Monday, April 1, 2013 - 23:13

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... when shiny and full are not the operative words

By Lyba Spring

In the shampoo ads on television, “a woman’s glory” shines and shimmies. She runs her hands through it, swishing it back and forth like a living mane, mesmerizing viewers, inviting them to get their hands on it too. But if your legs are like a pelt, no one seems to want to run their hands through that, at least not in the ads.

Standards of beauty vary of course through eras and cultures. In North America, hair removal has extended to men, too. These days “bears” (hairy men) have become a specific category for their mostly male admirers.

It has been argued that the prevalence of pornographic images of hairless women with girlish vulvas sparked the current mass removal of pubic hair. Whatever the reason, women are taking off their body hair in droves—if the proliferation of waxing salons in my neighbourhood is any indication.

In the changing room at my local gym, where most of women are not at all shy, I have seen everything from naked vulvas, to a “landing strip”, to the full, classic look. And yes, there’s fashion when it comes to vulvas. I have also seen a few women with lush leg hair. I freely admit, although that look was more common in the 60s and 70s, it’s a shocker to see, because it is so far from the current norm.

Women choose many ways to remove hair, some permanent and some painful. Each method also comes with some health risks. Laser hair removal is a medical procedure that requires training to perform and usually needs multiple sessions. Women are told to expect discomfort and temporary skin discoloration.

In a Toronto Public Health brochure on body hair removal, they make the case for avoiding shaving pubic hair in particular. Waxing avoids razor bumps, which some women self-diagnose “à la Google” as warts or herpes. To avoid contamination with other people’s viruses from waxing, salons have to follow specific procedures. They also recommend that women who remove their pubic hair—by whatever means—refrain from sexual activity for 48 hours afterwards; which, for some, may defeat the purpose.

When you ask why they do it, some women say they like the feeling, or that it’s more hygienic, or their partner prefers it that way. The feeling of smoothness is the come-on for both hair removal and skin product ads. A smooth woman is a desirable woman.

Nature would have it otherwise. Pubic and underarm hair are scent traps. We nuzzle into erotic smells as all mammals do—except that we have removed both our smells and the hairs that hold them there. Sex is naturally a messy, smelly affair, which we have done our best to sanitize.

In September 2012, a Sikh woman with facial hair defended herself and her religious beliefs after being publicly mocked: “Baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of the body...I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different from most women.” She goes on to say the body is a gift from the divine being and must be kept intact.

In a recent podcast in which I participated on female genital cosmetic cutting, sex therapist and psychologist Leonore Tiefer makes the point that when women augment their breasts or reduce their labia or clitoris, it exaggerates their femaleness and reduces their maleness. Women with body hair presumably remove it to look more feminine. (Listen to the podcast).

I remember a shtick from comic Tim Nutt. He said he liked to come up behind women with short hair and say, “Excuse me, sir.” He said it’s their own fault because when they cut their hair short it means they’re never having sex (with a man, one assumes) again. However, every stereotype is said to contain a grain of truth. Some women seem to choose a kind of sexlessness as they age. Others rage against age in a cosmetic frenzy. My friends know I am no fashion plate. Nonetheless, out of personal vanity, my old university friend and I made a pact some years ago. When we’re both in a seniors’ facility, she will pluck out my chin hairs and I will pluck hers as I did for my 90 year-old mother before she died. I suppose it will be an expression of our unwillingness to completely give up—or give in to the androgyny of old age. As for younger women, who are you taking it off for?

Talk to me: springtalks1@gmail.com