Making fuss about fuzz, part 2

This blog follows my earlier one, where I responded to the claim that 2014 is ‘the year of the bush’ and highlighted the cultural interest in women’s pubic hair, as well as research tracking pubic hair removal practices. Practices of pubic hair removal beyond the ‘bikini line’ have been valorised, and been presented as normative in sociocultural space. However, they have also been contested, often by feminist scholars concerned about the implications for women’s embodiment and gender relations, but also by artists, and by the medical profession.

One response has been to disrupt the sociocultural representational context – to intervene and present alternatives to the ‘all bare’ or ‘highly trimmed’ look of the ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Hollywood’ waxes – this has come both from artists, and from those who create many of the visuals that dominate our contemporary worlds – advertising. The clothing company American Apparel got on board this train early, with recent window displays showing female mannequins with pubic hair revealed at the edge of their underwear. American Apparel’s ‘edgy’ advertising has often been problematic for feminists, not least through their association with controversial photographer Terry Richardson, and I won’t laud them here. Yet their use of apparent pubic hair speaks to a cultural zeitgeist in which pubic hair is, still, edgy, and therefore unusual to encounter in public space.

Creative responses hold more interest for me, as they are at least potentially uncoupled from capitalist imperatives. One recent art intervention by US photographer Rhiannon Schneiderman has been to photograph herself mostly naked, with different luxurious and elaborate pubic wigs, in a series she titled Lady Manes. The show has been interpreted as giving “a definitive “hell no” to the objectification of women, and the pressures put upon them to conform to beauty standards – even with regards to their pubic hair.” Another response by London-based Israeli photographer Ben Hopper has been to photograph women with underarm hair, to demonstrate that beauty, attractiveness, femininity and underarm hair can co-exist. Although his show does challenge our normative ideas of what gendered bodies (especially ‘female’ bodies) should look like, it retains an underpinning emphasis on beauty and sexual attractiveness that shapes so many women’s lives.

However, as many women have attested, simply ‘choosing’ to go against normative body expectations and not to remove body hair is not easy. Research by Breanne Fahs at Arizona State University has demonstrated very poignantly the abuse and punishment that women who stop body hair removal can receive, including questioning of their femininity. The linking of femininity with hair removal has a long history in the west (well, since the 1940s, really, as fashions changed, and women’s bodies started to be visible; advertising for hair removal products around this time started to inform women of the need to remove visible leg and underarm hair). Capitalism, then, is an important part of the women and body hair removal story, including the pubic hair removal story. (In the last few decades, advertising has also started to focus on men, as men’s body hair removal practices have started to appear.) The latest highly criticised advertisement from the hair removal company Veet presents four different scenarios in which a woman, who is one day post-shaving, becomes a man. Veet pulled the ads in response to ferocious and, I would argue highly justified, criticism, but you can still see some of them. We’ve come a long way, baby… not!

One of the latest pubic hair possibilities – marketed, perhaps, in response to the various cultural interventions against full pubic hair removal – has been the so-called “full bush Brazilian”, the removal of pubic hair around the labia and anus, but retention on the pubic mound. This has been postulated as a rejection of “the porny obviousness of total bareness”. It has been described as a look where the pubic hair is apparently not, yet actually is, highly manicured.

So is 2014 the year of the bush? Such a statement is obviously ridiculous, yet attention on pubic hair practice does seem to be high in places like the media. It demonstrates the ways meaning and practice are neither natural nor fixed – and the shifts and transitions around female pubic hair practices are both quick and often dramatic. It wasn’t that long ago, that the idea of pubic hair removal beyond the bikini line was basically unthinkable within the mainstream (except, perhaps, for shaving women in preparation for childbirth – a topic that still generates considerable attention!). Whether the public – and celebrity! – attention around, and questioning of, trends like the Brazilian will lead to significant changes in individuals’ pubic hair practices, long term, remains to be seen.

Virginia Braun