I have never given much thought to the hair "down there." Lord knows I don't see it very often. I stopped shaving my bikini line after years of painful, much-uglier than-pubic-hair rashes and ingrown hairs. Then, out of nothing so much as curiosity, I popped into the Wax-On Spa, and was bum-rushed by Travis Powell, self-proclaimed Waxing Diva.
"Do you want to look at my portfolio, honey?" Travis asked as he handed me an innocent-looking photo album. On each page, he had pasted a garish Polaroid of his handiwork: women, ages 18 to 63, holding up their T-shirts to expose their painfully red thighs and vaginal lips, the flash glaring off the pin pricks of blood. Travis had lovingly inscribed each photo with a title, capturing the whimsy of his pubic hair creations: "V for Victory," "Honeymoon Surprise," "Annabel's Heart," "Swirl," "Alpine Jet Stream," "Mod Squad," "Queen of Diamonds," "FM Radio," "Cha-Cha," "Flower Blossoming," and my favorite, "Falling Leaf on a Winter Night."
Named for Brazil's well-known thong-bikini-sporting citizens, Brazilians came into vogue in the 1970s, when shorts got very short and the G-string cavorted proudly about the beach and boardwalk. By waxing the entire pubic mound, the Brazilian theory goes, one never need worry about a stray hair sticking out from one's butt floss as one bends over to retrieve a Frisbee. And, according to Travis and other reliable fashion sources (such as my friend's mom), we are in the midst of a Brazilian renaissance.
Hair Removal through the Ages
Legends, stories, and traditions suggest that the waxy stick-and-yank method of hair removal dates back thousands of years. The text on the back of Cleopatra's home sugaring kit (a method of hair removal pre-dating waxing, using a sugar-based product rather than wax) tells of Egyptian bridal rituals and monthly gatherings of Cleopatra and her handmaidens, who would concoct a mixture of sugar, oil, and lime juice, knead it into a paste, then smear the honey-like substance over each other's flesh, tearing one another's body hairs out with repeated applications.
Rejecting the torturous ancient Egyptian method, American women began using razors to scrape off their body hair in the early 1900s, when the Gillette Company, attempting to expand its consumer base, began advertising bare underarms as hygienic. A couple decades later, legs saw the light of day as flappers began tarting about in short, ankle-baring skirts and showy leg accoutrements, such as silk stockings, which worked better with clean-shaven legs. As men's and women's roles continued to converge in the 1920s, women entered the public sphere more prominently--driving cars, wearing trousers, holding jobs outside the home--and the body became the place to make and keep gender distinctions. Men were hairy; women had to be hairless.
As for "the bikini area," Travis the Waxing Diva believes the waxing of American women's nether regions surfaced in the 1960s, as bathing costumes inched higher up the thigh to allow greater movement in the water, and were transformed into swimsuits. Pushing the concept of swimwear-as-body-covering further still was the thong bikini--to qualify thonged hindquarters as "clothed," dark hairs hinting at genitalia were removed, rendering the hairless ass bare but not obscene. This sort of hair removal called for extreme measures (just try and shave a buttcrack).
Electrolysis--a permanent and excruciatingly painful process that shoots an electrical current from a fine needle down the hair shaft to its root--never gained popularity as a tool for defoliating the bikini zone. Besides the hard-core sensation, electrolysis brings the major risk of electric shock if the needle is improperly insulated or if the epilator touches the skin instead of the hair. Other risks include infection from unsterile needles and scarring from improper technique, which, the FDA suggests, is widespread. (There are no standards governing electrology, and products that fall under the term "cosmetic" are not subject to pre-market approval by FDA testing.) A mere 31 states require a license for electrolysis, with the requirements ranging from 120 to 1,100 hours of training.
Despite potential horrors, electrolysis is effective and affordable when compared to the painless laser hair removal touted about town these days. A facial hair visit to the electrologist runs about $30; laser treatment, $250. Lasers disable hair follicles, but don't kill them dead like electrolysis. A "commitment to keeping one's body area hair-free for a year" costs $1,000 to $2,000--and then it grows back.
European Women Are Dirty!
