The Politics Of Pubes

By Emma Anderson, Women’s Health Magazine.

Our nether-regions seem to be undergoing widespread deforestation… but why? WH takes a look at that increasingly endangered species, the female pube.

Muff, lady garden, bush, beaver… the names for our pubic hair are plentiful. Our pubes are becoming scarce, though. Large numbers of women are now shaving, waxing or lasering all their foliage. The prepubescent look, it seems, is having more than just a moment.

“Pubic hair is definitely a threatened species,” says Dr Ginni Mansberg, WH health expert. “If I see a woman under 30 with pubic hair I think, Oh – I haven’t seen that for a while.” Urologist Dr Sara Ramsey agrees. She and her colleagues noticed the trend creeping in circa 2006. “It’s now very unusual to see young women with any pubic hair at all,” she says. “The Brazilian or Hollywood is the norm.”

Dr. Elna Rudolph adds, “I would not say that seeing any hair is rare, but seeing somebody who does not engage in some sort of pubic grooming is rare.  I think most people will do some grooming before they see a doctor for a problem in that area, so we are probably not the best people to ask.  Women who did not wax before seeing me would often apologize for it, which is completely unnecessary – just putting it out there: doctors honestly don’t care about your pubic grooming.  Your partner might, but we don’t!”

So far, there hasn’t been much extensive research on pubic hair removal, but psychologist Dr Marika Tiggemann is one of the few to look into it. Her research found that 60 percent of the women removed at least some of their pubic hair, with 48 percent removing most or all of it. A study published last year in the journal Body Image also found that younger women were more likely to groom, especially those between the ages or 21 and 30. “It seems to be a real age thing,” says Tiggeman. “Older women think of [total pubic hair removal] as strange, but for younger women it’s normal.” 

All of which got us asking some pressing questions. Such as: for the love of God, why? Surely we have better things to spend time and money on? And – aside from sustaining sales of board shorts – what are pubes actually for, anyway?

The point of pubes

Whether we shave or wax it, leave it be or braid it, the purpose of pubic hair is actually a bit of a mystery. “Essentially, nobody really knows why we have it, or why the texture is different [to the hair on our heads],” says Ramsey.

The texture most likely has to do with increased testosterone receptors in this area.

There are some theories though. Virologist Dr Robin Weiss believes pubic hair must have an evolutionary basis. “We may not be the only animals with hair around the genitals – bulls do, for example – but we appear to be the only primates,” he says. He reckons pubic hair evolved to advertise our sexual maturity and attract the opposite sex – so the bushier, the better. “We typically mate front to front – different from chimps,” he explains.

He also thinks it’s very likely that pubic hair serves the purpose of distributing scent or pheromones, also helping us attract sexual mates.

Ramsey agrees: “I think the best suggestion is that pubic hair is an apocrine role. That is, the body has two sorts of sweat glands: those that just produce sweat when we’re hot, and those that produce sweat that smells, in the armpit and groin. So pubic hair may help us retain and distribute our pheromones.” Not to mention eliminating sweaty crotch syndrome – without hair to wick away excess sweat, things can get a little slick down there. It also protects the sensitive area around the vagina (vestibulum).

So is getting rid of the whole shebang potentially harmful? Not massively, says Ramsey. “We haven’t found any particular problems with the increased sweating except for sweat rash, but there can be problems such as skin inflammation and folliculitis [where hair follicles get infected, causing unsightly bumps].”

The main dangers lie in how you get rid of hair, adds Rudolph: “There are a lot of bad wax jobs out there as it’s an unregulated industry,” she says. “The most common problem is when ingrown hairs become abscesses in the skin that can cause scar formation, I’ve also seen burns and complete removal the skin off the labia leaving in raw and very sensitive.… Laser hair removal is probably the safest, but it is permanent, so if the fashion changes (or your partner changes!) and it becomes cool to be bushy again or have a bigger landing strip, you might regret it. It is also more expensive but with less possible side-effects.”

“As sexual health physicians, we are starting to ask questions about whether repeat waxing or even laser therapy is decreasing the sensitivity of the area by numbing the nerves.  It certainly does not happen to everybody, but it might play a role in some people.  When you start with complete hair removal, you are definitely more sensitive, but that changes over time.  Hair might even enhance the way you experience sensations in the area.”

Full disclosure

A bit of pubic primping – especially around bikini season – is completely understandable, but why strip off the whole lot? It’s not a fun experience, after all. In fact, it’s a painful, time-consuming, potentially expensive and aggravatingly itchy experience.

