The late 60s and early 70s were surely the high point of hirsuteness in the history of Western culture, and it is safe to bet that women’s bushes were bushier then than they’d ever been before, or have been since.
I myself was hardly in a position to find out, being small at the time, and I grew up in the English countryside, a gentrified world of dogs and Landrovers, far removed from London and its bohème chic lifestyle, but my mother had a fashion boutique in Salisbury and she took me with her one time on a buying trip to the West End. My memories of that visit are very blurred and fragmented, but there is one small part of it I remember quite clearly.
It was winter at the time and the showroom felt warm and cosy after the gritty cold and dark on the streets and the bellicose roar of London traffic. It was a loft-type space, lit by soft, yellowish lighting, and the night at the windows was a beautiful indigo blue. A few women were present, browsing the clothes racks separately and in silence, and the atmosphere in the room, pervaded by the sweetish smell of new clothing, was profoundly peaceful, but also sensuous and softly alive, the only sounds the thin metallic rasp of wire coat-hangers and whisper of cotton fabrics.
Somewhere in this showroom was a group of textile cubicles like voting booths at a polling station, but semi-translucent and seemingly lit from within.
I soon found out, of course, that these cubicles were strictly out of bounds for little boys, when, pushing excitedly through from one to another, I burst in on a half-naked woman. Why she had taken off her panties to try on a mini-dress or a pair of bell-bottom trousers I shall never know, but, there, mere inches from my innocent little-boy’s face was my first ever pussy, as bushy and dark as you please. Not that I had much occasion for looking more closely since the pussy’s owner, alarmed, no doubt, at first, but not indignant, was looking straight down at me, her voice stern, – admonishing me for my naughtiness, – but her eyes filled with kindness and shining with amusement.
It would be many long years before I came within range of another. At the tender age of 8 I was sent to an English boarding school and as I remember it there was only one woman in the entire establishment, a stentorian battle-axe by the name of Miss Rushen. She had broad hips with a head of wiry grey hair and among her routine tasks were the inspection of our teeth after brushing, and the supervision of our baths in the filthy water we all had to share. At other times she gave us booster shots and scolded us bitterly whenever we fell ill from food poisoning.
At one time while I was there a copy of Penthouse or Playboy Magazine was passed around the dorms – a much-coveted article, which no weight in marbles nor even the rarest in circulation (a galaxy red or a peppermint moon) could ever hope to purchase. It was very creased and battered, and the apricot hues of cosmeticized female flesh had been rubbed away in places.
All the girls had ‘hairy forests’ – to employ our prep school vocabulary and return to my theme – and the reasons for this seem obvious enough. This was very soft porn by today’s standards and pussy hair obscures the pudenda. All we could really make out, however closely we peered, was a grainy sfumato with the faintest suggestion of coral or pink.
I have mentioned these early experiences because they clearly conditioned my own preferences in later life, but I would argue that hirsute pussies are always more erotic, in the truest sense, than their glabrous sisters.
Perhaps, first of all, because pubic hair can only mean one thing – that a woman is sexually mature, and, potentially at least, that she’s ready for sex – and also because it shows us men the way. Pubic hair serves no direct practical purpose in terms of survival (or none that I can think of) and considering that a woman’s body is mostly hairless from the shoulders down one can only assume that her bush was intended by Nature as a visual marker, drawing the eye of the male to the locus of her reproductive power.
I realize that my argument is not a good one. That pubic hair constitutes an aid to reproduction is not, on the face of it, what makes it sexy, and anthropology tells us that eroticism is primarily a cultural construct, but I cannot help wondering if it isn’t in fact an aspect of Nature Herself, another of her wiles to further Her ends, since a woman’s bush both draws the eye and obfuscates the actual sex, arousing and frustrating the curiosity of the man and stirring in him a desire to explore (like a gap in the trees on the edge of a forest or a secret pathway in an overgrown garden).
Personal preferences aside, who would deny that a shaven pussy lacks mystique? I would hesitate in fact to even call it one – a pussy, that is – since pussy cats are furry all over. I wish I could find another way of saying it, but for me – and here I must beg my reader to please excuse my French – a shaven pussy is no more than a twat. Henry Miller – whatever else one might say about the man – was mad about women and adored every inch of their bodies, but I have to agree with the narrator-protagonist of ‘Tropic of Cancer’ that a woman’s sex so starkly exposed does indeed bear a striking resemblance to a clam.1 At the risk of overstating my case I would also add that the pubic mound, unless it is barbered on a regular basis, is prickly to the touch, and tends to acquire a greyish, jowly aspect which is, to put it mildly, profoundly unsexy…
To understand this rage for epilation, perhaps we should start with the obvious: without pubic hair the body of a woman looks much like a girl’s.
