Making fuss about fuzz, part 1

This year began with a flurry of interest in pubic hair – women’s pubic hair, to be precise – after the actress Cameron Diaz decried the (full) removal of pubic hair, suggesting it ‘has a purpose’. This contrasted with a story she had told previously on the Graham Norton show, of forcibly trimming a friend’s* ‘70s style bush’. Cameron Diaz’s disgust for untrimmed pubic hair was evident in her comment about the friend’s husband putting up with her 70s bush being evidence of ‘how much he loves her’ – as if having pubic hair au naturel could render a woman anything other than utterly unlovable and undesirable. The ‘common-sense’ nature of this narrative of untamed pubic hair disgust was evidenced by Rod Stewart’s interjection ‘she has a boyfriend?’, by Diaz’s telling of it as a humorous tale – she did not expect, and she did not get, a hostile response to the story – and by the collective laughter that accompanied it.

(*This friend was later revealed to be the actress Gwyneth Paltrow; the state of her pubic hair was not mentioned in her recent announcement of separation from her husband Chris Martin)

As early as January 19, 2014 was declared ‘the year of the bush’. Women the world over suddenly breathed a huge sigh of relief.  We suddenly understand – and so early on – the purpose of this year: growing our pubic hair; no longer did we have to fret that it might be the year of ‘thigh gap’ or ‘bikini bridge’, or some other particular bodily focus, which we might not have realised until it’s too late.  This early declaration for 2014 followed 9 signs bush was back in 2013 – though the list itself demonstrates the rarity of pubic hair in public space. Commentators like the Irish writer Emer O’Toole, (in)famous for having appeared in public in 2012 with visible underarm hair, applauded an apparent shift away from pubic hair removal by women. Body hair, and what we do with it is, as she says, a big deal. It’s part of the normative gendering of bodies in western cultures (different cultures have different body hair practices, and norms; I focus here on cultural contexts similar to my own).

The importance of having a clear stance on pubic hair came up again in an April 2014, when Cameron Diaz again appeared on the Graham Norton show, and explained herself: she stated that pubic hair is both sexy and has a function – a position interpreted as clarifying her stance on pubic hair  – and that permanent removal is something to be very cautious about. Responses to Cameron Diaz’s earlier announcement had not been universally positive. For example, Sian Boyle, writing in The Independent, claimed that Cameron Diaz is wrong about pubic hair. The bush is not back, and presented a defence of permanent pubic hair removal. But what do women actually do? Are our waterways and rubbish dumps awash with discarded pubic hair?

A British market research survey released in late 2013, of 2000 women, reported that just over half did nothing to their pubic hair. Those data surprised me. That proportion of women reporting engaging in pubic hair modification is lower than any recent social science study from across the westernised world. In my own survey, conducted with my colleague Dr Gareth Terry, 86% of under 35s New Zealand women (and 78% of New Zealand men) reported that they had removed pubic hair at some point in their life, with 69% of women (and 54% of men) ‘currently’ removing it. Although similar proportions of men (45%) and women (49%) removed ‘most’ or ‘all’ of that hair, the distinction between ‘all’ removers was stark: 10% of men compared to 26% of women. Age appears to be a significant factor in women’s pubic hair removal practices, with younger women removing considerably more pubic hair than older women.

Pornography presents an easy and obvious target in discussions about where individuals’ pubic hair removal practices come from, and I believe there is a lot of validity in this. In our survey, we found that people’s reported pornography consumption was not directly related to whether or not, or how much, they removed pubic hair. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some relationship or influence. If we understand pornography not in direct causative terms (as in: looking at pornography means you will then go and remove your pubic hair) but rather as part of a representational sociocultural context, in which our own ideas about desirability, body norms, and body expectations are shaped. Our ideas about what is desirable or normal might match our practices, or they might not. We may be critical of what we see as sociocultural expectations for our bodies, or we may not. Whether we are critical, we may still comply, or we may not. And this may change, across the course of our lives, across the contexts we grow and exist within.

In another study, some colleagues and I explored the meanings associated with pubic hair and its removal. Certain meanings predominated:

  • Pubic hair was presented as a private thing – something to be kept out of the public space (and hence should be removed if it appears beyond something like a swimsuit).
  • Having less pubic hair was more physically attractive – either naturally having less, or through removal of pubic hair.
  • Pubic hair was constructed as ‘getting in the way of sex’ – especially oral sex – rather than being sexual (despite it being one indicator of the ‘sexual maturation’ of the body).
  • Pubic hair affects cleanliness – less hair makes the genitalia cleaner (actually, research suggests it puts people more at risk of infection).

Underpinning these four meaning was an understanding of pubic hair practices as individual choices, something others ought not to have an opinion on. The prioritising of individual choice fits with our broader neoliberal social context, in which we are seen as rational, decision-making agents not swayed or influenced by culture. We are not dupes; we make choices based on our own individual preferences. That so often these fit with dominant representational practices and meanings is irrelevant, it’s ‘my choice’.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will explore some of the responses to pubic hair removal practices.

Virginia Braun