Electrolysis exploded for my sister and myself during puberty with the 1980s wonder product the Epi-Lady. After a manic stint of bleaching her upper lip hair and shaving nearly her entire body every morning, my sister graduated to Nair hair remover, a foul-smelling chemical razor blade that employs a highly alkaline chemical to dissolve the protein structure of hair. Then, for her 13th Christmas, she asked for and received an early model Epi-Lady. On Christmas morning, still in our red plaid neck-to-ankle nighties, my sister and I raced to the bathroom and plugged in her glamorous new present, anxious to end our body image problems forever. I faintly remember the tool having coils that grasped and buzzed, tearing at flesh and breaking off hairs--nothing at all like the commercial with the long-legged lady calmly brushing over her already smooth legs. No pain we had encountered in our young lives could compare with the sensation of the Epi-Lady. Girlfriends would come over to spend the night, and inevitably someone would ask to try the tool. There was no rush or sick pleasure in the experience, as there had been with piercing our ears with safety pins or running naked through the snow; it was just plain torture. The last time I saw the Epi-Lady, it was in some drawer destined for a garage sale, next to my old pink crimping iron.
My own teen years were spent painstakingly removing hair--attempting, ridiculously, to squeeze my explosively female body into some form of non-offensive, contained femininity. Body hair was the outward physical manifestation of inner hairiness, a complicated tangle of social retardation, masturbation guilt, and general pubescent malaise. It's significant that the budding adolescent female body receives the most intense social scrutiny. Hormones have worked the adolescent psyche into a babbling mess; awkward new appendages, such as breasts, are bandaged with training bras; someone hands you a box of Tampax; and then, there is this HAIR you are instructed to get rid of. Hair represented the horrors of a reluctant transition from free girl into womanhood, a title that carried heavy expectations of body maintenance. Hair was everything wrong and cumbersome about femaleness. Hair was the antithesis of femininity, and it was to be eradicated.
In college, my hair remained significant as I declared my body a battleground. I tossed out razors, feminine deodorant spray, control-top pantyhose (the girdles of the 1980s), and raised my fist, baring my hairy underarms defiantly. I was a Woman, and sexually mature women had dark hair curling from their nooks and crannies. I delighted in my "fuck you" body hair spilling from my armpits and skirt hems in all its Eastern European peasant glory. I wanted to be associated with Bohemians--wild, dark, mustachioed Sapphists; sensualists, libertines. Much to my delight, my hairy European phase horrified my mother. After a three-week-long debate about whether I would shave my legs for my cousin's wedding, my mother screamed the worst thing she could think of: "European women are DIRTY!"
But time takes the bite out of radical ideals, and eventually my body hair returned to its original state of just being hair. My once-radical fur stopped shocking my mom and eventually came to represent nothing except my own lazy grooming habits.
Even with my political hair days behind me, hair removal is still not a regimen for me. Occasionally I'll shave my armpits, in the same spirit of adventure and adornment in which I'll dye my hair pink or plaster on orange eye shadow for a party. Waxing my legs is a Special Beauty Event, like getting a pedicure and having my toenails airbrushed with palm trees and dice. But rendering my box temporarily muff-free was a leap outside the world of mere adornment. A Brazilian was an adventure, a foray into true body alteration, not to mention the closest I would ever get to being a porn star.
As the time for my Brazilian appointment neared, I began visualizing what I imagined was about to take place--a well-groomed gay man was going to pour hot wax on that most delicate of flowers and tear out all the hair. I showered and perfumed myself and put on fresh panties, prepping my body for close inspection like I would before a hot date.
The Waxing Diva
Travis exuded a no-nonsense authority and power as he aimed his operating lamp's beam on what he affectionately referred to as "my tooter." Having performed the Brazilian ritual hundreds of times, Travis smiled and chit-chatted as he set me up with piles of white towels in a darkened room scented with freshly cut lilies. I was ordered to strip down, lie on his couch, and place a small towel over my groin. The idea was to move the towel so only the body part being waxed was exposed, thereby giving the modest client a small blankey for comfort. Needless to say, once Travis cooed his assurances ("Oh, your man's going to LOVE this, honey!"), the small towel disappeared, never to return.
Travis began by trimming my forest down to a mere lawn, all the while inspecting the area for interesting growth patterns that might inspire his customized creation. I had a hankering for a star, which, over the next hour, evolved into a crown. Travis worked his way down under slowly, beginning with the usual above-board bikini-line futzing.
Waxing is pretty simple: Warm, sticky stuff is rubbed in the direction of the hair growth, immediately attaching itself to the hairs. A strip of muslin or paper is rubbed on the sticky spot. The wax adheres to the strip, and when the strip is torn off in the opposite direction of the hair growth, hair comes with it. The moment of anticipation before the strip is ripped away is possibly more painful than the actual sensation of hair being yanked from its flesh (which is certainly no picnic). But after a few minutes of relatively tame waxing, the endorphins kicked in and I felt high, giddy; flushed with pride by the sight of all the nasty hairy strips Travis assiduously presented to me.