But why then do grown women want to look, – and, more significantly by far, to feel – like little girls?2 I do not feel qualified to answer this question but I would like to submit the following hypothesis. The sexual revolution paved the way for a more permissive society but failed to root out a profound sense of shame concerning sexuality – especially, perhaps, for the daughters of Eve3, and it is my hunch that, at an unconscious level, these women hope to reverse the biological clock to the pre-sexual – and hence «innocent» – time of life. To put it another way, they want to have their cake and eat it, enjoy sex freely, – innocently, that is – by removing, symbolically, the sign of their shame. (I’m not quite sure why sex should be shameful, but most religious traditions have drawn a distinction between our higher human nature and our lower animal nature, and their chief purpose has been to liberate the soul or the spirit from its thraldom to sensual experience, to reveal to mankind its true, spiritual, essence by transcending – or in Freudian lingo, sublimating – the instinctual drives. Of these latter the most disturbing to the soul’s tranquillity and most threatening to its emancipation – and hence its salvation in Christian terms – has got to be the sex drive. Sex, then, has damned many a saint, but another reason for the public opprobrium or private shame attaching to sexual deviation, indeed to sex in general, must surely lie in its deeply anti-social, not to say sociopathic, propensities. Is there any need to enumerate the types of harm it can cause to the social body? Not only does it divide human loyalties, destroying families and dilapidating fortunes, but it turns the world on its head, putting many a judge in the dock, and turning masters into slaves. Furthermore, for the ordering of human affairs and the maintenance of a status quo it is obviously of crucial importance to reliably ascertain who begat whom, but the sex drive will not remain content with just one object and, impervious to rank and status, does not discriminate, but mixes freely with all and sundry. For all of these reasons (and others, no doubt) we have laws and institutions – sanctified by the Church and internalised by each of us individually, whether we know it or not – chief among them holy matrimony and the prohibition of adultery (not to mention incest) – which serve, or seek, to regulate sexual behaviour in the interests of the Public Good).
Other sins, of course, are equally threatening to the social order, and human perversity assumes a great many guises, many of which are catalogued by Dante in his guided tour of the nether regions, but none, perhaps, are committed more naturally – deriving primarily, that is, from our ‘lower,’ animal natures – than those ‘of the flesh,’ and none, for sure, are more ubiquitous.
Fresco by Giovanni diModena (circa 1410)
In satanic iconography the Devil himself is nothing if not horny, both literally and figuratively, and his bestial attributes do not stop at the more obvious goaty ones (horns, beard, and cloven hooves), since he is variously depicted with tusks and fangs, with clawed hands and feet, a lizard’s tail, and skinny, batlike wings.
Importantly for my argument, he is also hairy, and what, indeed, more than hairiness, most likens us to our animal cousins?
True enough, the hair on our heads can be cut, styled, groomed and embellished in ways too numerous to mention. It can also be covered, in whole or in part, with wigs, kerchiefs, hats and veils. But the thing about pubic hair is that it isn’t public hair and I am willing to bet that, historically at least, it has been largely untended, and allowed to flourish as nature intended.
Nothing, indeed, reminds us more strongly of our animal origins, and pubic hair is the badge, as it were, of all that is primordial and untamed within the human heart. (Pussy and beaver, two of the most popular words in English for the female sex, both use animal metaphors and both suggest fluffiness or furriness. The associations, however, are quite different. A beaver is a wild creature, active and vigorous, with a will of its own and a busy agenda, unlike pussycats, which are home-loving, passive, devoted and dependent).
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498)
This is borne out by the briefest overview of Western art history. Granted, the male figures in classical statuary get to keep their short and curlies but the pubic mounds of the female nudes always possess a preternatural smoothness which no amount of waxing and epilation, however vicious, could ever hope to achieve. This could mean that the animality of men is more readily accepted than that of the other sex, but I would like to suggest another reason for this disparity. There could be no question of emasculating the gods and heroes of the ancient world, and since the cock and balls could not be removed, it seemed only sensible that their bushes too be retained. Besides, these latter provided a welcome excuse for embellishments, and sculptors would chisel out neatly clustered curlicues and fluff up the pubes to look like peach blossoms.
