When a Cosmo headline promises to help readers get a “sexy vagina,” you know we’ve gone wrong somewhere. Here, all this time, we’d thought that if we had just one inch of sexy on ourselves, it resided in our sex organs. We figured maybe, just maybe, the place where their penises go might turn men on. We thought perhaps the millions of males who paused their VHS tapes of the 1992 movie Basic Instinct at a certain moment when Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs for all the world to see a flash of her goods—and the millions more who continue to search for this screen-shot online to this day—might have been predisposed to like pussy. (Then again, that is a hot white mini-dress she wears; maybe they just appreciate the simplicity of the design.) What we’re saying is we didn’t realize it could be such a chore to sex up the part of us that performs the sex.
Oops, take that back: We did realize it. We’ve realized it since the late ’90s, when suddenly it wasn’t just porn stars who found it an every-day necessity to hire a lady to pour hot wax onto their genitals, then rip it allll off, to, you know, keep things tidy down there. Organized. Sexy. In fact, a startling number of us pledged complicity to this trend—known by the seductive term Brazilian bikini wax—for something so painful, given that, unlike porn stars and swimsuit models, we couldn’t even claim it as a tax write-off. Among women in American urban centers, this has even become the norm, as routine as a manicure-pedicure or highlights, more routine than a dentist appointment. It is no mere biannual affair, after all. Keeping your honeypot sexy takes dedication, darling.
The question: Why do we do this? And does every rip of the wax take a little bit of our feminism with it?
To figure that out, it’s worth looking back at bikini waxing’s history. There’s some evidence that women in Indian cultures as far back as 3000 B.C. removed the hair in their nether regions. Same goes for ancient Egyptians, who used a honey-based wax. The practice crept into modern America in the 1950s as bathing-suit seams advanced upwards, though in its first half-century or so of existence it involved taking just the hair that extended beyond the panty line—the procedure now known as the “traditional” or “basic” bikini wax. Models and anyone else whose living depended on their appearance in teeny scraps of clothing accepted it as an occupational hazard by the ’70s—even bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger later joked that his decision in 2003 to run for governor of California was the hardest choice he’d made since getting a bikini wax in 1978.
It was in 1994 that Brazilians hit U.S. shores. They washed up, as so many things do, in Manhattan. (Give it to New York gals; they’ll try anything!) The J. Sisters, an ingenious group of seven immigrant sisters, introduced trend-starved fashionistas to what they said was all the rage in their native country. “In Brazil, waxing is part of our culture because bikinis are so small,” Jonice Padilha explains on their website. “We thought it was an important service to add because personal care is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
Such words—personal care, luxury, necessity, small—sound like a dare to appearance-obsessed celebrities weighed down by too much money. By 1999, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirstie Alley, and Jennifer Grey were singing the J. Sisters’ praises. “You’ve changed my life!” Paltrow signed a photo to the J. Sisters that hangs on their salon wall.
But laying out $60 to $100 a month still may have seemed a little steep to the non-celebrities among us, even for a life-changing experience. It was the porn that got to us, which is what made Brazilian waxes such a post-Millennial phenomenon—women weren’t so prone to hitting the back room of the local Video King just to check out other ladies’ equipment, but it’s possible we might sometimes wander over to the porn department at Google. Meanwhile, “lad mags” like Maxim and Gear became all the rage, mainstreaming a porn aesthetic even on grocery-store magazine racks. Adult-film stars like Jenna Jameson became household names: Her 2004 memoir became a mega-bestseller with the self-helpy title How to Make Love Like a Porn Star—clearly the public wanted to know exactly that. And what we found, the more we looked at porn, was that there was not a female pubic hair in sight. And then many of us thought: If guys like porn and I want to have sex with men, it just seems logical that I should not have pubic hair. Not the most feminist thought, of course, but that’s what happens when we’re bombarded with certain images. Plus, sex clouds our thinking sometimes.
This now-emerging trend gained in popularity, even though the level of embarrassment it can cause might be even more painful than the physical ripping of the wax. It became a routine occurrence to pick your legs up over your head, approaching yoga’s plow position, and/or turn over on your side and spread your cheeks for the nice lady making you pretty. It became normal to have conversations with salon professionals about whether you wanted a postage stamp (sometimes also dubbed a “French wax”) or even less (sometimes called a “Mediterranean”) or nothing (the classic “Brazilian”). A note: Since most major spas now just call a beyond-basic wax a “Brazilian” and ask you when you get there how much hair to leave, we’ll use that term here for any sort of wax that gets your crotch camera-ready. (And for those who are too afraid to ask: We’re talking bare, from front to labia to back.) It’s best we just all know what we’re talking about here before we proceed.
Many of us, for obvious reasons, still had some reservations about the process as waxing first started showing up on salon price lists throughout the country. That is, until pop culture intervened. Sex and the City took the first step, as was often the case with trends that cropped up during its years on the air, in a September 2000 episode in which hapless sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw gets a Brazilian while vacationing in Los Angeles. Carrie didn’t look like she was having a great time during the ordeal, but let’s face it—at that time, many women wanted to do even things that looked torturous when Carrie did them, like wearing dangerous high heels and dating Mr. Big. Sex and the City validated waxing as a standard practice even as it hinted at its painful underpinning—its not-so-feminist side. Now waxing wasn’t just a way to emulate porn stars and conform to patriarchal beauty standards. It was a way to emulate a female pop culture icon around whom the word “empowered” was often thrown.
