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To wax or not to wax: How pubic hair became a debate about feminism
The year 2013 has been hailed as the Return of the Bush
 
Think about it.
Think about it. iStock

Along with twerking, cronuts, and the pope, women's pubic hair had a really good 2013.

After years of a bikini-wax trend that gave the world a whole new definition of "Brazilian," this year "definitely marked the end of the Brazilian's totalitarian reign over America's crotch," declared Kat Stoeffel at New York, citing Lady Gaga's cover of Candy and Kate Moss' non-waxed shoot for Playboy.

Amanda Hess at The New York Times Magazine wrote that the return of the lady bush is "something refreshingly retro, delightfully expressive, and confidently grown-up."

It may appear odd that so much attention is being paid to what seems like a basic grooming decision. But pubic hair has become loaded with tremendous meaning for women — perhaps too much.

Women and pubic hair grooming have an interesting history. Anyone who has walked around the classical section of an art museum knows that artists often didn't bother with pubic hair at all. Hess notes that "Renaissance artists depicted the female pelvis in smoothed stone or oil-painted shadow."

While women lacked pubic hair in these idealized visions, their real-life counterparts certainly weren't waxing it off. Trimming began with the advent of the bathing suit, but it wasn't until the Brazilian Padilha sisters opened J. Sisters salon in Manhattan in 1987, the birthplace of the Brazilian, that going bare became more common.

Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic ultimately credits the true rise of the bikini wax to a 2000 episode of Sex and the City, writing, "Once Carrie was bare down there...well, remember when the Sex and the City girls ate cupcakes? Let's put it this way: There's now a cupcake bakery on every other corner in upper Manhattan."

However, as waxing it off became more popular, many women began to quibble with downstairs grooming. And often with good reason. Fetters discusses how going fully bare was a look usually reserved for porn stars, which made waxing it off sometimes seem like a cave to men's fantasies. And if you've ever heard a guy say he prefers the "bald eagle" look, it's easy to feel a sense of sexual objectification, not to mention the pressure to conform to their ideal.

Removing all of one's pubic hair has also been viewed as a way to infantilize women by taking them back aesthetically to a pre-pubescent age. University of Ohio's Joseph Slade told Fetters, "Bare pubic areas are most common in videos advertised as featuring young women, because it does infantilize them or make them look pre-pubescent."

There's also the fact that hair removal can often be expensive and painful. Of Brazilian waxes, feminist writer Caitlin Moran told The Hairpin, "Anything that involves pain and costs a lot of money that boys aren't doing is something that I would really urgently want to have some kind of massive fucking inquest into."

At the same time, other feminists argue that too much has been made of the bush, and that debates over it obscure more important issues. Emily McCombs at XOJane bluntly wrote:

If you're a feminist (even if you're not), then I don't give a damn about what you do with your face or body or whatever. Let's talk about actual civil, political, and human rights, about black women and trans women and women who aren't allowed to drive cars and little girls being sold into sexual slavery. The pussy hair debates are busy work. [XOJane]

Anna North at Jezebel echoed that sentiment, writing, "Feminism has long had a fraught relationship with modification and decoration of the female body, but one of the few nice things about the current post-feminism morass is the widespread recognition that even getting a Brazilian can be kind of fun."

You probably have to have a pretty high pain threshold if bikini waxes crack the list of fun activities. But the idea that women shouldn't judge each other's grooming choices is what often gets lost in the pubic hair debate.

There can be so much pressure from the fashion industry and Hollywood to get a certain look, that it is easy to get confused. As a result, we can overemphasize fighting this pressure rather than recognizing that women need to feel comfortable with whatever they do with their bodies.

But for the record, you really should avoid anyone who says he prefers the "bald eagle." There's only room for one opinion about pubic hair, and that's your own.

 
Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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