The artists of the Renaissance (sculptors and painters alike) applied the same principal as their classical models, especially when it came to the feminine nude. To take a famous example, Botticelli’s Venus has hair past her knees but none whatsoever on the little mound which bares her name.4 The prudishness of the times didn’t stop there of course. Even without pubic hair Botticelli’s nudes were too much for Savonarola and other Church fanatics of his ilk, and such was the mood of censorship, not to say terror, which prevailed in late quattrocento Florence that, renouncing his pagan ideals, the artist himself destroyed many of his more secular works in a fit of religious contrition and zeal.
A detail from The Birth Of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1485)
Nudity itself is no longer taboo, but the Savonarolas of today – the lifestyle gurus, fashion editors etc. – still have a problem with body hair. The nude or semi-nude women in women’s magazines are plainly as sleek as moulded plastic, and looking at such photographs you can almost smell the moisturizing cream.
But to illustrate my point I would like to refer to the department store catalogue I have before me. The image is not available online but I don’t think you’ll have any trouble picturing this mise-en-scene for yourselves. A man and woman – clear-eyed, fair-skinned, and so strikingly alike you might think they were siblings – are shown resting – not lounging! not sprawling! – resting, then – on a plump bedspread as white as the driven snow, their spacious, loft-style apartment brightly lit in every nook and cranny as though the faintest hint of a shadow might suggest something hairy!
The analogy I make might well appear far-fetched, grotesque even, but I’d like to point out that their living space is also spotlessly clean, and that we use the word ‘clean-shaven’ in English to refer to a person without facial hair. The point I’m making is that our language itself likens cleanliness to hairlessness, and cleanliness, to return to my main idea, is next to godliness. Indeed, would it be stretching it to suggest that this ideal tableau owes much to conventional representations of the heavenly state? Everything here is sweetness and light, whiteness and repose, and, in its soft radiance, even the puffy bedspread brings to mind a snowy cloud floating high above the world. The food this couple eats is doubtless organic, and the fabrics in their home have all been woven from natural fibres, but they themselves have transcended Nature, have risen above it, as it were, and are free, at last, from its troublesome demands. (The apples in the bowl – be it said in passing – are only there for decorative purposes…!5 It is certainly hard to imagine such yoghurt eaters actually screwing. They do, presumably, have intercourse, but there is no sense here, despite their physical intimacy and state of undress, that they are about to go at it. If anything they are post-coital. They have both taken showers, and he, of course, has shaved – and they are pacified now, happily rid of their lust, and ready perhaps to go to that brunch with their friends, for sex, as the magazine editors would have it, should be kept in check, compartmentalized, although it does have its place, of course, and is as much a part of a healthy yuppie lifestyle as a low-fat diet or a morning run in the park.
This sanitisation of sex is also illustrated in the movie poster for No Strings Attached, a Hollywood comedy that came out a few years ago, and which I would only see in shackles and heavily sedated, but the poster is quite enough to serve my point. The scene is an IKEA-style bedroom the walls of which are dappled with sunlight. The bed is unmade, and 2 young people are shown getting dressed. We are obviously meant to infer that sex has taken place, but we cannot believe this for a single moment. The pair clearly enjoy each other’s company and it is easy to imagine their light-hearted badinage, but this is not how people behave who have just been physically intimate. It looks as though the scene were taking place not in the privacy of his or her bedroom but at some sports club or other, and the two were hobnobbing in the changing rooms after a game of squash.
