The great artists of old didn’t like to paint women with pubic hair, maybe because back in the day ladies were chopping it all off to escape pubic lice, but no matter the reason, the naked women who live on canvas after canvas are often hairless. Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Goya’s La Maja Desnuda, Ruben’s Three Graces, not to mention most antiquities, are just a few examples. The idea of the hairless woman was so pervasive, it helped spur the urban legend of John Ruskin, who annulled his marriage after supposedly finding his wife abnormal for having a bush.
This expectation of a hairless woman, however, didn’t die out with the telegraph. The world is rife with men, and other women, who expect a cleaned shaved vagina. Growing up, I’d heard women mocked just for not shaving their legs and compared to dirty, hairy French girls or feminist hippies. All ridiculous notions, but I heard them. The societal standard to shave was only as strong as its ability to shame. Pubic hair had to be reduce to insulting, graphic, and even off-putting in multiple media to reinforce this idea. I still cringe at the scene in Waiting where one of the waitresses exposes herself, not because it’s a full bush, but because it appears like a littered wild land and every man there is revolted. In minor moments like that, women are told to be ashamed of a natural part of their body. And then in not so minor moments, people remind us.
Shawn Stokes, the first guy to see me naked on a regular basis, took it upon himself to comment on my hair down there.
“Why don’t you shave?” he asked, somewhere between his video game and us going to bed. “Most girls I’ve been with have shaved. I prefer it.” He wasn’t talking a simple trim, he meant bald as an eagle.
“Because I’m not fucking ten years old or a porn star.” I acted offended, but secretly I was already panicking that he liked me less. After that brief conversation, I increased my normal maintenance procedures to several times a week, ignoring the irritating razor burn. On the nights I spent in the dorms, (obviously so the hair would never accidently appear in his apartment’s shower) I bent and contorted to make sure no stray hair was out of formation and at risk of lessening Shawn’s attraction. Despite my refusal to go clean shaven, I wasn’t immune to the shame of being fuzzy. The idea of a bush had always bothered me.
As a little girl, I had showered mostly with my mother. I grew accustomed to her body, the wide curvy hips, the sags and marks across her stomach from my sister and me, her large breasts, and especially the dark tuft that stood out against her pale skin. I would look from her body to mine and be baffled at how my square shape could ever turn into something so wild and my mother certainly never explained it to me. So, my woman’s body became something I anticipated with nervous eagerness. The breasts I longed for, but the hair I agonized over.
I can recall being maybe seven or eight sitting in the bathroom and staring at my girly bits. I loved her so much, just as she was. It broke my heart to think of a day when a coarse dark moss would smother her. As I sat there, trying to picture her like my mother’s, I just felt sad and even scared at the lack of say I had when it came to my own skin. Why, I wondered, was there not some way to refuse this one part of being female? If I could have asked God or science to change anything, it would have been that. Years later, without divine or medical intervention, it began without my consent. Not overnight, but slowly, like a harvest crop finding its way above ground, the hair grew. And I was devastated.
While I relished the softening areas of my chest, what happened below as the hormones took their toll made me ashamed and terrified that someone would see. The hair grew and grew, surpassing the boundaries of my underwear. At sleepovers, I changed clothes only in private. I purposefully passed on excursions to pools or beaches. When I did go, tired of depriving myself, I kept towels wrapped around my hips or shorts on until the last minute before I dived in. I swam and laid out strategically so my legs stayed underwater or clamped together, and the dark strands exploding from the edge of my swimsuit remained contained. It became a whole new chore and source of anxiety, because I believed other people would judge my body.
The simple solution would have been to shave, but I never held a razor until I heard some of the other girls making fun of my hairy legs in gym class, which was finally a reason good enough for my mother to explain the process. Instead of getting a lesson, I sat on the sink counter and she pretty much did the work for me. I didn’t do short enough strokes or rinse the blade enough so she kept taking over. The only part that stuck with me was her warning that knees were the most difficult, which instilled a certain fear, so I rarely shaved above them, much less into even more delicate territory. So, I spent years evading short shorts, skirts, and bathing suits, unless absolutely necessary. It would take filling that time with Seventeen magazines and ElleGirl before I got the confidence to start small, shaving off the edges until I could stop feeling paranoid in a pair of undies. But it was like trying to tame Maleficent-style briars. The more I shaved it felt like the more they grew. Even now, when I notice the black strands creeping farther and farther down the inside of my thigh, I wonder if it’s punishment for cutting them down.
