Today’s post will bring us up to the end of the 1990s and start of 2000s when we start to see less and less and less hair on women’s privates.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s pubic hair no doubt became caught up with other body hair as a site of protest. In feminist terms, women were encouraged to grow their body hair as a form of rebellion. I will devote a lot more time to this in later blogs. However, for now, I’ll just mention that throughout the 1970s women’s liberation took a real battering. Negative stereotypes of so called ‘hairy legged lesbians’, you know all those ‘bra burning feminists’, began to enter the pubic domain. Body hair became a politicised tool for liberals and irrationals alike. Could this discourse have left behind a negative residue that influenced an increase in hair removal (and pubes) in the following decades ?
The bikini was first introduced in 1946 although bikini line hair removal was not common practice for years to come. However total or partial removal of pubic hair in the last fifteen years has seen a distinct shift from rare occurrence to widespread cultural practice. In 2002 a study examining pubic hair grooming practices of British women found that the majority (85.7%) of female participants said they removed all or part of their pubic hair. That is a lot of women ! Can we trace this trend back to 1975 ? This is when Hustler Magazine first published photographs of young models without pubic hair entitled ‘Adolescent Fantasy’. Yes really. This spread provoked both interest (from it’s readership), and discourse from feminist commentators who associated the images with a ‘preoccupation with the infantilisation of little girls’. That seems a fair argument.
I’ve been reading this book called ‘Plucked’ by Rebecca Herzig , in which she confirms that content analysis of pornography taken in the 1990s sees a distinct decline in pubic hair on female centre-fold models (and increased visibility of the labia). Also, in an article entitled ‘The Brazilian Wax: the new norm for Women?‘ it confirms that pornographic material and Playboy have not featured women with pubic hair since the end of the 1980s. Porn mags aren’t my thing but I’d take a guess that if and when a ‘full bush’ is shown that it is somehow considered as some sort of fetish. So is it that simple, is it the trickle down effect of pornography that has influenced what seems like a generation of young women (and increasingly men) to reach for the razor ?
What about everything else we watch ? In the 1990s the Brazilian wax fad was reportedly started by seven Brazilian sisters who are credited for bringing the procedure to New York. The Brazilian as we now lovingly know, removes every bit of pubic and anal hair using hot wax and material strips. Ooch. It caught on quickly and before we all knew it we were seeing Carrie Bradshaw (in HBO’s Sex In The City in the early 2000s) being ‘mugged’ of her pubic hair and waxing increasingly portrayed as essential. In this period, newspaper and magazine features on the Brazilian wax, along with countless celebratory endorsements promoting a smooth hairless vagina as fashionable, became part of the cultural language.
As I chart its contemporary progress, I am beginning to think that pubic hair and its removal is becoming entangled more and more in media representations of idealised femininity (thin, white, hairless), consumerism and celebrity culture.
I know I haven’t uploaded any media or images yet – this blogging stuff is new to me ! That said, tomorrow is v day – brace yourself its a shocker….
In contrast to contemporary opinion, the removal and grooming of pubic hair is not new or a Western invention. Research suggests that pubic hair depilation had been practiced by women in ancient Egypt, Greece and across the Roman Empire for centuries. The ancient Egyptians used a resin like material in a procedure similar to contemporary pubic waxing, whilst other pubic hair removal techniques, including shaving and plucking can be traced to Ancient African and Middle Eastern cultures. I read a study entitled ‘Pubic Hair and Sexuality’, that pubic hair on women was thought of as un-civilised in Ancient cultures, and predominantly undertaken by ancient Roman and Greek women of middle and upper class status. Likewise, we see representations of women in Roman and Greek art and sculpture that depict the feminine form without pubic hair. Have these smooth sculptured female bodies helped us over time to structure our cultural imagination marking a hairless body as a required feminine aesthetic ?