The parallel seems all the more apt to me since changing rooms are never mixed at such places, and this only serves to un-sex the pair further. There is something peculiarly chaste about this scene. Quite apart from the Scandinavian spareness of this bedroom (the stripped pine floor, hemp matting, and off-white colour scheme) everything in their body language spells out their separateness. They are presumably alone, but their cheery smiles are more social than erotic, and both their bodies are twisted away from the other’s. True enough, Nathalie Portman’s comely thighs are bare and palpably close, but her friend has hastily pulled on a flannel leg as if to minimize the risk of his flesh meeting hers. Moreover, in keeping with the protestant work ethic so dear to corporate America, – Business before (but also after) pleasure! – their lunch break is almost over, and it is time they got back to their jobs. Their alacrity in this regard is exemplary, of course, and the two of them are donning their crisply laundered shirts as breezily and contentedly as they took them off just minutes before. They will soon be back in their offices, as cool as cucumbers, taking «tough executive decisions», or making that all-important sales presentation.6
The last time I heard, the beautiful Natalie Portman had a very hairy boyfriend in the form of neo-hippie folk singer Devendra Banhart and there is quite a bit of pubic hair on display in the video clip they made together, so I might be wrong in supposing that she too has sacrificed to the cult of marmoreal smoothness, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that we, as civilised persons, prefer not to be reminded too strongly of our hominid forebears (No offense, Devendra). Civilisation, then, is the triumph of Nurture over Nature, and this is one of the first things that is taught to us as children. As a boy I detested those times when my mother drove my brother and myself to our local town to get a haircut. I understood only too well what its purpose was, to tame and civilise me, to signify my submission to the social norm, and I always came out feeling like… well… a twat. In my free time I was allowed to play in the brook at the bottom of our garden, harvesting frogs’ spawn and capturing newts, but I would never be allowed to forget that I was a social being first and foremost and not a part of the natural world.
Which returns us to the main theme of this essay – which is fast becoming as shaggy in form as in content – since a barbered pussy is one that has been reclaimed from the wilds of nature.
Needless to say, the efforts of our society to civilise the female sex do not stop at pubic hair removal. The pharmaceutical industry has invested huge sums in research to deodorize it, or make it smell like something it’s not (‘lily of the valley’ is a popular fragrance, it seems, as too is ‘peach’), and it has not escaped the attentions of cosmetic surgeons intent on trimming and reshaping the labia or ablating them outright.7
This sinister trend shows no sign of declining but like the indomitable Gaulish village in the Asterix books the pussy will never surrender to the dictates of civilisation, and the epilators and dermoplasticians of all stripes, however hard they try, will never win the day. The reasons for this are partly anatomical. All the other parts of a woman’s body – her neck, elbow, ankle or foot – can be taken in at a glance. There is no end to the exquisite things they tell us and no end, of course, to their mystery, but we instantly grasp their gestalt, and – however complex they may be, – structurally, anatomically – they impress themselves upon our consciousness with the clarity and completeness of a musical phrase. Not so the pussy, a garish, bedraggled, and lopsided thing, which seems haphazard by comparison, and less, somehow, than the sum of its parts. (To return to the analogy above, were it a musical form it would sound, perhaps, like the crashing of a gong or the blaring of pipes).
Dare I say it? A woman’s pussy is not a pretty sight. In Civilisation And Its Discontents Freud remarks that the female genitals are always exciting, but rarely if ever are they found to be beautiful. We may persuade ourselves otherwise, persuade our wives and our girlfriends otherwise, but we know this isn’t so. What a lover sees in the heat of action is magnified by his emotions, it is his fount of joy, his lotus flower, his holy of holies, (I could go on) but, when we look at one dispassionately, a pussy is a messy thing in strictly visual terms.8 I wonder, in fact, if the pussy isn’t the most primitive organ in the evolutionary history of women’s bodies, dating far back to the dawn of creation, and whether pussies didn’t live at the bottom of the primeval seas before Eve herself was even a twinkle in God’s eye.
This primitive aspect of pussies presents a challenge to artists who must transform the raw materials of Nature into Art, into Culture. Indeed, if Beauty is Truth it also demands a degree of abstraction, a distance, however subtle or slight, from the naked fact, and I would argue that pubic hair, paradoxically enough, serves just this purpose. A woman’s bush smudges out the particulars, just as shading softens the lines in a drawing, but it also enhances the visual harmony of her body as a whole. When you take life drawing classes you learn the value of the pubic bush as a visual marker, a helpful focal point around which to establish the shapes, volumes and proportions of her body. Not only does it match (more or less) the colour of her hair but it is perfectly centred half-way down, and never deviates from a vertical axis however counterpoised the model’s stance might be.
The Greeks would probably have disagreed with this view, as we have seen, but was this preference strictly aesthetic or did they have other reasons for erasing the pubes? And what might be said of the Victorians? John Ruskin, the eminent aesthete – and notable prude – whose knowledge of women’s bodies was probably limited to his championship of chaste pre-raphaelite ideals and his study of classical and renaissance art – never recovered from the sight of his wife’s pubic hair on their wedding night, and one senses that his revulsion went far beyond aesthetics.