When I was sixteen, I decided to whack off the whole kit and caboodle. I was tired of listening to boys talk about wanting a bald pussy and watching woman with perfect bodies, like those who walked down Victoria Secret runways in perfectly smooth lingerie, while I could see the distinct outline and sometimes feel the individual strands poking through my cotton panties. If so many people wanted and went bald, there had to be a reason. I conducted an experiment, one that I figured was better to try when I was still a virgin and thus not expected to drop trouser for anyone. One night, I settled into the bath with a fresh razor, plenty of soap, and no pressure. It took fucking forever. All the soft skin, delicate folds, and awkward angles meant taking my time and going over each spot like fifty times to make sure I got everything. Nothing would have been worse that to have a dangler after that hard work.
Once I was done, I got out, dried off and then lay on the bathroom floor rediscovering the labia that had been hidden for years. I expected to feel invigorated at getting back to my old self, instead I felt cold. The air conditioner seemed unnaturally chilly and my legs didn’t come together properly anymore, where they met in the middle felt out of place, like trying to refold a fitted bed sheet. This was not how I remembered it. In the morning, when the stubble began, it was even worse. It was like walking with sandpaper tucked in my crotch. This continued until the hair grew about half an inch….which took more time than I expected. Meanwhile, the simple things like walking, sleeping, existing in general became so repetitively annoying that it might as well have been torture. I could not understand why any woman would purposefully do this to herself. The hair had a claim as a comfort, as part of my body and being a woman. Though I had originally hated the hair’s arrival, I begged for it grow back and return to normal.
The excuses I gave Shawn when he criticized my appearance were things I’d picked up over time from other women and, while to a degree I believed them, I mostly avoided the topic because I didn’t want to suffer through the shaving and stubble process again. It was pure self-preservation. The same shame I had as a little girl had never left me, no matter how much I protested to be an empowered woman. I was still embarrassed by the fact the hair grew.
Long after Shawn was as distant event, I actually learned to like my pubic hair and not just defend it for comfort’s sake.
It started by reading Belle de Jour, a call girl and memoirist. She was the first woman, although be it in print and anonymously, to announce an appreciation for her hair. It made sex better was her general argument. We had it for a reason, for lubrication, for hygiene. I had had little sex myself, but I could see her point. Still, it was a thought that stuck with me, that I needed my hair, that it was natural. It wasn’t as though I had been converted instantly but it planted that seed of gratefulness, which would take root.
As I let the strands go unfettered for a while, sometimes for a long while between boys, I noticed how soft the curls got, especially just out of the shower, they crimped into place like a perfect sculpture. I would occasionally run my fingers through it, the same way I sometimes play with my own breasts, because I could and because it feels nice.
But what honestly helped me get over my hair phobia were two things: the simple passage of time, where I realized that expectations held by society did not compare to reality, and the other was men, many men. I had this fear that the moment a guy saw that I wasn’t completely shaved, he would balk and never want to be with me. But more often than not, once my pants came off, no guy stopped and said no. Some even told me it didn’t matter.
“As long as I don’t come back up with a hair ball or feel like I’m flossing, I don’t care what you do with it,” one brief male encounter said when discussing landing strips versus the full shebang.
True there were still the odd males here and there that made comments about how they would never sleep with a girl with bush. Rather than get offended, I just never bothered with those guys, leaving them to their fantasies. What I realized was that those men saw the woman’s body only as an object for their pleasure, not part of a mutual endeavor. Shawn was most certainly one of those men, though I didn’t realize at the time. He wasn’t the last I would date either. One boyfriend admitted straight up that he wouldn’t go down on me if the hair got too long. It seemed an easy request, but mostly I just didn’t get oral from him. Even now, it baffles me that a man believes he can dictate the influence of my bush on my sex life, especially when I’ve met only one in my last twenty five years that’s kept his pubes non-existent. In my history, I’ve pulled several black hairs from between my teeth or from my tongue after a trip downstairs, but I’ve never suggested to a man that he should shave. In my opinion, let he who is without bush, pass out the first razor.
So these days, I go a long while between shaving, usually only when it becomes absolutely necessary, or because of my own preference. It took more experiments, but I’ve realized how I like my bush trimmed and shaped in order to satisfy myself in the mirror and no one else. More than anything, I keep my bush because I love it. I love the power I feel seeing that part of my femininity. I love the confidence to make choices about my body for me. I love the comfort.