Photo: Photo Illustration by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty
One score and eleven years ago, a woman from eastern Brazil opened a beauty salon in Manhattan. Janea Padilha named the salon J Sisters, and embarked on a quest to remove hair from the bodies of women with hot wax. Her signature service came to be known as the Brazilian: a bikini wax that went “deeper” than those of competitors, removing every hair from clients’ labia, butt crack, and mons pubis (with the occasional “landing strip” remaining). Celebrities flocked to J Sisters. Feminists wrote treatises denouncing the practice. (Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs scoffed at those who felt “empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes.”) In 1997, the FDA approved laser hair removal in professional settings. In 2008, at-home laser removal arrived. In the space of about two decades, hairlessness became the norm in entertainment, pornography, and fashion. “Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct?” asked the Atlantic in 2011.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the oblivion of the bush: body positivity, sex positivity, and a maturation in choice feminism. This is not to say hair removal went out of style: As of 2016, an estimated 84 percent of American women reported engaging in some form of pubic grooming. This includes, but is not limited to, waxing, trimming, shaving, tweezing, threading, lasers, hair-melting chemicals, and whatever idiosyncratic habits one develops in the privacy of her bathroom on a weird afternoon. And so we are at what I’ve come to think of as the Great Diversification of Pubic Hair.
Our culture is more visual, voyeuristic, and exhibitionist than ever before. We are incredibly aware of what everyone’s bodies and genitals look like. We have the power to browse the bodies and genitals of others. To the extent that a fashionable attitude toward pubes even exists, that attitude is now to each her own. “When people want me to talk about whether I think the bush is back, and whether that’s great for feminism, I’m like ‘You know what’s great for feminism? Respecting everybody’s own choice,’” actress Gaby Hoffman said in 2014. “I’ve always looked the same, and every ten years I’m a little bit in fashion.”
On screens and in magazines, the most overrepresented female crotch is the hairless one. When Khloé Kardashian lasered off her pubes in 2008 episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, sister Kim exclaimed: “Why it’s taken her so long is beyond me!” (Kim sometimes brags that her “entire body is hairless.”) Many, if not most, of America’s self-styled female sex symbols belong to this tribe — or at least emulate it as they tug at the legs of high-waisted swimsuits on Instagram. Hairlessness remains the predominant style on mainstream porn sites (which allow users to sort videos based on pubic grooming). And there’s an entire genre of Hollywood interviews where a starlet gigglingly announces that her nude scene required a vagina wig known as a merkin, for historical accuracy and privacy. “No way, that big?!” Jennifer Connelly exclaimed when she saw the merkin for her full-frontal scene in 2016’s American Pastoral. She tried to “haggle down” the size of her merkin, without much success.
In recent years, some female sex symbols have made a point to announce, display, or discuss the moments when they do have pubes. Since hairlessness dominates the industries that employ sex symbols (entertaining, modeling, cavorting on Instagram) these women’s pubic hair may be presented or read as a political statement. Members of this tribe include model and Kardashian nemesis Amber Rose who briefly appeared naked from the waist down on Instagram, eventually advocating to #bringbackthebush. When Westworld actress Thandie Newton announced, “I didn’t need the merkin because I don’t alter anything. Full ’70s bush,” she received a fist bump from actor Chris Pratt. Speaking of an incident that required pubic shaving in 2013, Gwyneth Paltrow announced, “I work a ’70s vibe, you know?” Back in the ’90s, Gwyneth’s portrait hung on the walls of J Sisters, where she was a regular.
Three years after Gwyneth announced she’d gone back to the bush, J Sisters went broke. In 2014, one of Manhattan’s other temples to hairlessness, Complete Bare, rebranded as “Spruce & Bond.” They now offer “results driven beauty treatments” including waxing, lasers, brow-styling, chemical peels, eyelash extensions. These moves fit with trends in the beauty and fitness industries, which are increasingly viewed as components of a larger industry of wellness. Likewise, body-hair maintenance is no longer viewed as a hyper-specific, highly specialized process, but one service among many performed to all parts of the body, with a wide variety of intended outcomes.
And thus, we arrive at the largest pubic tribe of all: those who dabble with a number of styles, calibrating based on some combination of pain management, sexual considerations, comfort, and swimsuit exposure. When I spoke to regular women about their pubic grooming, a surprising number said they altered between the Brazilian and a full bush. These would seem to be polar opposite pubic styles, but in terms of individual laziness, they’re actually sort of the same: Neither style requires its participants to fiddle with or even look at your pubes. “I wax all of it, but honestly, sometimes I forget,” said Drew, age 33. When that happens she goes full bush — no razors, no trimming, no removing the hair that goes beyond her bikini’s edge. Just pubes au naturel.
“I think in college and my early-to mid-20s I assumed the best choice was bare, but as I’ve gotten older I really don’t care,” said a 31-year-old Philadelphian who sometimes shaves off everything, sometimes nothing, sometimes just the bikini line. Alex, age 29, said she was halfway through her laser treatments when she got sick of them and stopped. Now she has an artificially thinned bush. “I am Mediterranean and have a ton of hair everywhere,” she explained in a Twitter DM. “I would say it thinned out to like 75 percent of the original, so it’s still a bush, but not like the full fucking forest crammed into a 5-square-inch space.” She paid $89 per session for perhaps four sessions. “I’m sure at some point in the next two to three years, I’ll feel the need to go back for another touch-up session. But I’m good with how it is for now.”
This diversity of pubic hair styles has been simultaneously liberating and oppressive, comforting and bewildering. To view genitals as just one body part among others is a relief. But if we are to feel as relaxed about the hair on crotches as we do about the hair on our heads, we’re actually signing up for a pretty high level of obsessing. If genitals are not some sacred taboo, does that mean that the places we pee from are supposed to be as beautiful as the public parts?
Accordingly, whereas crotch maintenance once fell in the “hygiene” section of drug stores, a growing sector of vaginal “beauty” products boldly demand placement in the skin-care and hair-care aisles. “Why should faces get all the love?” genital beauty start-up Lady Suite asks. “It may not be widely discussed, especially in skin care, but we’re not afraid to bring it up. We invest so much time (and money) on our facial skin care while neglecting other VIPs (very important parts) of the body: the lady parts.” A British skin-care company called Janna sells sheet masks for your vagina, which contain the same ingredients as facial sheet masks, but shaped like a pantyliner. Cynthia Chua, the founder of vulva sheet mask company Two Lips, instills freedom and fear simultaneously when she explains the purpose of her products: “As women, we spend so much time focusing on the face and general body parts. I think attitudes are definitely shifting south of the border. It’s high time we shift the focus towards better quality maintenance of the vagina.”
Still, there are plenty of women who believe the best pubic style is one you can ignore. My friend Lee illustrated this phenomenon with a story: She’d gone to get a bikini wax, but the esthetician misheard her. “She did a giant strip for a Brazilian and I was like, what?” To her horror, she was living through the Sex and the City scene that, in 2000, introduced Brazilian bikini waxing to much of America, when Carrie Bradshaw receives one by accident and feels “like one of those freaking hairless dogs.” Lee was indignant. I understand, said. Having your genitals look differently than desired totally sucks.
No, Lee laughed. She wasn’t mad about getting the wrong pubic style — she was mad about having to spend even a minute longer than desired making decisions about her pubes. (After fruitless attempts at wax removal with ointments and hot water, she compromised by going half Brazilian, half not.) The best pubic style is whatever frees you from thinking about it. This is, in many ways, a truer erasure than anything a laser can do — a removal not of the physical thing itself, but anxieties contained therein. Once the anxiety is gone, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s there.
* Some names have been changed.