never been a big fan of biological determinism and this does seem to be a good example of why we have to be so careful when we say things like ‘humans are progammed to like this or that’.
They also found that in the wide range of societies they studied, pubes are seen as dirty, unattractive and their removal is a sign of sexual receptivity, much the same as we do. For example, Bosnian Muslims and Kurd women are seen as not sexually active if they haven’t removed their pubes. Muslims in general, both men and women, remove their pubic hair and its even part of Sharia law to do so.
In all the societies they studied, women removed more hair and more frequently but it wasn’t uncommon for men to remove or cut their pubes. The Ona for example indicated pubic hair as “unattractive,” while the Tukano indicated pubic hair, on women, as “unsightly”. “San women had their pubic hair plucked out by their husbands, and the opposite was found among the Tapirapé: women plucked their husbands’ pubic hair. And among the Badaga, men of higher social status had their pubic hair removed by men of lower social status”, which is all intriguing isn’t it? Who removes your pubic hair?
There were a few notable exceptions, including the Igbo who “considered pubic hair a source of pride while lack of pubic hair in women was a punishable offense associated with promiscuity” and the Kwoma for whom “the ‘thickest and most luxuriant’ pubic hair was considered a ‘traditional mark of female beauty’”. Of course, there will be plenty of research that just doesn’t mention it and there could be loads of examples of non pubic hair removal but as it isn’t the central topic of any ethnographic research I’ve been able to find, it’s hard to know.
What we do seem to know is that in the studies Craig and Gray reference none of the societies had access to porn and as mostly central African horticulturalists and hunter gatherers, not very exposed to mass marketing if at all. So, if they don’t have Instagram influencers and razor companies persuading them to remove their pubic hair, what’s it all about?
Body hair removal is very intertwined with sexuality and understanding why humans do it is asking to understand sexuality and gender. How and why hair is removed is a lot about performing gender. I am a woman but I’m somehow less of one if I don’t remove all of my body hair. There’s a long history of body hair in the West being seen as masculine and therefore removing it, paradoxically makes women complete. It’s good to know that it’s not just us that do it but I would like there to be more of a resistance to it and that when my girls enter puberty they won’t feel like every hair on their body is an aberration. Maybe they should move to Korea where according to this rigorous piece of research on Youtube, adults don’t remove their pubes:
The Last Taboo: Women and body hair
edited by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein – 2006
National Health Service (2016) Grooming pubic hair linked to increased STI risk. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/news/lifestyle-and-exercise/grooming-pubic-hair-linked-to-increased-sti-risk/ (Accessed: 01/12/2019).
Craig, L. & Gray, P. (2018) Pubic Hair Removal Practices in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Cross-Cultural Research. 53 (2) pp. 215-237. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1069397118799298#
Untangling the Meanings of Hair in Turkish Society
Carol Delaney (1994)
E. R. Leach (1958)
Gender And Body Hair: Constructing The Feminine Woman
Merran Toerien AND Sue Wilkinson (2003)
And for a historical angle on the same topic this is a great post with lots of good references: