The hair-down-there is rarely ever talked about, it's a personal and prickly matter that we'd rather google than discuss with our friends. It's definitely not something most Indian parents would explain to you as a teen so it's up to you to figure out why suddenly there's vegetation growing down there.
This was a confusing journey for me as I initially thought that women were hairless down there. The hairless assumption stemmed from a video featuring explicit content that I had stumbled upon during my teen years. The woman’s vagina in the video was completely hairless.
After that moment, it became a huge concern for me as I concluded that being hairless was the norm, and I as a hairy girl had a strange bodily defect. This concern had completely consumed my thoughts but I didn’t want to face the embarrassment of asking someone so I stayed mum about it. After a few days, I was struck with an idea to fulfill my curiosity discreetly - by buying an encyclopedia on the human body.
In absence of any formal sex education, I found all the answers to my pressing concerns in that book. I quickly turned the page to the puberty section and felt relieved to learn that pubic hair is a natural part of growing up.
While I learned that pubic hair was natural, I concluded that women need to shave it off from time to time just like they do for their body hair. I carried on with that notion for years until I was exposed to feminist arguments that said otherwise. In recent years, people have been challenging beauty norms and women are embracing (or trying to) their body hair through social media.
You may remember one such campaign called Januhairy, an initiative that encouraged women to grow their body hair for the month of January and share images of their natural and hairy bodies online. Began by Laura Jackson and Ruby Jones in 2019, it had inspired thousands of women across the globe to partake and overcome shame around their body hair that is instilled in them as young girls.
Judging from the success of this campaign, it may seem as if people have more progressive thoughts about body hair growth now than before. However, this might not be the case for all regions and cultures.
In an intriguing book, Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures by anthropologists Alf Hiltebeitel and Barbara Miller, the authors found that in Uttar Pradesh, “female pubic hair is thought of as ganda (dirty) and considered by males as being an impediment during intercourse”. They also discovered that once a month, “in rural Rajasthan, women use a special soap that completely removes their pubic hair”.
In urban areas, there are many publications and feminist websites such as Feminism India and the Swaddle with think pieces such as Hairy And Proud: Body Hair Removal Through A Feminist Lens and The Shame and Scandal of Indian Women’s Hair Follicles which advocate for women to not be peer-pressured into body hair removal. But what about men? Are men subjected to the same pressures as women to get rid of the hair in the pubic region? Maybe a little but mostly women bear the brunt of going completely hairless. To understand our current perception of pubic hair and the trends associated with it let us take a quick history lesson.
Even ancient Egyptians practiced pubic hair removal
Albeit a painful way, ancient Egyptians used pumice stones and flints to trim and remove public hair. They also invented "sugaring" - natural hair removal process performed with hot sugar and lemon juice. Sugar wasn't their only tool, they created their own high-alkaline depilatory (hair-removing) solutions like the "rhusma" paste used as a hair removal cream in Turkey as long as 3,000 years ago.
Considering that these depilatories were invented thousands of years ago, we can't be sure of how safe they were. A medieval medical cookbook, the Trotula, detailed a recipe that instructed boiling arsenic with quicklime and leaving it on the skin for just long enough that the flesh doesn't burn off. Phew, aren't you glad to be born in this era?
Among men, the most compulsive trimmers were the priests of ancient Egypt, from the 400s B.C. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, these priests “shave their whole body every other day, that no lice or other impure thing may adhere to them when they are engaged in the service of the gods.” Concluding from his writings, it appears men’s reasons to get rid of pubes were more medical rather than beauty-related.
But for women, obviously, the beauty standards were set higher and the Greeks expected their women to be hairless and smooth - especially the upper-class women.
The ancient Greeks were obsessed with hairless women
As is evident from their artworks and sculptors, the ancient Greeks admired youthful and hairless bodies which were the common symbol of beauty. Women with pubic hair were labeled "uncivilized," as, in Greek culture, it was considered barbaric or low-class for women to possess body-hair.