As Travis applied wax to my inner thighs and then on in, I realized that there are many, many nerve endings in these regions. I voiced my doubts about really needing to remove all that hair, but Travis forged bravely onward, bolstering me with stories about housewives with six kids getting Brazilians without a whimper. Plus, every three-and-a-half weeks, Travis personally waxed his arms, back, brows, and, yes, his pee-pee. (Along with the monthly pain, one has to lay down some coin for such silkiness. Back waxes cost $30, the chest is $15, stomach $20, the arms are $20, while toes and fingers run $5.)
By the time Travis showed me how to hold apart my vaginal lips so he could wax between the folds, I felt quite comfortable (obviously) and was even enjoying myself. Every so often he would hand me a mirror. My denuded hoo-hoo struck me as rather silly-looking, and not at all like I remembered from girlhood. Before I could dwell on the sight, however, Travis was instructing me to get on my hands and knees and pull apart my ass cheeks. Contrary to my fears, that was the easiest part of the Brazilian. Buoyed by nervous excitement, the removal of my butt hair hardly stung at all, and was frightfully hilarious. The detail work on the small patch of pubic hair Travis left above my completely bald box required tweezers, as each hair held on, stubbornly opposed to the queen's crown design I desired. In the end, my miniature field resembled a three-tipped leaf, much like Eve's after she ate the apple.
Shakily, I posed against the wall for my Polaroid. My cohort, Miriam, went in for the same treatment right after I did, sculpting her pubic hair into an exclamation mark. We bandied our photos about, and she noted that our waist-down Polaroids proved that no matter how you groom or exhibit your privates, a picture is worth 10,000 post-feminist words. We concluded that owning the photo is perhaps the most important result of the experience.
Unsightly Ingrown Hairs
Miriam and I had planned to spend the following weekend at Doe Bay Resort, a clothing-optional hippie spot on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington, where we'd cavort in the hot tubs and sauna, causing disturbances among the natural-looking types with our shocking Brazilians. However, the moment we took our clothes off, I noticed that the only other woman in the hairy hippie hot tubs had a Brazilian, too. Miriam and I discussed dyeing our token tufts of hair purple, but both of us were so itchy and red, it seemed foolish. For days after my Brazilian, my crotch resembled a freshly plucked chicken, and I obsessed about ingrown hairs. Miriam told me that vanity makes the genitals flourish, but I found myself washing and rubbing balm on the area like I would on a major wound. I didn't feel sexy. It was everything I could do not to scratch myself, and I felt very protective of the area, reluctant at the proposal of hanky-panky.
Miriam pointed out that one could find new identity in pubic patterns, like tattoos. But all I discovered was a growing anxiety about my genitals' appearance. While Miriam's package looked quite cute and pert, as did everyone else's I observed, my chaunchita looked kind of droopy, reminding me of a turkey's wattle.
Like getting pierced or tattooed, the experience of receiving a Brazilian was nearly as important as the results. Throughout the procedure, Travis patted our egos, telling us lies and making up stories about other clients, even telling Miriam shocking lies about me. Most people I talked with about removing their body hair viewed it as a means to an end, a procedure they suffer to achieve that baby-smooth skin. While I can't deny that such skin is exquisite and pleasurable, I found that my session with Travis was pleasure enough--an intimate, exhilarating, exotic hour spent in a back room with a stranger.
By pushing the clean-shaven body look to its extremes, Miriam and I came to a conclusion. Women should either go passionately pro-hair, delighting in hairiness and finding honest sensuality in their wild gardens, or they should abandon the natural and go to a Waxing Diva, pleasuring in the discipline of the bonsai. Unlike the deceitful bikini-line pluck job, with its lame illusion of natural perfection, the Brazilian is nobody's fool. Nobody believes a woman sporting a Brazilian is naturally "that way."
As for me, now that the itching has subsided, I'm wary of returning for upkeep every three to four weeks, the recommended dosage for Brazilians. Seeing as I am too lazy and/or busy to shave my pits, and I rarely mess with the hair on my legs, it seems ludicrous to subject myself to this sort of painful body maintenance for my far-less-public pubic area. The time commitment, along with the financial burden ($45 per Brazilian) stretches out before me, impossible and consuming.
Still, the process of removing all that hair tripped wires in my head, firing intellectual and emotional responses I would've had under no other circumstances. Revisiting my sordid Polaroid, I reminisce about the hairy and hairless paths I have traversed to arrive here, in the newly blackened stubble of my razed forest. And while I realize that second growth may obscure events of the past, the body never forgets.