For attempts to tackle the aesthetic challenge face on we need to look beyond Victorian England, to dissipated Paris or East to Japan.
The achievements of the Japanese tradition are all the more remarkable in this regard since their erotic prints and drawings are both intensely graphic – realistic, that is – and highly aestheticized. This effect is obtained in part by distortion since the genitals of both partners are grotesquely outsized: thick-veined cocks as big as your arm, and gargantuan cunts roomy enough to accommodate them, thickly hairy, and garnished with dark red labia the size of salad leaves.
In the West of course we have Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1856) a work reportedly commissioned from the artist by an Ottoman diplomat in honour of his Irish mistress. It shows a full-bodied girl, a headless trunk in fact, recumbent on an unmade bed and naked from the neck down. The girl’s sturdy thighs are lazily parted, and her muff completely dominates the foreground of the painting with its unabashed hirsuteness.
Unlike Ruskin, his English contemporary, Courbet was clearly a connoisseur of pussies, and it is easy to picture him painting the girl in his studio on a warm summer evening, the soft drubbing sound of his brush as he dabbed the tight canvas, and the gleam of oil paint in the gathering dusk…
Courbet, incidentally, would certainly have endorsed our schoolboy term for a woman’s sex. Just think of those dark landscapes he painted, his mossy waterfalls and dim, crepuscular groves.
In the 20th century it took the genius of Picasso to draw and paint pussies that are graphically arresting and vividly life-like in all their squiggly hairiness, but as far as I know he never tried to do a cubist one. To reduce a woman’s sex to a set of interlocking planes would be a travesty indeed, and «the cylinder, the sphere or the cone» (to quote Cézanne, «(his) one and only master»), could never contain this tohu wa-bohu9 in which the World began, and all the forms within it.
I am reminded of a story I heard of a secretary at a well-known computer company who, urged on by her colleagues at a wild office party, photocopied her bottom. She pulled off her panties, climbed onto the Xerox machine, spread her bum-cheeks, and plumped herself down on the smooth glass pane. The resulting image must have looked like nothing on Earth, the very picture of primeval chaos. A rocky mountainside, perhaps, ravaged by terrible storms and lit by flashes of lightning, a chaos of crashing boulders and shattered pines, a nightmare vision of yawning chasms and rivers in spate.
I am reminded too of Milton’s visions of Hell in The Allegro:
Where brooding darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
There under ebon shades, and low-brow’d rocks
As ragged as thy locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell
Perhaps I’m going too far here when I would like to stay light, – when I started writing this essay I didn’t expect to be quoting The Old Testament or John Milton – but it is when we are at our most physical – in the act of love, that is – that we are at our most metaphysical.
After all, a woman’s sex is the gateway between Being and Non-being (or the other way around) – hence perhaps, in part at least, the awe, compounded equally of fear and desire, it inspires in the souls of pubescent and pre-pubescent boys.10 That Penthouse centrespread in my boarding school days was in the truest sense dazzling: however much we stared at the woman’s naughty bits they remained – psychically at least – a blind-spot to us.
This also holds true, I would suggest, for full-grown men, since, just as the mysteries of Life and Death will forever elude him, a man will never really see a woman’s pussy. I don’t mean ‘see’ in the literal, gynaecological sense, but – now we’re on the subject of anatomical niceties – how many men could draw an accurate or even half-way accurate picture of their wife or partner’s private parts? I don’t include myself among these ignorant males, and I hasten to add that I have read ‘The Vagina Monologues’,11 but in case any of my female readers (of whom no doubt there are very few by now) are wondering why I make only passing reference to this famous anthology of “vagina interviews,” I’d like to point out that when it comes to sex and relationships I prefer dialogue to bilateral monologues, and that my own point of view can only be different from a woman’s, being that of a man. But perhaps I should offer a more serious explanation – an excuse if you prefer – for this wilful omission. The author’s purpose, to empower modern women by offering them a public platform from which to reclaim their sexuality, is of course a commendable one, but it is with the book’s title that I would take issue. This piece of verbal trickery, transparent though it is to any literate person, nevertheless blurs a vital distinction, since the Monologues do not give voice to the vaginas themselves, but to the women interviewees, which is not at all the same thing! It is my conviction that efforts to politicise the pussy are as futile, ultimately, as our efforts to aestheticize it, and if pussies could speak for themselves it is highly doubtful they would say what radical feminists would have them say, but would blurt out something uncouth, or go Blaaahh, or speak in tongues, or intone occult solemnities in some long-dead language.