Unlike the Egyptians, Greek women didn’t have depilatory creams for hair removal so they had to resort to plucking their pubic hair individually, a more painful procedure. In such desperate attempts to avoid pain, sometimes, they even burned it off. Men weren't expected to practice much pubic grooming but there were a few that joined women in the trend and the Greeks called them "dandies" since it was believed that only women should be concerned with their physical appearances.
In the Middle Ages, most women removed pubic hair to avoid pubic lice
After the Roman Empire, pubic fads changed and it was trendy to maintain pubic hair. While a few women shaved to please their husbands, most women removed their pubic hair with hair removal cream like solutions to get rid of or prevent pubic lice. People can contract pubic lice through sexual contact and like any parasite, they will likely make your life a living hell causing redness, intense itching, and irritation.
Later, in 1450, the first merkin or pubic wig was invented to cover bare mons or shaved genitals. There were several reasons why merkins became popular - women used them to hide their lice-driven hair removal and in some cases, even conceal an STD. These merkins, however, didn't manage to make it to artistic depictions as they didn’t gain a pleasant aesthetic or beauty appeal as hairless bodies did.
In the Elizabeth era in the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I promoted pubic hair growth but made it uncool to possess eyebrow hair. So, in a weird trade-off, women now felt pressured to remove their eyebrow hair but keep the earlier admonished pubic hair. Beauty trends had once again changed due to which bush hair removal was set aside for a while. This shows how beauty trends are unpredictable and depend on our collective perception of them, more than anything else.
Early 20th century, when Gillette introduced its first women's razors
The next solution for removing unwanted hair arrived in 1915, when the popular company, Gillette introduced the first women's razors. At the time, sleeveless dresses were the latest fad and so advertisements promoted hairless armpits as the societally-accepted way to wear a sleeveless dress.
X Brazin, a depilatory powder brand, aggressively marketed this idea through their ads, for instance, have a look at their 1915 ad that read, “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.” The word ‘objectionable’ seems to have been used to create stigma and shame around women’s body hair.
During World War 2, female body hair became more ‘objectionable’ as there was a huge nylon shortage which meant women didn't have stockings to cover their hairy legs anymore. This led to more women shaving in order to look 'presentable' while bare-legged.
In 1946, bikini entered the market, which invented the need for a smooth "bikini line" meaning hair removal traveled further up women's legs. Sarah Hildebrandt writes about this in her book ‘The EmBodyment of American Culture’, “the more clothes women were ‘allowed’ (or expected) to remove, the more hair they were also expected to remove.” This trend continued into the 1960s and with mini-skirts and shorts becoming more popular, women were encouraged to have hairless thighs, armpits, calves, and bikini lines.
The 1970s: Second-wave feminism's revolt to hair removal
This feminist wave reclaimed women's autonomy over their bodies and persuaded women to scrap hair removal to free them from unrealistic beauty standards. Untrimmed bushes became mainstream and even in porn, which is usually unrealistic, adult stars were wearing their bush like a crown. That was until the infamous era of the Brazilian wax.
The 1990s marked the beginning of the practice of the Brazilian wax
The idea of going completely hairless down there was brought by three sisters from Brazil who opened their famous J. Salon in New York in 1987 offering Brazilian waxes. Throughout the 90s, the trend remained niche with only more affluent women opting for the treatment. Soon, celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Campbell created a buzz around it and when Sex and the City aired their infamous “Brazilian” episode, the trend started spreading like wildfire.
The current situation asks women to rethink the hairless trend
According to a 2014 Cosmopolitan poll, 70% of the participants opted for Brazilian waxes. However, currently, more and more women feel less pressured to go through that agonizing process. The New York Times had reported that the trend of a fuller bush was coming back and the brand, American Apparel also indicated so by showcasing mannequins donning a merkin in 2014.