Partly, it’s trend-based. Sex and the City helped popularise the Brazilian in 2000, and in the years since, having one has gone from “what the” to “whatever”. “I think it could well be a fashion,” says Tiggemann. “The reasons women gave for pubic hair removal were that it’s glamorous and liberating and enhances the sexual experience. There’s also a relation between exposure to fashion magazines and TV and the removal of pubic hair.”

In fact, a brief look at the history of pubic hair shoes that grooming or removing it is hardly a new thing. Ramsey, whose review of literature on pubic hair was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2009, says you can trace the trend back thousands of years. “In Ancient Egyptian art, females are depicted with small triangles of pubic hair, with bronze razors placed in tombs for the afterlife,” she says. And here’s us thinking we wouldn’t have to worry about our bikini lines after death. Sheesh.

For centuries in Europe, artists portrayed women as hairless, to the extent that some men may not have even realized it existed, says Ramsey. “It may be an apocryphal tale, but it’s held that 19th century art critic and poet John Ruskin annulled his wedding after the shock of seeing his wife’s muff on their wedding night.” The poor dear.

So ripping out our pubic hair by the roots might just be a flash in the pants? “The only argument against that is leg and underarm hair – shaving them started off as a fashion and it’s now become the norm,” says Tiggemann. “If it turns into ordinary behaviour, it goes onto the list of things we do without thinking, like shaving our legs and plucking our eyebrows.”

The point is that every woman has the right to do to her pubic hair what makes her feel good.  She should not be under any social pressure to do any grooming or not.

Porn and prejudice

Many people think there’s a more sinister culprit to the sudden increase in bare-naked ladies’ bits: the influence of internet porn. In fact, Australian research found that 70 percent of men and 30 percent of women watch porn online – so that’s a lot of people potentially expecting a smooth nether region. These days, most female porn stars are pube-free, so that’s become the norm in the eyes of porn viewers, leading to pressure on the rest of us to sport the look too.

Research shows that by the age of nine, most kids have already been exposed to porn and it is virtually impossible to find an adult who has never seen any porn.  Furthermore, we tend to see genitals of babies and small girls when their nappies are changed end they take a bath, but not to that of other adults.  In both cases the genitals are hairless, and some theorists believe that is why adults perceive that to be the norm, which, of course it is not.

I do think that some of the pressure come from men, but also just because they think that is the norm (porn, children and previous girlfriend).  Of course, it can just be more practical for oral sex and hygiene, but there should not be pressure on the female partner to conform to this so-called “norm” that is not actually normal.

You can be sure that there are also men who prefer the more natural and mature look too!

According to Cindy Gallop, a branding and advertising consultant: “In an era when hardcore porn is more freely available on the Internet than ever before… there’s an entire generation growing up that believes what you see in hardcore porn is the way you have sex.” And Tiggemann points out: “Men’s expectations and preferences are a major player. This can affect young women in particular because that’s a time of self-consciousness and trying to fit in.”

So should you be worried if your partner wants you to have a full wax? It’s probably not a sign of paedophilic tendencies, she says. “Within a relationship there’s no harm in it. But if you don’t want to get rid of it all, stick up for yourself.”

As Caitlyn Moran points out in How To Be A Woman, “That palm-sized triangle has come to be more top-loaded with psychosexual inference than marital status and income combined.” Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re all passive victims of an insidious pressure to emulate porn stars. Some women find having a Brazilian can help improve sensitivity and sexual satisfaction. (Although, as Ramsey points out, “no studies have been published that quantify this benefit.” Now there’s a research project for someone…)

Dr Rudolph adds: “There has been some research published recently that women who engage in any form of pubic grooming have better sexual satisfaction than those who don’t do anything.  Sexual satisfaction has many dimensions to it and certainly does not only refer to the sensations.  It probably says more about sexual self-esteem and taking control of your sexuality that about the physical aspects of sex.”

So if it helps you get your rocks off, all power to you. The main danger is if the trend for no pubic hair moves sex and women’s bodies towards a monocultural “this is right; that is wrong” experience. “It gets rid of a lot of the intimacy and excitement of sex if everyone looks like Barbie instead of reveling in the uniqueness of who we are,” says Ramsey. Not to mention making us feel “au naturelle” is somehow wrong. “Anything that makes women feel ashamed of their bodies is horrible,” says Tiggemann. “It adds to the notion of women’s bodies not being acceptable as they are.”

AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!

Or, as Moran points out, slightly more earthly: “There is a great deal of pleasure to be had in a proper, furry muff – unlike those Hollywood versions, which look like they want only for a quick squirt of Mr Min, and a buff with a lint-free cloth.”

So here’s to keeping our lady gardens exactly as we want them – whether that’s thickly forested or neatly manicured. Or, indeed, full of Greenpeace campaigners. Whatever floats your boat.