But, polemics aside, and returning, if I may, to what I meant by seeing, however many times a man makes love in the course of his lifetime a woman’s pussy never quite comes into focus, but remains a riddle, a puzzle, a cuneiform sign he never learns to read.
My point here is this. We are distrustful – fearful even – of things that lack a clear contour or shape, and I would argue that the primary purpose of pubic hair grooming or removal (as, too, of cosmetic surgery) is not so much to beautify the pubic area as to improve its visual legibility.
Which leads us – as I hope to show – into the dismal world of video porn. Geared towards one thing and one thing only, the action in such movies should be linear and straightforward, and nothing in its unfolding should distract the viewer from its principle focus – the orifice of choice and the obdurate fucking thereof. There is no beating about the bush in hard-core pornography. There is, indeed, 9 times out of 10, no bush to beat about, and it’s easy enough to understand why. A shaven pussy serves the form ideally, since, stripped of superfluous hair, and all the more starkly exposed, it is reduced to a mere ‘fuck hole’12 – to its coital function – to little more, in fact, than the negative of a prick.
The pornographer might be likened, in some respects, to the Prince of Darkness himself, who, cloaked as he is in the brightest of robes, is also Lucifer, the Bringer of Light. But to compare him to Satan is to confer on him a stature he is scarcely equal to.
On the face of it, of course, the passion that consumes him is to see and to know everything.13 But he is no metaphysician, and in rending the veil it isn’t revelation that he seeks. His objective is not to reveal the invisible but to prove to himself that no such thing exists. Nothing is invisible, and there is nothing to know about pussies that he cannot see with his own eyes. But here lies the paradox of the pornographer: by training his lights and camera lenses on the female pudenda he wants to blind himself to their ontological unknowability – their – pun intended – impenetrable mystery. He wants to see, that is, in order not to see, since hiding away inside of him – though he wouldn’t know it himself – is a little boy who is afraid of the dark.
Carl Boehm in Peeping Tom (1960), directed by Michael Powell
I have tried to suggest elsewhere what these fears of his might be, but what he is most afraid of, it seems, is his private and innermost Self. And in this sense – in others too, perhaps – he strikes me as emblematic of the times we’re living in.14 The backlash against psychoanalysis continues apace and video porn illustrates perfectly – albeit caricaturally – this denial of the unconscious. Pornography, of course, takes things to extremes, and the ‘actors’ involved not only seem to lack an unconscious, but appear devoid of all inner life – conscious or unconscious – robbed of their souls or their spiritual essence – mere bodies grimly engaged in a monotone and mechanistic act like assembly-line robots (A friendly reader has pointed out to me the existence of a sub-genre of pornography in which women are belaboured by robots or harnessed to machines and shafted by piston-driven dildos)
A more judicious parallel might be found in our urban fitness centres. Indeed, is it possible to see all that exercise equipment, and to hear the thumping cadence of weight machines or high incessant whine of treadmills, without thinking of a factory floor?15 And who would deny that work-out fanatics want to become like machines? That many of the properties one associates with machines – hardness, sleekness, and dependability – exemplify the body type to which they aspire?
In its relentless drive to commodify the female body, consumer capitalism, – aided and abetted by science and technology, – has certainly done much to promote this industrial ethos, and epilation, as I see it, seeks to customize pussies along much the same lines, by applying standards of smoothness, functional simplicity, and – dare I say it – user-friendliness to the pubic area (User-friendly (adj.): easy to learn, use, understand or deal with – Merriam Webster).
As a result of these pressures – and for other reasons too complex to explore here – many women have come to despise their bodies as they actually are, their private parts especially. But the point I wish to make concerns men and women alike. The more technology cuts us off from our animal origins, the more it controls us, and the more, paradoxically, we wish to have control, control, that is, of our bodies, and control of our natural drives. We fret about technique and rely increasingly on science to improve our performance.16 We kid ourselves that sex is harmless fun,17 or that it is all about giving and sharing, and rationalisations such as these help keep at bay the animal within.