It was around this time that women started trying Brazilians en masse. The wax dipper was cast: By the time the first decade of the Millennium wound down, Brazilians were a standard offering on the price list of any spa worth visiting. (And many that weren’t worth visiting: For the love of Carrie Bradshaw, who gets their $22 acrylics and $30 Brazilians in the same establishment? When it comes to this procedure, please, ladies, do not bargain-hunt.) We knew it had reached the masses when, in 2009, suburban-mom staple The View featured a segment in which co-host Sherri Shepherd got a wax. (It bore a stunning resemblance to the Carrie sequence nine years earlier, with the bonus line: “This is worse than having a baby!”) We knew it had reached beyond the masses when mainstream primetime hit Grey’s Anatomy addressed waxes as de rigeur for a third date during a 2010 episode. “Prepping the surgical field,” the sexy TV doctors called it with a wink. The sensible, inexperienced-with-dating Dr. Miranda Bailey balked at the ridiculousness of it all—“She held up two postage stamps and asked if I was looking for the 44-cent or the 3,” she complained, rattled from her virgin visit to the waxer—but the implication was clear. Silly Miranda. Everyone knows you need to pare it all down to a landing strip if you’re up to the third date. Duh.
Waxing has become such an ingrained habit—like eyebrow-plucking or cuticle-cutting—that many of us have grown to like regular bikini waxes, to prefer them so much that we get them even when no one but our waxer will see that particular part of us for the near future. Waxes do feel clean, for starters. They appeal to that OCD side so many of us have when it comes to our appearance, keeping things squared away like a haircut or a facial might. We shave our armpits and our legs—why not our pubic hair, too? The beach argument—the original reason for modern bikini waxes—holds up. Even some of the most dedicated feminists can get behind keeping your pubes under wraps when parading the rest of yourself out in public in the name of summer. That’s just basic manners. And waxing can be considered an improvement, of sorts, over ’80s hair removal methods such as Nair (there’s a reason that chemical cocktail makes your hair fall out—it’s toxic!) and the EpiLady (ouch). Even good, old-fashioned shaving can leave a mess of ingrown hairs at best and cuts at worst. If we can take a blade to our nether regions, why not wax?
Most women’s health experts also agree that bikini waxes cause no harm, provided they’re done by a safe, clean, and reputable salon. No one needs pubic hair for any modern-day function. It’s just a vestige of our more animalistic, pre-clothing days, when nature thought it would be a good idea to have an extra layer of protection around that particular opening in our bodies, to keep bacteria and anything else that was uninvited out. It also trapped the odors alluring to cavemen—if not so appealing to our current-day senses.
And that brings us to the real issue here. Let’s just say it: We do it for sex. Youngest J sister Jonice said it best (if very “Brazilian”) when she told the New York Observer: “Makes you sexy. Makes you fashion. When I don’t have my bikini wax, I don’t feel like to have sex with my husband. I feel dirty. And even himself say, ‘Try a bikini wax!’ I feel free. I feel clean.” It’s simple physics: We can feel more without the bush in the way. Of course the standard-issue vagina has worked just fine, and enchanted straight men, since the beginning of humanity. There’s no real reason to mess with it, and you’ll have a satisfying sex life without a wax. (Any guy who tells you otherwise can get his share elsewhere.) However, with less hair in the way, the labia and the all-important clitoris are closer to the action, easy to find, unimpeded. Our junk is almost as accessible as, yes, a man’s. This isn’t necessarily about oppression and pornification, from their perspective—it’s about logistics. Though we’d also encourage them to take some time out from watching porn online to look at a diagram of female anatomy and learn where everything is, pubic hair or none.
The problem, of course, is that it is about oppression and pornification from our perspective. For starters, waxing feels a little like the more painful and expensive cousin of douching. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, cleaning out your vagina with a little Summer’s Eve was all the rage—commercials featuring ladies in gauzy dresses convinced us all that natural vaginas were cesspools of disgusting that could be turned into meadows and walks on the beach with the right product. Later, we found out douching not only wasn’t necessary, but could cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease—which, besides being painful, can lead to ectopic pregnancy and sterility. These days, the waxing industry has convinced us that making our vaginas “better” is worth $80 a month and the kind of pain that requires special breathing exercises to endure.
And that’s for a practice that can, if done by the wrong esthetician, lead to chafing and bruising and worse. After two women were hospitalized with waxing-related infections in New Jersey, the state considered banning the service altogether. In even more mild cases of complications, burns and cuts can result, not to mention that skin can come off with the wax. Whenever you have to sign a waiver before a salon procedure, it’s not “routine.” It’s not far from here to the skin-bleaching and foot-binding in other countries that Americans often judge so harshly.
