I’ve been thinking a lot lately about vaginas in all their forms—smooth, hairy, pierced, bedazzled. It’s an admittedly odd focus for a young heterosexual woman, but there it is. I recently heard there is a surgery women are getting now—mostly rich women in places like Los Angeles and New York City—that is essentially a face lift for your vagina. These surgeries mostly fall into two categories—vaginoplasty, which is designed to “tighten up” a vagina that has become “loose” from childbirth or aging, and labiaplasty, which is designed to change the size and shape of labia (making them smaller or larger or correcting any-GASP-asymmetry). A high school health educator once said that you can never get your virginity back once you’ve lost it. That may be true, but this level of tightening and lifting might get you pretty close.
In fact, one of the offered procedures is referred to as “revirgination.” This surgery, called a hymenoplasty, repairs the hymen. If your fiancé always fantasized about marrying a sexually experienced virgin, you’re in luck. There’s a surgery for that!
I’ve never resorted to “vajazzling,” and at twenty-nine years old, I’m not really the target market for any kind of “plasty.” But I have kept my genital area smoothly shaved for almost fifteen years now. I’ve given it little thought for most of that time, until a few months ago when I decided (several glasses of wine into girls’ night) that there may be something odd about the whole practice. My best friend, Stephanie, just giggled as I began my rant about the unfairness of men growing facial hair while we have to shave every inch of ourselves several times a week. “I don’t know,” she remarked. “I think of it like armpit hair. No one wants to see that.”
Later that night, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I shaved, to watching little black hairs spin and twist their way to the shower drain like ants caught in a sudden downpour-induced stream. I was so careful with the razor that first time, anxious that I was going to skim a little off the top of something I needed. Even if it wasn’t anything I had much use for yet.
My friend Arlene and I shaved our pubic areas for the first time on the same night. She was my first true friend when I moved to New Hampshire from Virginia at age thirteen. I left an urban middle school with a thousand students and found myself in a rural school serving grades six through twelve with only about five hundred students. Most of these students had been together since kindergarten, and with an average of fifty to sixty in each grade, they knew each other’s stories as well as their own. In Arlene, though, I found someone I could connect with, who appreciated the irony of every aspect of our miniature lives, who was as passionate as I was about finding something bigger, and who knew there was life beyond that small school. Arlene and I did almost everything together. By sixteen, we were dating best friends Sam W. and Ken D., a set of pre-paired boyfriends that tied everything up neatly.
I don’t remember the first time Ken asked me about shaving. I had never given it any thought before. I kept a neat bikini line for bathing suit season, but that was it. I’m sure he was awkward about it. He probably made some jokes, a few innuendos. I do remember him commenting that it would make oral sex so much better, as if I cared. At barely sixteen, my sex drive hadn’t kicked in enough to care if, or how often, we were intimate.
But Arlene and I talked about it over chips and salsa and pints of Ben and Jerry’s Karamel Sutra—a decadent ice cream with a caramel core surrounded by chocolate and caramel ice cream with fudge chips. The ice cream was definitely more sensually pleasing than anything I was doing with my boyfriend. And it turned out Arlene was getting the same kind of comments from Sam, whom I can say with certainty had never seen a shaved woman in the flesh (so to speak). So, we decided we’d shock the boys together. We made a pact. We picked a night, and each of us took to the task of balding our vaginas for our boyfriends.
We found ourselves painstakingly lathering and scraping, lathering and scraping, lathering and scraping. It took longer than I anticipated, but after about thirty minutes, I had removed every speck of the hair I’d only had for a couple of years, barely even long enough to form a solid relationship with. When I finally finished, I ran my hands over flesh as soft and bald as a baby’s bottom—or a baby’s bottom with some spotty razor burn.
I'd like to go back and ask those sixteen-year-old girls what they thought they were doing. More, I'd like to go back and ask those sixteen-year-old boys why we weren't enough for them, just the way we were. Here we had two teenage boys, not exactly sexually in demand, not very experienced, who were getting the opportunity to see us naked, to touch us, to have us touch them. You would think they would thank their good fortunes for being the speediest sperm sixteen to seventeen years ago. You would think they would count this as a blessing, one like few of their classmates had. Instead, we had two teenage boys who found that our young, trim, curved bodies were not enough to complete their fantasies.
And what fantasy is this anyway? Where did they get it in their heads that we would somehow be more sexually appealing if we removed one of the first indicators of sexual maturity?
Most researchers who have looked into the phenomenon point to pornography as the root of this depilous trend. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, a review of Playboy magazines from 1953 through the 1980s showed that more than 95 percent of models were shot with natural pubic hair. Researchers claimed that this changed in the late twentieth century. One popular theory is that as modern media “legitimized voyeurism,” viewers wanted to see everything clearly. Point-of-view pornography in which action is filmed from the perspective of one of the participants, with close-up views of genitals, also became increasingly popular. To allow for zoomed-in, detailed imagery, pubic hair was thinned and eventually removed. By the 1990s, about two thirds of Playboy Bunnies had natural pubic hair. By the 2000s, less than 10 percent of nude models were completely unshaved.
I’m not the only one who sees in this some kind of perverse need to make women look like little girls. The article quoted Ohio University researcher Joseph Slade who said “bare pubic areas are most common in videos advertised as featuring young women, because it does infantilize them or make them look pre-pubescent.” Though there are exceptions, of course, the vast majority of mainstream pornography features women that are shaved.
It’s a disturbing idea. Life imitating art, imitating life? Young women, acting out the fantasies of young men, based on the behavior of porn stars, who are imitating prepubescent girls, to fill the pockets of old men. Quite the paradigm. All of this leaves us with teenage boys like Ken and Sam (Ken—the Irish Catholic conservative Republican, and Sam—who didn’t like his girlfriends to wear short skirts in public) essentially saying that they wanted the real women in their lives—and I use the term women loosely—to bear a closer resemblance to Tanya Titties on the two-page spread of last month’s issue.
Worse, you have Arlene and I accommodating them. So there we were, sixteen and as bald as when we were ten. At the time, I know it made us unique among our classmates. Now, I wonder if it would. In 2012, Florida-based Uni K Wax ran a Fourth of July promotion offering 50 percent off waxing services for girls fifteen years old and under. That’s right, under. You too can take your eighth-grader for her first bikini wax. It certainly begs the question: Who is bringing their daughters in for these procedures?
When I was that age, I wouldn’t tell my parents I needed tampons, never mind a clean shave. I dreaded the new torture that was annual gynecological exams. And yet, these girls are laying it bare for salon employees.
A subculture of young teenagers who haven’t finished growing pubic hair are being encouraged to remove it. It’s not hard to imagine why so many young women view their genitals as dirty, shameful, and unappealing.
In fact, when the company received a little pushback on their promotion, they released a statement that said:
A hygienic necessity? A shocking assertion. The implications behind the salon’s services are clear enough, but I would never have expected to hear the organization say explicitly that leaving hair in place was unhygienic. It’s an interesting statement, given that most gynecologists would disagree.
What most gynecologists are saying, according to my research, is that far from creating a sickening swamp land of sweat, pubic hair actually absorbs sweat, helping to keep the area dryer. In addition, the friction created when people have sex without the benefit of pubic hair can cause microabrasions that open the door to infection.
What about sexually transmitted diseases? Surely part of the reason we practice good hygiene is to reduce the risk of these diseases? According to most researchers, the risk for STDs increases when women shave bare. Why? Because hair serves as a natural barrier for bacteria. More importantly, hair removal—whether by shaving, waxing, or depilatory cream—creates small wounds in the flesh that are mini-doorways for bacteria and viruses. Hair can be such an important barrier to bacteria that surgeons have stopped shaving patients in preop because shaving the vaginal area before surgery actually increases the risk of infection.
One STD in particular, Molluscum contagiosum, has become significantly more prevalent as shaving has become more commonplace. This is a pox virus that forms pearl-like bumps that can become red and inflamed. Sexy.
So, it turns out that pubic hair does have a purpose: reducing friction that can cause skin abrasions while protecting against bacteria and pathogens.
In 2011, a family physician publicly cried out for a “truce in the war on pubic hair.” Emily Gibson, MD, argued that going bare down there was a dangerous trend, pointing to research that showed that freshly shaved pubic areas are more vulnerable to herpes infections. She explained that the way that level of smoothness is maintained—using frequent hair removal—leaves behind microscopic wounds. She said, “When that irritation is combined with the warm moist environment of the genitals, it becomes a happy culture media for some of the nastiest of bacterial pathogens, namely group A streptococcus, staphylococcus aureus and its recently mutated cousin methicillin resistant staph aureus (MRSA).”
She also pointed to an increase in staph boils and abscesses. To add to the horror, she said that she has also seen soft tissue bacterial infections of the labia, caused by “spread of bacteria from shaving or from sexual contact with strep or staph bacteria from a partner’s skin.” In other words, you can put on a condom, but if your genital area is covered with small wounds, you’re still leaving yourself open—literally—to contracting a blood-borne and/or sexually transmitted disease. All for the sake of having a vaginal region that resembles a Barbie doll more than a grown woman.
Photography by David Cordero © 2016
When Arlene and I decided to surprise the boys with our newfound smoothness, we acted as if this was somehow a sign of empowerment. And while some women may find empowerment in a variety of body modifications, that was far from what was happening here.
We were modifying our bodies at the repeated behest of teenage boys who didn't know enough to appreciate what they had. We were taking this step only with the validation from each other that this was acceptable, and we were doing so behind locked doors, knowing that were our parents to find out, we would each be in for a hell of an unpleasant, never mind incredibly awkward, conversation. Taken in the full context, it's hard to see this as anything other than what it was: two young women engaged in the age-old struggle of trying to fulfill the roles carved out for them by their friends, sexual partners, and families.
When I began researching the genital grooming trends, I brought it up to my sister, wondering what her thoughts were on the matter. “Katrina was just asking me about that,” she said.
“What?” I asked. “My six-year-old niece asked you about shaving her vulva?”
Dominique laughed. “No. But she’s seen me in the shower. She was more asking about how people’s bodies are different.”
“Oh—okay,” I said. But I kept wondering how long it would be until she did ask her mother about it, and what the right answer would be.
If a young girl asks why some women shave their vaginas, what answers can we be comfortable with?
- Because men like it (and we should always alter our bodies to meet their sexual desires)
- Because it’s sexy (and we aren’t already sexy, in the full throes of womanhood)
- Because pubic hair is gross (starting her off early with insecurity about her sexual identity)
- Because everyone does it (false and probably not something you want your child to start thinking is a valid reason for decisions)
We learned that we could turn this to our advantage. We would put up posters that said things like “Fifty-five percent of college students do not drink under age.” Sure, we were openly stating that a lot of students did, but we were also trying to combat the notion that this was everyone. Or we would put up signs saying “Seventy-five percent of students would keep a friend from driving if they had been drinking.” Then we were giving students a positive norm to try to live up to.
This seems to be a concept well at play in the area of pubic grooming practices: women shave because they think the majority of women shave.
As I approach my thirties, it's hard for me to recognize Arlene and I, digging into pints of ice cream, convincing each other to make those first moves with the razors, joining the masses of women that painstakingly maintain a hair-free zone below the belt, trying to fit the mold that was expected of us.
Back then I remember thinking that I never wanted to be associated with hairy, man-hating feminists with their victim ideologies. I remember being horrified at the thought of rocking the boat, or violating what seemed like reasonable social norms. I couldn't imagine thinking it was okay to question grooming expectations, let alone rant about unfairness in the workplace, burn a bra, or breastfeed in public.
It's amazing how much things can change. On a recent trip to the zoo with my boyfriend, Dylan, I almost bumped into a young mother holding her infant in her arms. I did a double-take, because her light pink tee had been slid up enough that her infant could latch onto her breast. I almost missed the two to three inches of exposed flesh.
Later, as Dylan and I drove away, my dirty feet propped up on the dashboard, tapping out the rhythms from the radio, we started talking about the exhibits, the gorillas, and children who acted wilder than the apes.
“I know,” Dylan said, rolling the windows up and clicking on the air conditioning. “Speaking of, did you see that woman with the baby?”
“The one breastfeeding?”
“Yeah.” He paused. “That was, uh, unexpected.”
I felt righteousness flare up and immediately let it fly loose at him. “What’s that supposed to mean? It wasn’t like she pulled her top off in the middle of the zoo with tassels on her nipples.”
“Nothing is wrong with it. Just, you go to a zoo, you’re walking around looking at apes, you don’t expect to see that.”
The argument flew on as you might expect. He, gently pointing out that while he loves breasts, he wasn’t expecting to see them at a zoo. I, accusing him of buying into a commercialized and sexualized version of women in which our body parts were not there for any express purpose (such as breastfeeding) but rather for male entertainment. Few are offended by scantily clad women, fulfilling male fantasies, used to advertise fast cars, but let a nipple slip out to nourish an infant and suddenly everyone has an opinion.
Including me. Because deep down, I was really mad at myself. Mad for even noticing that woman. Mad for having spent time on my own trying to decide if her actions were appropriate. Frustrated with the teenage girl I had been, that girl who thought nothing of shaving herself to appease her boyfriend, but would have judged that mother harshly for nursing her child in public.
Arlene too has come a long way in fifteen years. She's a new mother now, struggling as I imagine many new mothers do with too much to do, too little time to do it, and too many people in her life with an opinion on how she should be doing it.
I imagine her, standing at a children's museum, hair up in a messy bun, tired eyes, resting beside an exhibit with a crying hungry baby. If she reaches down, moves her shirt, and allows her baby to latch on, I hate to think that anyone would be judging her. Or that she would let them. I become so angry imagining that somewhere, the same people who think that natural hair on a woman is somehow "gross" or "unclean," the same people who enjoy women's breasts plastered on magazines and advertisements and TV screens, would find it in themselves to judge her for publicly breastfeeding. I find myself so exhausted at the thought of her trying to fit the world's expectations for her and her body—the nurturing mother who has to breastfeed out of sight so that she doesn't ruin the fantasy that her breasts are sexual playthings, balancing bath time and play time with enough time to keep herself shaved below the belt.
When I turned eighteen, I got a tattoo on the small of my back of a cross with a rose winding up it. This was just months after Arlene's eighteenth birthday and her first tattoo. Another rite we went through together. Looking at my tattoo, I try not to waste time wondering if I regret getting inked. It's a record of who I was. Besides, there is no use trying to decide if you want to keep something that is permanent. But hair is different. You can cut it, grow it, shave it, or trim it. At some salons you can even dye it. Unlike my tramp stamp, the decision to stay bare doesn't have to be permanent.
One day recently, I looked down and realized I’ve spent about 80 hours of my life shaving my vulva and I can’t think of one good reason why. More and more, I found myself trying to think of a good reason to continue doing something that is essentially an unhealthy hassle. Trying to think of a reason that was about me and not about what I think the world expects my body to look like. I didn't find one.
It’s been nine days since my last shave. I stood in the mirror the other day, naked, and tried to look at myself kindly. The woman I am now, as opposed to the girl I was. Still curvy, but a little more rounded than I was back then. Breasts larger than I thought they were going to be, but not quite as perfectly perky as at sixteen. Someone who can have sex with the lights on and talk comfortably with her boyfriend about her decision to stop shaving under her panties.There is a thin layer of dark brown hair over my pubis, and I like it, like looking in the mirror and seeing a woman and not a girl.
 Ashley Fetters, “The New Full-Frontal: Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct?” The Atlantic, December 13, 2011, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/12/the-new-full-frontal-has-pubic-hair-in-america-gone-extinct/249798/.
 Fetters, “The New Full-Frontal: Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct?”
 Mark Leevan, “Bikini waxing for teens and tweens offered by Unikwax,” Examiner.com, July 7, 2012, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.examiner.com/article/bikini-waxing-for-teens-and-tweens-offered-by-unikwax.
 “The Right Time for Girls to Begin Waxing,” Uni K Wax, July 4, 2012, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.unikwax.com/2012/07/.
 “Brazilian waxes may increase risk of viral infection,” NBC News, March 18, 2013, accessed April 17, 2017, http://bodyodd.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/18/17361392-brazilian-waxes-may-increase-risk-of-viral-infection.
 Alicia J. Mangram et al., “Guideline for Prevention of Surgical Site Infection, 1999,” Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology 20, (1999): 247-278.
 “Brazilian waxes may increase risk of viral infection.”
 Emily Gibson, “The war on pubic hair must end,” KevinMD.com, April 29, 2011, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2011/04/war-pubic-hair.html.