Sandra, 28, has been with her boyfriend for a little over a year, and he just made an … interesting proposition: He volunteered to pay for laser hair removal. She’s been alternating between waxes and shaving her bikini line since college, so this prospect has its merits — she couldn’t afford it on her own, and it would save her time, money, and discomfort in the long run. He was respectful about the offer, clearly stating that he had no expectations and would never mention it again if she felt uncomfortable; he said he felt bad that she was incurring expenses on account of his “preferences” (even though she’d probably be doing the same thing even if he wasn’t in the picture). Still, on principle, she isn’t sure about the idea of his paying for things that happen to her body. She can see herself being with him long-term, and while she’s somewhat tempted to say yes, she doesn’t want to set a complicated precedent. What should she do?
Staring up at the spackled ceilings of various salons, I’ve often thought, I can’t believe I’m paying for this—again. But I know I’m in good company: What man or woman hasn’t shelled out money to attend to parts of their body that a select few people (or just one, or even nobody) will see? I won’t open the door to the hair-removal debate, because we’d be here all day — it’s your body, and you get to decide what happens to it, regardless of who’s paying. But if your boyfriend offers to fork over a few thousand dollars of his own money to zap your pubic area, it’s understandable that red flags would go up, no matter how respectful he is or how little you cared for those hairs to begin with. It sounds like he’s trying to give you more options to choose from (emphasis on your choice). What it shouldn’t add is pressure.
When I polled friends on your situation, I got reactions ranging from “Why not?” to “NO WAY” followed by multiple exclamation points. The latter response came from a physician in her 30s who put her finger on what may be bothering you as well: “If there is something I want to do to my body, that’s my decision, and I will pay for it — whether it’s something I want to do for myself, or something I want to do for my partner because I know it turns him on,” she says. “Allowing a partner to pay for some sort of physical augmentation of my body is like giving him control over something sacred. My body is perfect the way it is, and only I will decide when, why, and how I want to change my it. Maintaining financial control over it is pivotal to owning that decision for myself, and ensuring it is free from coercion.”
But not everyone feels that way. I spoke to several married friends who consider personal grooming a shared expense. “My monthly wax appointments — brow and bikini — come from our ‘mixed finances’ pot,” says one. “My husband has never expressed any opinions on the matter, but he seems to support my choices.” It’s also not unusual for people to give these treatments to significant others as gifts, according to Andrea Young, the owner of Beam Laser Spa in Manhattan. “We see it quite often, but I don’t think it’s something that’s given out of the blue; it’s been previously mentioned in some way,” she says. “When a significant other calls or comes in to buy a gift package for a girlfriend or wife, he says something like, ‘She’s been thinking about this for a couple of years, but hasn’t gotten around to it, or couldn’t afford it.’” It’s usually well received, she adds: “We’ve never sold a gift certificate that went unused.”
Chris Karavolas, the founder of Romeo & Juliette Laser Hair Removal, says that about 10 to 15 percent of his female clients are paid for by significant others. “Women buy them for men as well,” he points out. “It can be a very delicate matter, and you have to approach it in a careful and diplomatic way. One way around that is to do it together, which happens frequently,” he said. (Young corroborates this: “We have couples who come in for initial consultations, and then go through the ‘laser journey’ together.”)
In fact, Karavolas continues, couples are excellent for customer acquisition. About 70 percent of his male clients will bring a woman partner to an appointment at some point, and later foot the bill for her to get a laser treatment or two, while 30 percent of women will do the same for men. “Sometimes clients even ask my staff in advance to help them suggest it,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘I’m bringing in my boyfriend. Could you ask him if he’s interested in a consultation? I don’t want to offend him, but if you say it, he might say yes.’”
In other words, this is a topic where many couples grapple with communication, and sometimes resort to convoluted back channels. But before you start thinking about logistics, it sounds like you need to figure out how you feel about the idea before you take further steps. And take your time. That your boyfriend has removed an obstacle — financial cost — is known in behavioral economics as a “nudge” tactic: using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to steer you toward his desired outcome, while still leaving the choice up to you. So, it’s understandable that you feel a little bit muddled, or rushed. Regardless of his “nudging,” however, the most important thing is that you know you can say no without a whisper of reprisal, full stop. You don’t need to decide anything right away. You can think this over for as long as you want.
If you do want to pursue this, you also need to define your boundaries. “If you’re feeling weird, it’s a warning sign that you’re tiptoeing up to something that doesn’t feel safe — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong,” says Amanda Clayman, an L.A.-based financial therapist. “You could start by asking yourself, ‘What is the territory that we’re skirting? What’s something that would be similar to this, but would be a definite no?’ That may give you more clarity on what doesn’t feel quite right, and what feels in violation of your bodily sovereignty, so to speak.”
Part of any relationship is figuring out what you’re willing to compromise on, simply because it’s important to the other person, even if it’s less important to you. No matter who’s paying, you always get to answer those questions for yourself. On the list of nonnegotiables, your body is at the top.