Hair removal prompts endless questions but rarely answers

Ben Hopper, ‘Natural Beauty’. © Ben Hopper

Recently, thanks to celebrities Cameron Diaz and Gwyneth Paltrow, women’s removal or non-removal of pubic hair has become a flashy item in the news and is all over the internet. Details and articles are flying around. Diaz claimed to have changed her mind about the removal of pubic hair. She says that previously she found the pubic hair of (according to media speculation) her friend Gwyneth Paltrow unattractive because when bathing it “swayed” like “seaweed”.

But then in her recent publication The Body Book Diaz urged women not to remove their pubic hair, at least not “permanently”, in case they changed their minds at some point. She also argued that pubic hair, in her view, has “purposes”.

And then we have riveting articles from sites such as The Daily Beast, who have asserted that this debate announces that “the decision to ‘grow out the lady garden’ rather than succumb to landscaping has become a feminist issue worth debating.”

The terms of this debate imply, of course, that the removal or non-removal of body hair, including pubic hair, used somehow to be not worth debating as a feminist issue and was not “political”. So why is a topic such as this seen to be “important”, and by whom? Certainly, the removal of body hair is a huge industry in financial, commercial and marketing terms alone, but it also figures largely in narratives of the body, in terms of ideas of beauty, cleanliness, sexuality, gender, shame, and desire.

The Daily Beast article itself points this out by drawing on a further recent debate around pubic hair, namely the controversial – as it has turned out – new advertisements for Veet hair-removal cream. The campaign is delightfully titled “don’t risk dudeness”, and as the Daily Beast puts it, “depicts women who don’t shave every day as repulsive hairy men”.

Yet, interestingly, while there are thousands of books on body weight and shape, there has almost never been anything written about body hair. The only writing beyond the media that exists are some remarks in feminist texts resisting body hair removal as being “not natural”, a small amount of medical writing on what is termed “hirsutism” or “excess body hair”, and a larger amount of fetishistic pornography about either “hairy” or shaven bodies. I have edited the only volume to focus wholly on this issue.

So this is a topic that is either conceived of as too trivial to be able to say anything substantive about or too dangerous and disgusting. It elicits a continual cycle of interest because of both that triviality (“not political”) and its “disgustingness”. Sit down any group of people (men or women) and they always have views on this topic. This is confirmed by the huge amount of articles (like this one) that erupt every time something about body hair appears in the media.

And almost any time hair removal in women is questioned in any way, it is almost always in terms of claims that it is the first time somebody has thought of raising the issue of why we remove body hair, and whether we should. This is a topic that is rediscovered endlessly.

For example, the most popular magazine for young women in Britain, Glamour, included a piece in their May edition by its regular celebrity columnist Dawn O’Porter, titled “I want my vagina to look like a vagina”.

O’Porter claims that “my bikini line has become quite the conversation starter of late” because she has decided that “the big bush is making a comeback”, and cites Diaz and Paltrow in support of this. But at the same time, O’Porter asserts that her “re-evaluation” of hair removal only relates to pubic hair, and that “I have never had an issue with general hair removal. For me, shaving my legs and armpits is worth every effort.”

For me, this is why body hair and how it is removed or not removed remains fascinating. It raises questions which relate to every way the body is gendered, defined and produced. And this raises in turn questions of what and how we constitute “choice”. We choose to remove – or not to remove – body hair. But why?

It turns out that the more you ask that question, the more nobody actually knows. The responses are always the same, namely that it is because it is in some way attractive to remove or not to remove body hair – whether to somebody else or “for myself”. But why and how the removal of body hair (“smoothness”) is “attractive”, and how it constitutes a separation between masculinity and femininity is a question that almost nobody can really explain.

This, of course, is not only true of body hair, but of any productions and constitutions of gender, sexuality and the body. Desire, it turns out, does not allow itself to be so easily regulated by choice and will.

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