This is of course the chief goal of epilation, since body hair, superfluous to clothed and domesticated apes, is an obvious throwback to our hominid forebears, and has always acted as a metaphor for the animal, pre-rational, stage of human evolution.
Is it possible to imagine the swarthy Mata Hari with a smooth, denuded mons veneris?
But to take this simple idea just a little bit further, to the same extent that the pubic bush stirs the imagination it confounds the rational faculties. With a hairless pussy, on the other hand, what we see is what we see, and it is a starkly explicit, quasi-clinical kind of seeing. Once the murk, as it were, is removed, the woman’s sex no longer swamps the awareness, but Mind prevails over Matter, or, – in this case – The Flesh. Moreover, a distance is created, a dichotomy between the subject and the object which empowers the former at the expense of the latter since he who observes (actively) enjoys an ascendancy of sorts over that which is observed (passively).18
It certainly seems, viewed in this way, a forlorn and much diminished thing. For the first and obvious reason that something integral to its visual identity has been physically removed. It is even as though the sex itself had been blanked out or erased since there’s almost nothing to see unless the woman spreads her thighs.19
Hair of course – unlike hairlessness – has always been a symbol and attribute of power. Samson’s flowing locks were, as everyone knows, the source of his strength, physical, of course, but moral and spiritual too; and prophets of all stripes from Moses to the Maharishi (not to mention Karl Marx, though he, of course, was an enemy of religion) have always had, or been portrayed as having, thick manes and bushy facial hair. Interestingly, however, what applies to the movers and shakers in religious history does not apply to the devotees themselves, and in monastic traditions the world over tonsuring symbolises sexual abstinence and surrender to the faith. In South East Asia monks shave their eyebrows as well.20
Significantly enough, the kinds of strictures that only apply to men in closed communities apply also to women in everyday public and secular life. Muslim women are required to cover their hair outside the home, and orthodox Jewish women must either do the same or shave their heads entirely and wear a wig. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary from interested parties, these practices (officially to protect their modesty and hence dissuade adulterers) are clearly disempowering to women and a mark of submissiveness.
Serving much the same purpose, head shaving is standard procedure for male inmates in prisons and reform schools but is much more brutal and shaming when imposed upon women, and is only carried out in extreme circumstances. To take a well-known and shocking example, French women who had slept with German soldiers during the Nazi occupation – les collabos horizontales – or horizontal collaborators – were subjected to this punishment for subordinating their patriotic duty to their sexual drives.21
This last example serves my argument well, since stripping a person of her power – in this instance the victim’s hair, a key attribute of her sexual power or attractiveness – is the most effective way to shame or humiliate her. It follows (if you have followed me thus far), that a shorn pussy is a shamed pussy, a pussy chastized, perhaps, for its immoderate demands and truant ways. Perhaps I’m overstretching the point, but does a shaggy muff not seem more mutinous and wild than a clean-shaven vulva, and far less likely, should the occasion arise, to deny itself for king and country (or, indeed, for La Patrie?) And does a shorn one not seem, by contrast, the picture of docility,22 chastened, as it were, and meekly acquiescent? A tamer creature all round – prim and proper, one might almost say?
It is one, certainly, that has learned its place and knows how to keep to itself. Not so, on the other hand, a hairy forest! After all, one of the defining properties of hair is that, like the wheat that springeth green, it GROWS! And grow it must, – blindly, unstoppably, – oblivous to our human foibles, and obedient to none but its own internal laws and those of the natural world. And do we not fear at some unconscious level that if we leave it untended we will end up hairy all over like our shaggy, cave-dwelling ancestors? Or, worse still, that pussy hair might escape our control altogether and colonize our cities like the kudzu vine in the American south?
Don’t get me wrong, no one wants to find a beard down there, and hairy legs are a huge turn-off, but surely the thrill of eroticism lies in the tension between our animal drives (=pussy hair) and their containment by cultural values (=the ‘pubic triangle’).
A woman’s bush is the last fallow patch in the landscape of her body, and its disappearance from our bedrooms is a sure sign, as I see it, that Culture has gained too much ground. What we stand to lose is a metonymic connection to our deepest, darkest, and most vital selves, to the sacred mysteries of Nature herself – in a word to magic – and, last but not least, to that other half of our being that also makes us who, and what, we are.
