How do you wear yours?

Why your bikini line is a feminist issue

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Summer is coming, which amongst other things, means we'll be thinking more about our bikini line. According to ELLE's definitive beauty survey published in the May issue, 79% of you deal with hair removal at home, 2% don't bother at all.

Bald eagle or burst sofa – what do you do ‘down there’? We think pubic hair is now a feminist issue. Below, Francesca O’Brien explains why.

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Five friends on a girls-only break somewhere hot. Lots of gossip, lots of filthy jokes, lots of visits to the local supermarket to buy our body weight in rosé. Because the villa we have rented has its own pool and there are no menfolk around – nothing around, actually, save the odd goat drinking from the pool – we decide to go not only topless but bottomless too. Why not? We’re proper, long-standing friends, there’s no amount of saggy bosoms or cellulite we haven’t seen before and, besides, we haven’t gone on holiday to be judgmental. This is the genuine sisterhood here.

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That’s what I’m thinking, anyway, until we all strip Jack naked and there’s an audible intake of breath when everyone catches sight of my, um, bikini line. I look like a circus attraction compared to the way everyone else has elaborately topiarised. Did you see Cameron Diaz on The Graham Norton Show telling how she had to literally pin a friend down to the floor in order to get her to shave down there? Well, that is a little what it was like in this scenario: my friends all but frog-marching me back to the supermarket to get a bumper pack of razors. They simply could not get over how ‘brave’ I was, allowing it to look like that in this day and age.

By the time we got back home, it had become a minor celebrity – ‘But have you seen the size of Francesca’s bush?’ – and I was so intrigued by the subject that I decided to do a straw poll. Was mine the only retro muff in London? Not so, it seems. One friend proudly told me her ‘triangle’ is now ‘like seaweed in the bath’, and that she only ‘cuts the corners for a holiday treat’. If you’ve read Caitlin Moran’s best-selling How To Be A Woman, you will know she has a ‘big, hairy minge’, a ‘lovely furry moof’, or even better, a ‘marmoset sitting in my lap’. OK, mine’s not a marmoset, but it’s no naked mole rat either, that is for very sure.

Pubes: What a battleground they have become. What a locus for feminist debate. What a cultural semaphore, too, for the way we women perceive ourselves and are perceived by others, men and women alike. The choice we make as to whether to wax, shave, cream or laser down there is such a loaded one. Burst sofa or bald eagle, it says so much about you, which way you veer.

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Clearly, sex has a lot to do with it. Those who have it regularly, it would appear from my little poll, tend to be much more pruned than those who do not. But the idea that we only do it to look like little girls for our kinky partners does not tally with the hardcore, slightly intimidating yoginis I’ve noticed in the shower after class, whose clean-shaven-ness seems to be more about self-adornment, in the manner of body piercings and tattoos, than anything else.

A friend who used to make pornographic films (and was, unusually, a fan of the female furry bush) tells me he thinks the choice comes down to a class issue. ‘You’d never find a girl from a working-class background with any hair down there. Ever. But the ones we’d cast from private school backgrounds, they all had bushes.’ A link between class status and pubic hair – now there’s a survey that needs to be conducted.

Although (and this is why it is such a feminist issue) is it actually a matter of choice now? Take the case of photographer and artist Petra Collins, who recently had her Instagram account deleted after posting a picture of herself in bikini bottoms from the waist down. Why? Lots of people post bikini selfies, in much raunchier shots than Collins’. No, the reason her account got deleted was because she had the audacity, the temerity, the pure tastelessness not to have had a bikini wax beforehand, and – horrors! – you could see her sprouting out of the sides. Can there be a more heinous social crime?

Blame it on the easy availability of YouPorn or our growing inability to distinguish between what is real and what is virtual, but our perceptions of what ‘normal’ versus ‘kinky’ looks like has been radically skewed. If easily accessible porn is the window to others’ nakedness, why on earth would anyone believe women were not born hairless? And that having a lot of pubic hair was a bit… specialist.

You could also blame it on the general societal repulsion for bodily hair, and maybe even the increasing amount of flesh shown by the average celebrity (how could Miley Cyrus be anything other than clean-shaven to wear what she does on the red carpet?). Certainly, looking pre-pubescent feels like it has slowly but surely become the New Normal. There are not many reliable statistics to prove it – unsurprisingly, as it’s not an easy question to ask, and besides, in these self-reported studies, who’s there to check what’s really going on down there… but a 2012 survey by Indiana University of 2,451 women in the US showed that of those in the 18-24 age group, two-thirds had totally or partially removed their pubic hair during the past month. A fifth had been hairless during that entire period.

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I remember the first time I realised I was growing hair down below. The discovery was a concrete marker, a proper rite of passage, a move if not from innocence to experience, then from child to proper girl. No longer would my mum be able to walk in when I was having my bath. As professional tweeter and microblogger Kelly Oxford recently put it, ‘If your kids have pubic hair, you don’t get to pre-board the plane.’