The fashion trendsetting magazine, Vogue declared that "The Full Bush Is the New Brazilian” in 2018 and consequently, pubic hair styling rather than removal has become the new way of pubic hair grooming.
Are some types of body hair more acceptable than others?
For men, growing hair is viewed as natural and even as a sign of masculinity. It's been the opposite for women who from an early age are shamed for being hairy. In school, many girls feel conscious about having hairy legs and convince their mothers to get waxed at an early age, sometimes as early as 12. I was one of those girls.
In society, there's an association of cleanliness and attractiveness to a hairless body that we absorb without any resistance. Nobody objected to the practice even when people made controversial statements such as Victoria Beckham who in 2003, openly suggested making Brazilians compulsory at age 15. This is a clear testament to the fact that young girls are subjected to harrowing beauty standards which they barely comprehend.
Many women are taking to social media to break this convention, though. A photographer Ashley Armitage has made body hair one of the focuses of her Instagram account, which features portraits of women combing their underarm locks. She tells USA Today that her interest in body hair habits began when she noticed her friends going au natural and letting their armpit hair and leg hair go rogue. Her friends' defiance to beauty trends made her question her own hair removal habits.
“I was grappling with it: ‘Why do I have to shave?'" she says. "Why do I have to deal with these terrible razor burns under my armpit and also get a five o’clock shadow?’”
Inspired by women fearlessly flaunting their body hair, she started filling up her Instagram with photos of women with underarm hair, happy trails on their stomach, and unshaven bikini lines. However, as her account grew in popularity, it became the target of hate and abuse by trolls that attacked the depictions of unshaven women.
“There are people in the world who hate (the idea of hairy women) and don’t want a woman going outside of the (hairless) beauty standard,” Armitage said. “There were people who were sending death threats.”
This isn't an overstatement, people on the internet can be quite cruel and even female celebrities have faced abuse and insults over publicly making appearances with their body hair. Actress Lola Kirke ("Mozart in the Jungle") wrote on Instagram that she, too, got "death threats" after having "awesome" hairy armpits on the 2017 Golden Globes red carpet.
However, Armitage continued her journey towards normalizing body hair regardless of the hate. And she's gained support for her body hair visibility movement through an increase in followers on her Instagram from 10,000 to 132,000 people.
Even Indian celebrities such as Kareena Kapoor and Malaika Arora have publicly addressed the dilemma women face with their body hair. Malaika Arora, who usually appears hairless and with a sculpted body had posted an unedited outtake from a photo shoot that showed her having unshaved underarm hair. The simple picture had a huge impact on people's perception of women and also in a way humanized celebrities as it showed how their bodies are not naturally hairless or perfect.
Today, women still engage in expensive and time-consuming hair removal practices - some do it out of personal choice, others to please their partners. Some of these practices can have damaged their skin though, for instance, laser hair removal can cause severe burns, blistering, and scarring. The procedure of bleaching can irritate and discolor your skin and there have been horror stories on Reddit of women posting about how they burnt their vagina while using the hair removal cream, Nair.
Even when women want to be liberated from the shackles of these gender norms, it is difficult to let go of years of conditioning. So, a lot of them rationalize it by labeling it as a method of self-enhancement or self-care. But deep down, we might be still buying into the myths of velvety limbs being more desirable and hairless representing the virtue of cleanliness.
Are there benefits to having pubic hair?
Just like there's a reason behind having body hair, there's an equal justification for the presence of thick vegetation down there. According to Healthline, pubic hair acts as a protecting buffer to your genital skin, reducing friction during sex and other activities.
It is often called a "dry lubricant" as it's easier to rub hair against hair that it is to rub skin against skin. Pubic hair also helps in keeping the genitals warm and snug, which is a crucial factor in sexual arousal.
