A women's place is in the struggle: Hair today, gone tomorrow

April 2, 2003

As if to prove — yet again — the shallowness and absurdity of the "beauty" industry, the Sydney Morning Herald on March 4 announced that "designer pubic hair is in". The latest Gucci advertising campaign features a woman with her pubes waxed into the trademark G. Some beauty salons offer different pubic hairstyles, colouring and decoration.

Extreme waxing, once the preserve of porn stars, strippers and bikini models has now become mainstream. One Sydney beauty salon reported that 70% of it's business was waxing, with 45% of its requests being for a "Brazilian". A Brazilian consists of paying a salon professional to rip out all your pubic hair. The level of waxing that you can request is determined by a rating system that ranges from X to XXXX.

The procedure has been described as humiliating and painful. A friend of mine was surprised to find out that seven out of her nine female workmates have regular Brazilians. After making other inquiries, it appears this is common. Some women swear that it improves their sex life; one woman said she would not have sex with her partner if she had not waxed recently, as she would find it too "embarrassing".

This fuzz-free fashion is not only an expensive form of torture, but the fact that only prepubescent girls lack pubic hair creates uncomfortable connotations.

Also, the "porn star chic" evoked by Brazilian waxing supposedly equates with modern sexually assertive women. The problem here is that porn stars present a highly manufactured image, with many having had breast augmentation and plastic surgery. As a result, public perceptions of what makes a women sexually desirable is based on this identical packaging, and women go through hell to fit the criteria.

Body hair removal is a multi-million-dollar growth industry. In 2002, Australians spent $137 million on razors and blades, and another $30 million on waxes, creams and other depilatory products. This does not even include the money spent at the more than 4000 beauty salons across Australia. Increasingly, large numbers of women and men are going with the old adage "no pain no gain" in search of a hair-free lifestyle.

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But is body hair as unattractive as we are led to believe? A 1998 study by Washington University tested 115 female students and 86 male students on their reactions to a video of a model in a bikini. Half saw her with body hair, half without. Both men and women described the model with body hair as stronger, more aggressive, confident and active. The model without hair was seen as more sociable, happy, intelligent and only slightly more physically attractive. Viewers with feminist attitudes were more likely to have a positive view of body hair.

This illustrates two things. Perceptions of body hair are socially constructed and they are not unchangeable. The presence or absence of body hair is perceived to indicate traits that are stereotyped as masculine or feminine. Feminism has had a positive effect in breaking down stereotypes of "appropriate" traits for women and men. Feminists have generally rejected the practice of removing female body hair because they insist women should be judged by who they are, not what they look like. Despite the efforts of advertisers to convince women otherwise, some of these attitudes have stuck.

Women are more likely to be judged on their appearance and treated differently. The fact that men are now under scrutiny should make us double our efforts to free everyone from expensive, painful and needless forms of torture in the name of "beauty".

Salma Hayek as the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in the recent film Frida, portrayed one of the world's most famous and sexy hairy women. The female stars of the current television adaptation of DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers were told not to wax or shave, to stop going to the gym and to eat carbohydrates so that they would look authentic for the period.

The clock ticks in the world of fashion, and more natural hair is returning to the catwalks of Europe. We should point to these examples and use them to our advantage. However, against the barrage of advertising, this will not be enough to counteract the horror that people feel at their own natural body hair. Once again, we need to fight for a feminist perspective, one that judges all people on who they are, not on their designer body hair.


From Green Left Weekly, April 2, 2003.
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