1) Miller seems to have paid for sex on occasions and working girls would perhaps have shaved their pubises as prevention against the crabs.
2) The blame cannot reasonably be pinned on men for the simple reason that the decision to have it done can only come from the women. Some of these women will make this move to please their partners (by submitting to the crude aesthetic codes of the porn industry) but a majority also, at least one hopes, to please themselves…
3) The word pudenda is derived from the latin gerundive of pudere, to be ashamed.
4) Is it just me, or does Cranach’s Aphrodite have a whisper of something down there? Whatever the case may be, this would appear to be an exception since his other nudes are smooth all over despite their nubile titties and thighs.
5) Or are they?
6) There is also the showroom bed which in its denial of the messiness of human sexuality, – the starchy, wheat-coloured sheets so neatly disordered, the mega-firm mattress barely dented by the young man’s bony rear – arouses in me a disgust almost greater than Tracey’s Emin’s controversial masterwork.
7) As one might expect, the denial of nature also extends to that other, neighbouring orifice, and ‘anal de-pigmentation’ – Google it if you must – is, I gather, increasingly popular around the world, in the Middle East especially.
8) I wonder if there isn’t an explanation as to why pussies differ aesthetically from every other part of a woman’s body. Although it is customary to say that a woman’s genitals are internal it is truer to say that they are external as well as internal; however (unlike the breasts for instance), they are mostly hidden by their position between the legs, so Nature has not seen fit to harmonize them visually with the rest of the body but has simply provided a fig leaf of Her own in the form of the pubic bush.
9) Tohu wa-bohu is a Hebrew phrase in Genesis which describes the state of the cosmos before God divided the light from the darkness, and Earth was without form and void, etc.
10) Freud’s theory of castration is best understood on a symbolic level, but a hairless vulva really does look like a wound, – or indeed a ‘gash’ – as though the woman’s penis had – quite literally – been cut away with a knife. It seems reasonable to assume that an infant boy in the phallic stage of development would infer as much were he to see a woman’s sex at close quarters (and fear that the same mutilation might be inflicted on himself).
11) Oh alright, then, dipped into it…
12) According to David Foster Wallace (who shared my love of footnotes) in his essay ‘Big Red Son’ this horrible word is hugely popular in the industry despite its lack of precision. Or perhaps on account of it… Not only does it deny the lavish intricacy of a woman’s sex but demotes it to a status no different from that of its humble and much-deprecated neighbour
13) I allude, of course, to the Tree of Knowledge and the Fall of Man.
14) The pornographic ethos is found too in our suburban shopping centres where the products of industry are put on display under neon strip lighting, and it is perhaps worth noting that the same excess of brightness produces a similar impression of blandness, a paradoxical pallor, as though everything we see had been drained of substance and life.
15) Or a state-of-the-art torture chamber. It is tempting to think that fitness fanatics are punishing themselves for the weakness of the flesh (add gluttony and sloth) or striving, perhaps, to sublimate their sexual drives; but there’s a marvellous paradox here, since they’re also working out to improve their physical appearance and hence, at least in part, in order to have more sex
16) The question deserves to be asked, I feel: Do sex manuals really liberate us in the sense of freeing our bodies? Or make them mere instruments of our wills?
17) We believe this at our peril as the myth of Pandora’s box serves to remind us!
18) This yen for mastery over the real (whatever that is), is the impetus, I suspect, behind a great many scientific ventures, the pseudo-scientific as well. I am reminded of the erotomaniac in ‘God’s Comedy’ by the Portuguese director Joao César Monteiro who collects samples of women’s pubic hair, exclaiming «God shave the Queen!» over what must surely be the most treasured item in his extensive collection. I should perhaps point out that Monteiro was no advocate of pubic shaving. As I recall, the nubile and warm-blooded girls in his films always get to keep their bushes.
19) When I was a boy I thought that girls had ‘nothing down there’, an observation which my ex-shrink – a woman – found extremely amusing
20) In fact letting one’s hair down is a part of no tradition I know of. Rastafarian dreadlocks require constant maintance, and although shaving or cutting is sinful for sikhs, the pious among them comb their hair twice daily with a special implement known as a kesh, tie it up in a knot and tuck it away beneath their turbans.
21) Who would deny that the porn industry – so notably averse to body hair, as we have seen already – is dedicated to the systematic shaming and debasing of women?
22) More sheepish, indeed?