Caroline Rothstein on feminism and bikini waxes

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Shit, is there ever some great food for thought in Caroline Rothstein‘s long-form essay, “The Hair Down There”:

waxingA few bikini waxes ago, I pulled off my pants and underwear, loosely folded them into a pile atop my shoes, hoisted myself onto the waxing table and briskly flopped my legs into a diamond, my feet touching sole to sole. While waiting for the esthetician to return with a cylinder of green wax and conduct my regular procedure – a “women’s deep bikini with top,” which clears the underwear lines and keeps some bush around the labia – I had a montage of thoughts. First, I am a feminist; I claim to do this for myself, not my long-term male partner, or anyone before him, or any societal expectation. Second, the only times I ever got Brazilian waxes, removing almost all pubic hair, were during the year and a half in college when I was deliberately celibate and only my hands, my vibrator, and my full-length mirror saw my crotch. Third, I am a survivor of rape.

Yet here I am, month in and month out, dropping my pants for a stranger, letting her slide hot, green, organic wax along my vulva, around my labia, and across my lower abdomen with a thick, pale wooden popsicle stick just so I can feel “clean.” How can I subject a part of my body with such a complicated narrative to this hedonistic ritual and still call myself a feminist?

Seriously, this is a meaty, thoughtful take on a superficial but oddly big question: why do we DO that to our vulvas? Highly recommended reading.

Comments on Caroline Rothstein on feminism and bikini waxes

  1. I don’t shave under my arms, because doing so gives me horrible dermatitis that is really annoying and painful. That choice means that I have to listen to unsolicited comments from strangers about how hairy my armpits are, since women not shaving there is seriously not normal for the place I live right now. It usually means that I wear sleeves that cover that area, since I don’t feel like dealing with the bullshit, and tank tops only when I’m home. I shave my legs when I feel like it, and don’t often feel like it.

    But I got Brazilian waxes from the moment I became aware that it was an option for me until four years ago when I left my job to run my own business and could no longer justify the monthly expense. I got Brazilians when I was single and celibate, single and promiscuous, married (to someone so disinterested in my vagina that he wouldn’t have noticed if I’d Bedazzled the fucker) divorced and single, and divorced and dating my current soon to be spouse (who prefers au naturale bush, FYI). I never did it for a partner or cared what a partner thought about it. I did it for me because it feels AMAZING to me. So light and clean and cool in the summer. I miss it very much, and if I won the lotto tomorrow I’d have the whole shebang lazered completely clear and be done with it. I never really considered whether it was “feminist” or not, because I always assumed that a major tenet of feminism was that it’s my beaver and I can do absolutely whatever I want with it whenever I want to do it.

    I’m certainly no fashion forward girly girl; I wear t-shirts and jeans most of the time, don’t really fool with my hair, and I haven’t worn makeup that wasn’t part of a costume in years. I don’t paint my nails, I don’t spend lots of time getting ready in the morning, have never owned a thong, and rarely wear skirts or dresses. It was probably odd of me to have Brazilian waxes so long, especially given the hairy underarms, but I saw it as a cleanliness and comfort thing, and it was worth the momentary pain. (It’s not that bad, it gets less painful the more you do it, and no it does not itch growing back or at least mine never did. I can’t shave really anything but my legs because I can’t stand the itchy rash it gives me, but I never had a problem with waxing.)

  2. I know a lot of women are going to immediately dismiss my comments because I’m a man, but I decided to add my two cents anyway. I’ve been happily married for 35 years and I have 3 daughters. I was in high school when the whole feminist movement started. And, while I do feel that some people tend to take it to the extreme, overall I do agree with the idea.

    However I would like to point out that doing or not doing something because some woman tells you that it makes you a feminist sounds just as bad to me as doing something to please a man. Isn’t the whole idea of feminism to think for yourself and do what you want to do? Not just follow the crowd. After all, it doesn’t matter if the shepherd is male or female, a sheep is still a sheep.

    As for the whole body hair thing, I have two comments. First, a trend growing among teens and twenty-somethings is both genders going hairless. Trust me, my youngest daughter and her friends think of me as the “cool dad” and aren’t afraid to talk in front of me.

    Second, Anthropology tells us that the human animal has been steadily losing body hair for the last 10,000 years. In another 4 or 5000 years the whole “to shave or not to shave” question will become a moot point, because there won’t be anything left to shave. So, in one aspect, I guess you could say that those who shave (wax, pluck, laser, etc.) are simply trying to get ahead on the evolutionary curve.

    • No, I absolutely agree with you, and have said as much myself. I don’t see how having a group of women determine for you what appropriate behavior should be and judging you for falling short of their standards is any better than having men do it. And if constantly having to justify my choices or apologize for how I live my life is the price of membership in any club I don’t want any part of it. That’s not what feminism is about and it makes me sad to see it getting diluted by bullshit.