In the Middle Ages pubic hair removal does not appear to have been a common practice or have much social or cultural significance. However, historians advocate that it was sometimes undertaken by women to get rid of, or avoid contracting pubic lice. This is when The Merkin (a pubic wig for those not in the know), made its dubious entry into our history books, to cover up private areas that were ravished by lice or even worse by syphilis !
Pubic hair removal in modern Western society, as we will see did not become popular until the latter part of the 20th century. Before 1915 there is little or no evidence that women removed leg or underarm hair either. However negative attitudes towards body hair as unsightly, dirty and superfluous spurred an increase in leg and underarm hair removal by 1915. In the same year Gillette began the ‘Great Underarm campaign’ releasing the first disposable razor for women called the ‘Milady Decolletee’. Furthermore, an article in Harpers Bazaar from the same period implies that body hair was increasingly becoming a new problem for women, or at least marketed as one; ‘summer dress and modern dance combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair’. This emerging trend continued to grow during W.W. 2 and its aftermath, when rationing shortages in the USA prevented the manufacture of nylon and silk stockings, and quite literally exposed more legs. As noted by a cultural historian, ‘By the end of this period the majority of women removed both leg and arm hair as part of their personal hygiene routine, to be clean, neat and modern’ .
During the years 1920-1940 female legs went from obscurity to a thing of beauty and by 1964 statistics suggested that 98% of American women aged fifteen to forty-five regularly shaved their legs. More recent surveys on female hair removal practices revealed that in the 1990s under arm and leg hairlessness became a much taken-for-granted grooming practice in contemporary Western culture.
I’d say that historical analysis of Western under arm and leg hair removal practices exposes a relationship bound to media advertising, emerging consumer markets and changing fashion trends. Thus, we can assume that today hair removal continues to be influenced by fashion, advertising and growing consumer markets. And what role does the media play in all this ?
More history tomorrow.
You are probably here because you are either a fellow student at King’s College London, or you are a friend or colleague whose heard me banging on (and on) about my pubic hair research blog. As I said in my first post, my plan is to upload and share as much information relating to pubic hair and pubic hair media discourse in an attempt to figure out what is going on with our hair ‘down there’. Some of my posts will be light-hearted, some with a bit of academic theory (as I’m writing a dissertation it seems appropriate), and some just crude, rude and shocking. My aim however isn’t to shock or insult, but to engage in some social commentary with you all about who we are, how we feel and how media representations of women and pubic hair might effect the choices we make about our own pubic grooming practices.
Please stay tuned. There is more to come, and be sure to take another look at the ‘about page’ as this will give a better explanation of how your feedback will aid my research and your rights as a contributor.
My name is Nicola, and I am a post-graduate student within the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London. A substantial part of my degree and final grade will be based on my dissertation project. I’ve decided to go down a ‘not so conventional route’ that is gaining a lot of attention at the moment. What’s going on with women (and some men) and their pubes ? My research is concerned with the ever changing facade, well you know what I mean, of pubic hair in contemporary Western society. You see, in recent years there has been a distinct shift from ‘the full bush’ of the late 1970s and 1980s to what I like to call ‘the total eclipse’ (none or very little pubic hair). I’d like to know why. It may seem to some of you that this is a topic unworthy of academic study, however I believe it is a topic that deserves an honest and thorough interrogation. I have my suspicions that pubic hair practices today, and the reasons behind why we are increasingly choosing to do so are complicated, is it really just simply because it makes us feel good / sexy / attractive or is there a deeper entanglement with culture, consumption, pornography and the media ?
For the remainder of my studies at Kings I will be maintaining this blog. Its contents, including the feedback and comments I hope to receive will be included as part of my academic research and dissertation. I really hope that this blog becomes a forum for a very real dialogue on the topic of body hair, and more precisely pubic hair. I will discuss academic theory as well as popular & celebrity culture, advertising, pornography and whatever else I find that I think is relevant and interesting. Hopefully along the way we will learn something new and insightful !
I’d be grateful if you’d check in from time to time and lend your voice to the conversation.