A few bikini waxes ago, I pulled off my pants and underwear, loosely folded them into a pile atop my shoes, hoisted myself onto the waxing table, and briskly flopped my legs into a diamond, my feet touching sole to sole. While waiting for the esthetician to return with a cylinder of green wax and conduct my regular procedure — a "women's deep bikini with top," which clears the underwear lines and keeps some bush around the labia — I had a montage of thoughts. First, I am a feminist; I claim to do this for myself, not my long-term male partner, or anyone before him, or any societal expectation. Second, the only times I ever got Brazilian waxes, removing almost all pubic hair, were during the year and a half in college when I was deliberately celibate and only my hands, my vibrator, and my full-length mirror saw my crotch. Third, I am a survivor of rape.
Yet here I am, month in and month out, dropping my pants for a stranger, letting her slide hot, green, organic wax along my vulva, around my labia, and across my lower abdomen with a thick, pale wooden popsicle stick just so I can feel "clean." How can I subject a part of my body with such a complicated narrative to this hedonistic ritual and still call myself a feminist?
I sent an email to 42 friends from a spectrum of gender and social identities for general suggestions on where to start: I asked women and those who identify as female whether they groom and what their vulva waxing routine is. If not female-identified, I asked what they think of this ritual. (Many of the individuals interviewed in this story asked that only their first names be used, some asked that their names be changed, and others asked to be made entirely anonymous.)
Among the dozen responses I received, my friend Ayo, 31, a New York City-based actress, responded, "It is amazing how often what happens between our legs and underneath our clothes gets debated. One day I hope that will go away and we can all choose what we want to [do] with our bodies without a political debate. But alas, such is the plight of women. Everything we do must be discussed and debated."
I held Ayo's words close. Why was I forcing this debate? Was I exacerbating our plight? Twenty minutes into my first in-person interview, I stared blankly at my source, wondering why we were scrutinizing the topic. But then another 50 minutes passed, my yellow legal pad filled with endless notes, and my audio recorder time stamped at one hour, 12 minutes, and 18 seconds. Clearly, it wasn't moot.
A month later, Ayo and I sat down to talk, her body alternating between resting an elbow or two on the table and leaning back in her chair. Her movements punctuated the way our exchange became a montage of her memory and thoughts: a conversation she had among female and male friends in graduate school where the men — uninvited — disclosed their female pubic hair preferences; a women's studies class she took in college that examined hierarchy as a giant spider web; how she's heard people say waxing is something only white people worry about; how she feels that women of color, as one herself, have a different view on body image and grooming; and how those of us who identify as women aren't having enough conversations and discussions with one another across our various social identities.
And it seems, if this is our discussion around vulva grooming, isn't it ushering us toward something deeper, so to speak? And we both think maybe it is, in fact, relevant.
(More from Narratively: The burn of the beautiful blowout)
For the past four years, I have been a dedicated Uni K Wax Center devotee. They provide a full menu of face, body, and bikini waxing services for women, men, and teens at insanely affordable prices, especially for New York City. Women's bikini waxes range from $21 to $47, depending on the amount of hair removed. To compare, at Berenice Electrolysis & Personal Beauty Center on the Upper East Side, bikinis start at $85.
"We don't take a sexy approach in anything that we do, but we take it from a hygienic perspective," says Noemi Grupenmager, founder and CEO of Uni K Wax Centers.
There are currently six Uni K Wax locations in New York, with another 24 centers spread between Florida and California, and 150 set to open around the country in 2014 and 2015. Monthly, in New York alone, 70 percent of all waxes are bikinis, and 90 percent of bikini waxes are either "full" (everything off) or "Brazilian" (most everything off, with a landing strip, or something subtle like that, a technique Grupenmager, originally from Argentina, credits herself with having developed.)
"At the beginning of the '80s, I saw these little bathing suits from Brazil that needed a special bikini [wax]," says Grupenmager. "When we created the Brazilian bikini, we made a revolution in the waxing industry because after that, everybody started imitating us."
Waxing, versus shaving, removes hair from the root level. Waxed hair takes weeks — instead of days — to grow back, thinner, while shaving stimulates growth. Historically, waxing services were resigned to beauty salons, where, for Grupenmager personally, the process was painful, expensive, and arduous. So she created an alternative — natural wax, safe for the most sensitive skin; affordable prices leveraged by faster services; and uniformly trained technicians in a clean, welcoming, precise environment designed for hair removal only. The first Uni K Wax Center opened on the third floor of a South Beach office building in 1993, marketed in the local yellow pages under "Hair Removal," a heading Grupenmager begged the publication to create as she was the only such specialized listing at the time.
I asked Grupenmager why she waxes. "I don't wax for my boyfriend, for anybody," she says. "It's just for me."
(More from Narratively: Living with lupus)
"Can I actually be doing this for myself if it's part of a heteronormative structure?" asks Sarah, 28, who identifies as a lesbian, has a long-term female partner, and works in social services with the LGBT population in New York City. She's waxed twice in her life — once for a mid-winter vacation, once to go to the beach — describing both experiences as "borderline shaming."
In my pursuit to dissect waxing culture, I added heteronormativity to my concerns about whether or not it was feminist. (Heteronormativite: "of or pertaining to the practices and institutions that legitimize and privilege heterosexuality, heterosexual relationships, and traditional gender roles as fundamental and 'natural' within society," according to Wiktionary.)
The first time Sarah got a bikini wax, she and her girlfriend went together. "The woman who was doing it had asked me, 'So, are you getting a Brazilian wax?'" Sarah shared. "I was like, 'No, no. It's just a bikini wax. My girlfriend made the appointment for me.'"
Yet the esthetician continued offering comments like: "A lot of girls come in here because their boyfriend asked them to," and "I'm doing something nice for him."
"And I was just like, 'Why are you telling me this?'" Sarah continued. "I know why she's telling me this because that's the standard story that happens there. But I even specifically said that I had a girlfriend. She's actually here with me… and now I'm getting waxed, and you're up in my private area, and you're talking about girls with boyfriends. It's just a strange experience."
Over GChat, my friend Joanna Hoffman, 31, a poet and LGBTQ advocate, expanded on Sarah's sentiments regarding vulva waxing heteronormativity. "I'd like to say there's less likely to be pressure to wax in lesbian relationships, but that's not really the case," wrote Hoffman.
When I asked Hoffman if there is a misconception that lesbians don't care about vulva grooming, she said there is, particularly among straight people. "I think there's a perception that certain manifestations of patriarchy, like the need for women to remove body hair, wear makeup, etc., dissipates if there isn't a man in the picture," Hoffman wrote. "But the truth is that these beliefs are so internalized that they're there regardless. Not to say that there's anything wrong with a woman wanting to wear makeup or shave, wax if she wants to. It's problematic when woman feel like they have to."
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
- Israel has only two choices: Eliminate the Palestinians or make peace
- Why are so many parents being arrested?
- 9 things you probably didn't know about the moon
- Why America is duty-bound to help Iraqi Christians
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- 10 things you need to know today: July 22, 2014
- 29 adorable slang terms for sex (from the last 600 years)
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The biggest lesson Obama failed to learn from Bush
Subscribe to the Week