    • “However I would like to point out that doing or not doing something because some woman tells you that it makes you a feminist sounds just as bad to me as doing something to please a man.”

      And it’s not only about feminism, for example I’ve met too many “alternative and independent people” (both men and women) who stopped wearing / doing something, just because it came into fashion. And still they feel oh-so-independent, while they are actually slaving to fashion, doing the exact opposite of what it dictates.

  3. Gender historian here.

    I think it’s important to remember that there is no one feminism. There have been numerous movements that fall under the label “feminism” around the world for the past century and a half or so. None of them, to my knowledge, have been centered around pubic hair.

    These feminisms are movements – political, social, cultural. The 1990’s saw the popularized “post-feminism” and the beginning of the focus on personal grooming choices as a brand of feminism to the detriment, in my opinion, of well-articulated goals and directed activism. This isn’t to say that there isn’t merit in discussing grooming choices, or that feminist activism is dead – as a feminist activist myself, I know first hand what excellent work is still being done.

    The problem as I see it is that the issue of the right to wax and still be a feminist pops up CONSTANTLY. And so often from the side of women who chose to remove their hair according to social norms. This reinforces the idea that feminism is about the freedom to make the choice to present one’s self as a normative woman.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I think personal appearance is immaterial to one’s capacity for feminism and activism, and I don’t care what a person does or doesn’t do to one’s aesthetic body. People throughout history have done incredible work without throwing off the trappings of their patriarchal societies, and in fact I would argue that to do so entirely would be impossible. Yet we need to remember where these norms come from, and that our choices to comply or not comply with them do not a movement make. I shave (sometimes), I wear make up and dresses, and I look like a pretty average cis-woman. Sure I “choose” to do those things, but to leave it at that does not acknowledge the privilege I have in making a choice at all, or the ways in which I reinforce that privilege and the kyriarchal norms from which they stem by doing so. To continue to defend my “right” to look the way that affords me the most privilege is at best distracting, at worst harmful to other rights that actually need defending.

    Sorry for the political treatise, but this issue comes up so often and equally often, the underlying implications are ignored.

    • Best comment in this entire thread! (including my own tirades)

      I would love to see a more detailed post on current feminist movements and how women identify with them. It constantly surprises me to see women who I consider to be feminists (through their actions and opinions) not consider themselves a feminist. Can you recommend any reading in this area?

  4. I was always a little apprehensive of waxing- it looked painful and I was doubtful I could find a happy medium between some crazy expensive salon or somewhere less than professional that gives me an icky disease or tears my skin. I waxed my eyebrows and just shaved everything else all throughout college, but it was so time consuming to shave all my hills and valleys every other day! Once I got my “real” job, I figured I could justify the expense of seeing what a brazilian was like- and oh it was amazing! Being clean and hair-free for weeks at a time is so liberating, sex feels better (no chafing against stubble) and just plain looks better to me. Plus, when I’m wearing shorter clothing or swimming, I never have to worry if an errant hair is poking out! I think the key is to find a good waxer who knows what she’s doing and makes you comfortable: mine’s amazing and so fast, I’m always in and out of my appointment. Sure, it hurts a little, but I certainly wouldn’t wax if I found the pain unbearable just because my partner likes it. For me, it’s a surprisingly nice grooming habit that makes me feel so much more confident. And because the majority of my 20-something friends have never tried it, I can definitely say that it’s nothing I’ve felt personally pressured to do, but something I wanted to try for myself.

  5. Late to the party! I feel like I didn’t really see the point I want to make addressed, so even if no one reads this, here I go!

    So, sure, whatevs, I think a female-identified-feminist can reasonably remove all her hair, have breast implants, diet until she’s a size 0, dye her hair blond, whatever floats her boat, and not be hypocritical. A-OK with me. Doesn’t reflect poorly on her as a feminist. (And I’m gonna assume female identity for the remainder of this rant, since we’re talking about the female body here).

    BUT I think that it is REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT that we acknowledge that when we do any of these things (hair removal, etc.) we are bowing to a patriarchally imposed notion of beauty. WHICH IS UNDERSTANDABLE and I empathize — it’s normal and natural to want to feel beautiful, and I don’t think less of any woman for wanting it (I’m a dieter myself), but it IS an arbitrary and oppressive standard. It just is.

    And if we’re in agreement that the hegemonically imposed standards of beauty are bad, and that they’re giving our girls eating disorders and making them (and dare I say us?) hate their(our) bodies, and that we want to dismantle them, we need to, yanno, actually acknowledge that they have power over us.

    Can’t have it both ways — BOTH “Ohhhh, these beauty standards are so oppressive,” *and also* “But when I diet/shave my legs/have implants, that’s not oppression, that’s empowerment!”