Having some hair down there offers protection from bacteria and other pathogens. Much like eyelashes and nose hair, pubic hair traps dirt, debris, and potentially harmful microorganisms. In addition, hair follicles produce sebum, an oil that actually prevents bacteria from reproducing. Healthline states that pubic hair may protect against certain infections, including cellulitis, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), urinary tract infections (UTIs), vaginitis, and yeast infections.
One of the other possible theories for the benefits of keeping pubic hair is that since pubic hair appears at puberty, it becomes a physical sign of sexual maturity — and consequently, one’s ability to reproduce. So, in the past, it may have been a visual cue to attract prospective mates.
Another theory proposes a link between pubic hair and the transmission of pheromones (scent-carrying chemical secretions that affect mood and behavior). Pheromones are secreted from apocrine sweat glands. Compared to other areas of the body, the pubic region has a lot of these glands. Pheromones are known to play a role in finding prospective mates, however, we're not entirely sure how it influences sexuality. A theory says that pubic hair may trap pheromones, increasing how attractive we appear to potential sex partners.
Contrary to popular belief having pubic hair is not unhygienic. However, many people still think so - a nationally representative 2013 survey of 7,580 people, 59 percent of women and 61 percent of men who groomed their pubic hair reported doing so for hygienic purposes.
The reason why they may seem slightly unhygienic is that much like any other hair on your body, your pubes trap sweat, oil, and bacteria. But this is normal and can be managed with regular washing.
Dangers of shaving pubic hair
You may be performing some type of grooming technique on your pubes and if you're sexually active, this might have something to do with your partner's preference. Both men and women, often believe that their partners would prefer minimal pubic hair. In the 2013 survey, around 21.1 percent of women reported that their grooming was related to partner preference. The same survey showed that a similar percentage of men also groom according to their partner’s desire.
Men seem to care more about their partner's pubic hair though. As a 2015 study showed that men were more likely than women to report a preference for a pubic hair-free sexual partner. In contrast, women were more likely to cite that they preferred trimmed or partially shaved or waxed pubic hair.
Pubic grooming injuries are surprisingly common. A 2017 study reported that 25.6 percent of groomers sustained injuries during or after hair removal.
Trimming is a relatively safer hair removal method but people don't stop there. They tend to shave it all off or perform painful a Brazilian wax to go smooth without any trace of hair. These methods can often cause minor injuries as cuts are the most commonly reported injury with pubic region shaving, with burns and rashes also reported frequently.
Pubic hair forms a protective barrier against pathogens so getting rid of it means bringing down that firewall. Removing pubic hair may therefore make a person more susceptible to common infections, such as UTIs, vaginitis, and yeast infections. Hair removal can also irritate your skin, leading to skin infections such as cellulitis and folliculitis.
In severe cases, cuts from shaving or trimming could become infected and in rare instances, hair removal might result in the development of boils in your genital area. Boils, first appearing as red bumps, can develop from skin irritation - you may have noticed them after waxing if you have sensitive skin.
Surprisingly, pubic hair grooming is also associated with an increased risk of STIs. In one 2017 study, people who reported grooming their pubic hair were more likely to also report having had an STI at some point in their lifetime, compared to non-groomers. According to Healthline, some STIs that have been associated with pubic hair grooming include chlamydia, herpes, HIV, human papillomavirus (HPV), molluscum contagiosum, syphilis.
How to keep the pubic region clean if you choose not to shave
If you're switching to the pro-hair lifestyle, you can these simple steps to keep your pubic region clean and healthy.
- Wash with warm, soapy water when you take a shower.
- Avoid using scented products to clean your pubic area, as they can lead to a pH imbalance.
- Use a damp towel or tissue to clean your pubic area between baths or showers.
- Always dry your pubic hair after cleaning as wetness/dampness can aid bacterial growth.
Body hair may be unappealing to look at but that's only due to our learned beauty standards and years of stigmatization of women's body hair. In the era of the emancipated woman, you are entitled to shave it all off or keep the unruly hair growth but it is always good to be mindful of why you make that decision.