Still we all line up to do it, terrified to lose out to other women who have outgroomed us. It’s funny how fast a single girl can go from reading about others getting Brazilians to picturing herself dying alone if she doesn’t do it, too. There’s also the little matter of competing with porn stars, a battle that doesn’t end with intimate hair-care. Many women start getting Brazilians at the request of their Internet-porn-raised Generation X and Y boyfriends. As one waxer told us, “They’re requesting the Brazilian as if it were a haircut style. I tell them they should send their guys in here for a chest wax for a little context to their demands—Brazilians are no joke.” Amen.
And there’s the message we’re sending to ourselves—and to men—that what God gave us isn’t good enough as it is, another idea whose implications are not about to stop at the bikini line. This is all not to mention the argument that we’re making ourselves look like 10-year-old girls, which is downright pervy, to say the least. Isn’t one of the most distinctive features of pubic hair the fact that it shows up at puberty, making it one of the most reliable signs of sexual maturity?
Another problem with the world going Brazilian: It has opened the floodgates to far more egregious vag-altering trends. With bare vaginas as the norm, how do you add that extra something to mark a special occasion? Why, you vajazzle! Yes, women get their crotches bedazzled by trained professionals, who stick tiny adhesive sparkles on their hair-free parts. “After a breakup, a friend of mine Swarovski crystalled my, um, precious lady,” actress Jennifer Love Hewitt told George Lopez on his talk show in January 2010. “It shined like a disco ball.” What had been a (weird) niche market exploded into a buzzy trend. Even those of us who wax rolled our eyes. What would be next?
Why, glad you asked! Labial plastic surgery started showing up on cosmetic practitioners’ price lists in 2006, as Brazilian waxing became the norm and women could see their purported “imperfections.” After that came vaginal rejuvenation, which uses laser treatments that are meant to tighten the vagina. “Our mission is to empower women with knowledge, choice and alternatives,” the website for the Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation Institute of Los Angeles says. “In one of our patient surveys, women were asked; do women want to be loose or relaxed or do women want to be tight? Women answered 100 percent [that] women want to be tight.” Tight and virginal: Plastic surgeons also now push re-hymenization, an extra-special-occasion procedure that allows you to give your loved one your virginity all over again. It’s hard to avoid making the connection between the tightening procedures and the infantilization argument against Brazilian waxing.
It turns out, however, that even actual young girls could use some improvement, according to some shady spas now giving preteen girls bikini waxes. “For waxing, 12 years old is the ‘new normal,’” Philadelphia esthetician Melanie Engle told the Today show’s website. Sure, girls develop ever younger these days, but how necessary could this be? One New York salon even goes so far as to advertise special rates for “virgin” waxing. “Virgin hair can be waxed so successfully that growth can be permanently stopped in just two to six sessions,” explains the web site for Wanda’s European Skin Care Center. “Save your child a lifetime of waxing … and put the money in the bank for her college education instead!” The owner told the New York Post that she’d seen 200 child clients in 2008 and advised that girls begin waxing at 6. You know, in the name of their future Ph.D.s. Not only is this—needless to say—not even close to feminist, it’s barbaric. A wax is, if nothing else, a choice that a woman should make on her own, when she’s at a sexually mature age. And she should spend her formative years believing her vagina is perfect, just the way God gave it to her.
The waxing industry is so out to prove it’s an equal-opportunity torturer that it markets more and more to men as well. Hairy chests are so out—see waxing scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin for proof—and in some more metrosexual circles, that sentiment has moved farther south. We even have a fun term for it now: manscaping. Those who indulge in it do so for the same reason women get bikini waxes — for their partner’s benefit. So why sweat the feminism of it all if guys do it, too? Like many issues of vanity, for them, waxing is a conscious choice, a nice extra something they do for their wife or girlfriend—not something they have to do just to compete with the male-run porn industry. For women, the norm in many parts of America, especially major metropolitan areas, is some pubic grooming, if not outright Brazilian waxing; to choose not to participate is the deviation. For men, it’s a far-less-fraught choice.
And so it is that for a woman, to Brazilian wax or not to Brazilian wax becomes a feminist question. “If you wax, you pull [feminism] out by the roots, and therefore you’re no longer a feminist and you have to turn in your Feminist Membership Card,” one blogger wrote on Feministe.us. Another commenter added, “We could go around in coveralls, with glasses on, with shaved heads and hairy legs. If we were the only females around [men] would find us charming and devastating. We don’t HAVE to cripple ourselves for their approval, or even wax our buttholes.”
That leads to the key point any feminist—card-carrying or otherwise—must consider when deciding whether waxing is for her: For every Brazilian you get, another woman might feel more pressured to do so. Symbolically speaking, you’re not alone on that salon table, with your ankles up around your ears as you exhale with each rip of the wax strip. And that takes sisterhood to a whole new level. That’s what makes waxing such a slippery-slope of a feminist question—it’s never going to be a feminist act, but, should you decide to get one, you need to ask yourself some tough questions to make your salon visit at least a little kinder to the sisterhood.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @jenmarmstrong