    I mean, in a way it’s empowerment, because the more we conform to societal norms, the more power (as privilege) we have, due to lookism. But that’s not the sort of power that I think we should be super-proud of acquiring. And again, it doesn’t make you anti-feminist to have that power, just like it doesn’t make you racist to be white and have white privilege — but what you do with that, with the lookist power you gain by playing into the beauty standard, that shit is IMPORTANT.

    So enjoy feeling beautiful and clean and whatever, yes. Feel better about yourself, yes. Accept your body. I’m right there with you. I like feeling as if I’m accepted by society. Couldn’t function professionally if I wasn’t.

    But if no part of your interaction with lookism (and yet again, *interacting with lookism is OK,* we’re entrapped, it’s not really a choice), if no part of that interaction involves critically thinking about it and acknowledging the role of the patriarchy in it, and thinking about how to stop it — that’s when shaving (or whatever) stops being compatible with feminism and starts being a part of the problem. It’s like unacknowledged white privilege. And I am SO not OK with that.

    • While the beauty ideal we see is from a patriarchal society, I know that I shave areas because I like how it feels when I touch me. I do know that I shave other ares because I know it drives my husband crazy (the good crazy) when I do. I know that he likes that because of what he was exposed to and grew up around (porn and all that, by the person ‘caring’ for him). He supports me when I don’t shave, and I don’t feel any less sexy per se, but I notice a difference in levels of activities. I love making him happy, and vice versa, so really, what can we do?

      Also, as a side note, I want to re-visit the ‘clean’ comments. I think maybe instead of just smells, the smooth feels clean to us. Personally, I scrub my counters until they feel smooth, I wipe my tub until my magic erasers feel no resistance. Perhaps it is more of an actual cleaning association we have come to expect?

      • “While the beauty ideal we see is from a patriarchal society”

        I think we might be falling for the “Hitler was a vegetarian -> Hitler was evil -> Therefore vegetarians are evil and no one should be a vegetarian” fallacy when we reject a mainstream standard of beauty that happens to be endorsed by a patriarchal society. Just because our society is patriarchal and chooses/creates a beauty standard doesn’t mean that that standard need be inherently un-beautiful to those who attempt to reject the patriarchy.

        • Hmmmmm. Good point. But I don’t think we need to reject the standard as un-beautiful; we just need to accept other stabdards as also beautiful. I mean, the weight standard is pretty clearly harmful, right? But I don’t want us saying that slender women are ugly, I just want us to acknowledge that heavy women are also beautiful.

  6. I am extremely fortunate to have been blessed with a body that conforms in many ways to society’s stereotypical model of “attractive”: I’m slim, have fairly big boobs for my size, good teeth etc. But I’m also pretty hairy. I used to think I was normal, and that everyone had to deal with the same hair maintenance issues, but soon realised that actually I’m just a very hairy gal. Yay for me! So from confused teenage angst fuelled by all-girls’ school bullying and mean comments from ex partners, I think it’s safe to say my thick dark hair all over my pale body has, in part, influenced most of the decisions I’ve ever made about my body, about partners, about holidays, about clothes, about friends, I could go on.

    In the winter it was fine. BIG love for winter, y’all. But SUMMER. Nooooo. I never wore shorts, never wore bikinis, never showed off my flat stomach because of the snail trail. It was ridiculous. I know that there are women out there who would be very happy to have a body like mine and there I was hiding it. I felt like I was wasting my time as a young, attractive person.

    So, for me, waxing was a way for me to take control of my appearance. I suppose it could be how many people see weight loss? I felt that I DESERVED to feel attractive, regardless of from where I was getting my idea about what attractive means. So now, in warm weather*, I regularly get waxed.

    And despite being very concerned on a feminist level about why on earth I should have to pay someone to rip hairs out of my lady garden (and crack, and stomach, and inner thighs, and chin, and upper lip…) just to “please society”, when I leave that salon, I feel like Beyoncé; I feel stunning. To me, feminism can also be about being confident and feeling beautiful, and if waxing is the way for me to do that and feel empowered, then so be it.

    *Incidentally, my partner and I have a deal, whereby if he would like me to be hairless all the time, including during my lovely chilly seasons, he pays for it and grows a beard for me because I <3 beards. HE IS AN AWESOME MAN PERSON.

  7. As someone is who is more “Naturally” inclined I wil say that I’m not really a feminist. I understand being independent and all that junk but I doi adhere to a more traditional value of a women’s role in society. I’m still pretty outragious though. Tattoos. piercings and I hate to clean. I also firmly believe in having a job and contributing to the household income. But ladies…I’m a wild forest down there. And I don’t plan on starting any grooming techniques outside of the occasional trim and of course I don’t let it get out of control or anything. I will say that my fiance doesn’t really care one way or the other. But if he doesn’t have to shave…why should I? ahem. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about anything like this online before…

  8. I don’t shave or wax anything – facial and eyebrow threading is the only hair removal I use. This is mostly due to laziness – I have coarse, thick, dark hair and removing hair from legs/pits/between my legs takes time, and grows back quickly, and the itch of stubble makes it not worth it. Plus, I also have hair on my back and stomach and don’t see the point of leaving that.

