It seems like just yesterday that the New York Times was reassuring female humans that it was OK to grow fluffy hairdos around our genitals because Cameron Diaz and Gaby Hoffman were doing it. “In certain corners of Manhattan, the bald look of the Brazilian has become déclassé, more suggestive of a naked Barbie doll or a reality television starlet than an organic lifestyle of cold-pressed juice and barre classes,” wrote Marisa Meltzer in a 2014 trend piece.
Now, the gray-pubed lady is worried that too many of us are following Barbie’s lead when it comes to vulvar styling. “Most Women Prefer to Go Bare, Citing Hygiene (and Baffling Doctors),” declares Wednesday’s Well post on a new study of U.S. women’s pubic hair grooming patterns. The study, published in JAMA Dermatology this week, surveyed a nationally representative sample of 3,316 women, 84 percent of whom reported engaging in some form of pubic hair removal by scissor, razor, wax, tweezer, depilatory cream, laser, or electrolysis.
But the Times focuses its analysis on the segment of women who choose pubic baldness. “Sixty-two percent … opted for complete removal of their pubic hair,” Jan Hoffman writes. An overwhelming majority of the country’s women, completely hairless under their underwear: Who knew? That’s an astounding statistic, especially considering how painful, time-consuming, and skin-irritating pubic hair removal can be, and how nearly every adult person naturally grows hair around their genitals.
The 62 percent bald figure is not quite accurate, though. The survey actually found that 62 percent of women have ever removed all their pubic hair, not that they “prefer to go bare,” in the Times’ parlance, all the time. Nearly 34.6 percent of the women surveyed had removed all their pubic hair five or fewer times; that likely means they’ve tried it but prefer not to go bare. Less than 21 percent of study participants said they’d gone bald 11 times or more—this is more likely the population that wants a completely bare vulva for life.
If there’s any part of this survey over which to shake one’s fist and vow to depilate the damn patriarchy instead, it’s the fact that 59 percent of women said they groomed their pubic hair for hygienic purposes. This reasoning is based on the same myth that sells douches: that vaginas are dirty, repellant germ incubators that are unacceptable in their natural state.
In reality, pubic hair prevents infections and irritation, providing a soft protective barrier around the vaginal opening and the delicate skin in and around the vulva. Since most people who can regularly remove their pubic hair probably also have access to bathing facilities, they might not lose much hygienic benefit by getting rid of it. But shaving and waxing one of the body’s most sensitive areas can lead to complications like burns, abrasions, folliculitis, and infections. A 2012 study found that 3 percent of emergency-room patients presenting with trauma to the genital area had sustained their injuries through pubic hair grooming.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons for removing pubic hair: to keep it from poking out of a bathing suit; to enhance stimulation during oral sex; to relieve the itching some women experience with a full bush. But implicit and explicit messages from friends, partners, pop culture, and porn still perpetrate the sexual ideal of a bare, prepubescent-looking pubic area. About 21 percent of women in this new study said they groomed their pubic hair because their partner prefers it that way, and more than 31 percent said they do it because it makes their vagina look “nicer.” This study and others have found that most women groom their pubic hair before sex. And women in this survey were less likely to groom their pubic hair if their partners did not prefer it groomed, or if their partners did not landscape their own pubes.
The variety of reasons reported in the survey, combined with anecdotal accounts from people I know, suggest that women—complex beings, whaddya know—make pube decisions for a combination of reasons. “I remove all of mine most of the time because I find it irritating and itchy, but I believe that is a result of having it pretty much bare since [age] 13 or so,” says Kaitlin, 22. “For a long time, I thought I was keeping it bare for my boyfriend and it took about three years into our relationship to realize he literally didn’t care at all … since then I’ve realized it is definitely more for my own comfort.”
If women do groom their pubic hair for the pleasure and approval of men, it may be in part because there’s a tangible reward system in place. A 28-year-old Slate colleague told me she started waxing off all her pubic hair when her boyfriend “gently” suggested it. “At first I was like, ‘fuck the patriarchy!’” she says. “But I gave in, and then I liked it. Plus, he went down on me more.” The prospect of more oral sex could mitigate the undercurrent of judgment beneath much external pressure to undergo regular depilation, though there’s no escaping the troubling sexual politics of an unspoken quid pro quo: “I will pleasure you if you modify your natural bodily state to suit my desires.”
Katherine, 25, has gleaned that lesson from friends and lovers alike. Once, in a three-woman conversation, one of Katherine’s friends said that the guys she knew would “shit-talk girls who had hair down there.” The other friend said that was her “biggest fear” and the reason why she shaved her pubes every day. Katherine told the two women that she removed her pubic hair once a week, maybe. “They just both glared at me,” Katherine says. “Then [they] raised their eyebrows, like, ‘well, if you think you can do that and still get a guy, whatever and good luck.’” Katherine often goes totally bald now, primarily to avoid “judgment from dudes.” “Guys will pretty much always see me 100 percent bare down there and they’re like, ‘ooooooh, haaaaaay,” she says. “But if there’s hair, nothing. No comment.”
If there’s anything more infuriating than peer pressure to engage in the most private of body hair modifications, it’s that cultural conditioning against female pubes has made women embarrassed of their natural state even in front of medical practitioners schooled in a clinical approach to the human body. One OB/GYN told the New York Times that she’s heard multiple patients apologize for not “cleaning up” the hair around their vulvas before an exam. Pubic-hair grooming in a vacuum is nothing to scorn, and personal preferences, however informed they may be by external cues, are always valid. But when women feel compelled to beg pardon from their doctors for the very existence of their bodies, they’ve most likely learned that their genitals are gross and their unaltered bodies are unacceptable for public view. It’s one more symptom of a diseased culture of misogyny, laid bare by the politics of the pube.