The irony is that, coming from hairy stock, both my sister and I started waxing at the age of 13. We were, amongst our late-developer friends, pubic pioneers, but that wasn’t a fashion thing; it was because if we didn’t, it would quite literally be down to our knees. I also remember declaring this to my mum in the car on the way to school and not really getting the big reaction I thought it deserved.

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That first wax? Oh lord. The old dear who administered it clearly hadn’t been doing it for very long, pulling it off in what felt like slow motion and leaving me with big red welts. Of course, in those days it was really just about making sure it didn’t poke out at the sides and join up with your belly button, but, boy, has it turned into something else in the last 20 years. It’s partly idleness that has made me gradually revert to a good old Seventies bush, partly stinginess (I rather resent spending all that money on something that so few people see), and partly because I have a partner who likes me as nature intended (or at least, he says he does). I also like that it bucks a disturbing trend: a whole generation of young men and boys who may not know there is such thing as female pubic hair cannot be a good thing.

I have it on good authority that girls as young as 11 are now immediately whipping it all off the second there is even a hint of pube – in some cases, with the full approval of their mothers. ‘I see a lot of girls aged 16 or so who have been recommended to come and see me by their mums, who are already clients,’ says the head waxer of one of London’s most popular salons. ‘And 90% of them will ask for a Brazilian or Hollywood. Sometimes I can’t believe how much they’re spending on it. If you figure you need it done once a month, if not more, depending on the stubble factor, and it’s £45 a shot without tip…’ Well, that’s serious pocket money, isn’t it?

The Brazilian – where hair is removed from the front, back and everywhere in between, with just a frontal ‘landing strip’ left intact – is itself a modern invention, brought to New York by the Brazilian-born J. Sisters in 1987 and popularised by Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw. In fact, although waxing one’s lady garden was first practised thousands of years ago, in ancient Egypt, on the whole (permit a pun here and there, will you?) up until about 30 years ago or so, a good thatch was something a woman could wear in the bedroom with pride. In the 17th and 18th centuries, lovers would exchange their pubes as tokens of affection, putting them in lockets or wearing them as cockades in hats. Shaving was something that only prostitutes did, in order to get rid of pubic lice.

In terms of art, it was the other way round. ‘The ideal female nude in Western art was a smooth-bodied, hairless creature who was wonderfully oblivious to, and innocent of, her state of undress,’ says Alyce Mahon, Cambridge academic and author of Eroticism and Art. ‘A real ‘naked’ female, in contrast, was represented with all her ‘imperfections’, including pubic and underarm hair. If the ideal nude was meant to elevate the mind away from bodily desire through its supposed innocence, the naked model made no such concession: she was staged as the palpable object of male desire,’ Mahon continues. Aha! See? Hair equals sex! Flick through the pages of Playboy in the late Sixties and early Seventies and you’ll see just that. Scroll forward to now, and having such a hearty bush has become an act of cultural subversion.

But hang on a second – with the new wave of feminism, do we feel a backlash building? I can’t be the only woman for whom a negligible little stripe of fuzz feels not only like pandering to pornographic tastes, but also slightly impractical (a friend who has just had a Hollywood confirms that when there’s no hair to ‘funnel your wee, it goes everywhere’ ). Am I the only one who not only likes to have her bits covered up, but feels rather weird going to, say, the gynaecologist looking like a porn star? Is it just me who feels even weirder knickerless, with my feet behind my head, while a beautician talcs up my most intimate parts in preparation for covering them in burning hot wax?

Look at Gwyneth Paltrow who has, er, waxed lyrical about her ‘Seventies-style’ bush and how her team had to run out for razors when she appeared on the red carpet in that Antonio Berardi dress with the big see-through side panels. I have it on good authority that Stella McCartney, meanwhile, is seriously thinking of launching a ‘Bring back the beaver’ campaign. Indeed, when I called to check, her office said they were already looking for suitable domains to buy to bring the campaign online, and passed on this message from Stella herself: ‘I think body hair is a really historical topic. Girls and women should be able to be who they are; they shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Having two young daughters, I am an advocate of being who you want to be, and not judging people. It’s about personal pride and confidence no matter what your personal choices, especially when it comes to sexuality.’ It seems a growing number of women agree with her. Saskia De Brauw, Angela Lindvall and Daria Werbowy are just some of the supermodels who have happily bared their flourishing lady gardens for the camera.

So, what is the ideal? Well, no one here is talking about a total overgrown knicker situation. Ever seen 19th-century French artist Gustave Courbet’s realist masterpiece of a woman’s bits, L’Origine du Monde? (No? Google it immediately.) Not like that. But not, please, like Iggy Azalea, who ‘accidentally’ flashed her lady tackle at the 2013 MTV EMA awards, either. TMI, Ms Azalea. What I’m talking about is a sensible triangle that perhaps slightly bulges underneath one’s bikini bottoms.

It’s been two years since that girly mini-break abroad. In the interim, I have held my ground and I bet you the next time we get our kit off together, I won’t be quite so much the odd one out.

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