    Re feminism – I’m tired of middle-class white feminists making feminism about choice. It’s not. Feminism is about the liberation of women from the patriarchy. Women can make choices that uphold and support the patriarchy, so how can choice be feminist in itself? I don’t think the removal of body hair upholds the patriarchy either way, but certainly there are choices women make under the pretence of feminism that does support the patriarchy more than it supports women, or choices that reinforce the kyriarchy and oppress other oppressed groups (trans people – particularly trans women, women of colour, working-class women etc).

    • How can white middle class feminists be a better ally to other groups? Can you give some examples of decisions that women make in the name of feminism?

      • Not supporting stores/celebrities/brands that are outwardly ‘feminist’ but exclude women of colour, non-heterosexual women, trans women etc. Looking at a candidate’s policy on immigration as well as their policy on reproductive rights. Paying attention to and highlighting voter ID law changes as well as threats to abortion rights. Remembering the daily murder of trans women as well as the sexual assaults of cis women. It’s about inclusion – remembering that white middle-class women are not the only women who exist, and not considering yourself to be the ‘default’.

  9. I do it because I like it.
    I’m feminist – I’m going to get rid of the hated pubic hair, regardless what the fashion dictates. Naked pussy is in fashion? I’m going to have naked pussy. Hairy pussy is in fashion and every celebrity is getting hair transplant there? I’m going to have naked pussy.

    Women who shave because fashion dictates it are just sad.
    Women who don’t shave because pseudo-feminists dictate it are just sad.
    Do what you want, for hells sake! Why do you care about fashion? Why do you care about what other people (including self proclaimed feminists) say? Do what you want, and don’t give a damn about anything else.
    When I started shaving, not even porn stars did that. I did totally freaky thing. Then I did totally fashionable thing. Now I’m obviously doing totally non-feminist thing. Well eff that. I love my body this way, and that’s the only thing that matters. Guys can drool or vomit… their business, not mine. If you don’t like me, just break up with me and go to someone else.

  10. I am a feminist – I don’t shave or wax my legs or my anything below the waist – because I don’t care what people think – its my body & I like it that way …. I do shave under my arm pits – because again I don’t care what people think & I like it that way…. part of feminism is being yourself, and being happy with yourself and not being dictated to as to how you should look or how you should maintain your appearance. So be true to yourself .. that’s what matters.

  11. I know I’m super late to this discussion, but I just wanted to throw in my two cents. I most definitely am a feminist, and I most definitely don’t shave or wax, but I don’t think that one precludes the other. The only comments I’ve ever gotten about it were from fellow women. I was comparing with two friends one day in college and they were fascinated by my hair…When I told them I didn’t shave, they said disbelievingly, “but you trim it, right?” “Nope,” said I. I was a little nervous about the reveal after that….”Wow, it looks really soft,” one said, “it looks really pretty.” That actually made me feel great. They were skeptical that an unshaved, untrimmed women even existed apparently, much less looked “attractive.”

    I used to shave my legs and underarms obsessively when I was younger. I was mortified if anyone ever brushed up against me if I hadn’t been able to shave that very day. Once I got older, I used to trim my pubic hair occasionally, and I even shaved it off a couple of times, just to see what the hype was about. I found out that I didn’t like it. I felt like I looked like a little girl, and didn’t like that moisture seemed to pool up instead of being wicked away.

    Now, I’ve realized that I don’t really like shaving, but I’ve only recently gotten this comfortable. I’ve shaved my legs once in the past year, I think. I still wear skirts and dresses all the time and no one even notices. I guess it helps that my hair is blond. I also have never waxed or plucked my eyebrows. I’m just not a very hairy person, so I guess that puts me at an advantage in our society, because I can go natural and it’s not really visible. If someone is looking close enough to tell, then it’s not a very polite or professional setting anyway.

    My husband has no complaints, but he actually does choose to groom his body hair, occasionally. He trims his pubic hair sometimes; He shaves it sometimes. He plucks his eyebrows because he’s concerned about having a “unibrow.” He’s not super fastidious about any of it. He just does it when the mood strikes him, and I have no say in the matter. He can do whatever makes him feel comfortable.

    Bottom line, I’m just not comfortable with society dictating what I should or shouldn’t do with my body hair. I think everyone has the right to do what they want and not feel pressured one way or the other. Why is it anyone’s business to give their opinions on your personal grooming choices?

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