The New Full-Frontal: Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct?

More

Carrie Bradshaw, Hugh Hefner, and Barbie have all helped construct a new generation's ideal woman, who is athletic, alluring, ... and waxed.

BWax-Post1.jpg

Meet Sophia Pinto: the 21st century's standard-issue, all-American perfect 10.

The 5-foot-5 Minnesota native -- a sly, funny, 22-year-old natural blonde who spends every summer bikini-clad on the shores of Lake Minnetonka -- works out five days a week. Her slim waist and megawatt smile hearken back to the polyvinyl glamour of the original Barbie doll.

In fact, if Mattel were to redesign Barbie based on the new millennium's ideal woman, she would likely resemble Pinto. Healthy, athletic, alluring, and smart (Pinto will graduate early this month from Northwestern University), she's both a role model and a sex symbol.

And if you were to undress Pinto, you'd find she embodies yet another trademark characteristic of the plastic glamour girl-turned-careerwoman: Like Barbie, Pinto has no pubic hair.

Jodi Staiman, an esthetician, administers between five and 10 Brazilian waxes per week (and even more in the summertime and just before Halloween).

Every four to five weeks, the East Asian Studies major undergoes a cosmetic procedure known as a Brazilian wax. An esthetician pours wax heated to 140° F (roughly the temperature of a steak fresh off the grill) onto her labia and spreads it like butter on bread. Half a minute later, she swiftly peels away the hardened wax -- and with it, a full crop of pubic hair, freshly ripped from the follicles.

If you're squeamishly wondering how much the college senior gets paid for submitting to these weird acts of perverse, pornographic violence, brace yourself for the truly agonizing part: It's actually Pinto who shells out the cash, paying her regular waxer, Anna, more than $65 every time. But it beats the ingrown hairs and razor bumps that come from shaving, she says.

Sound excruciating? Sure is, says Pinto, who pops two Advil before each appointment. But grooming habits like hers hardly raise an eyebrow among the under-30 set. Today, it's all but commonplace for women to go to extreme measures to get bald, pre-pubescent nether regions: Indiana University researchers Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick found in a recent study that nearly 60 percent of American women between 18 and 24 are sometimes or always completely bare down there, while almost half of women in the U.S. between 25 and 29 reported similar habits. Herbenick's numbers show a clear-cut trend: More women lack pubic hair than ever before.

What's happening to America's vaginas? Is pubic hair going extinct?

In a word, no. But it's on the fast track to the endangered species list, and its chief predators include the porn industry, smaller bathing suits and lingerie bottoms, and the Kardashian sisters (case in point: Kim once famously proclaimed that women "shouldn't have hair anywhere but their heads").

Pubic hair is, however, evolving. Once upon a time, all vulvas were coated in a protective layer of coarse, woolly tresses. Hard to believe, right? It's kind of like the revelation that horses once had toes, or that the Ford Mustang once had tailfins. But like any evolving species, the vulva has morphed into something sleeker, starker, and altogether more modern. Today, it is smooth, baby-soft, and hairless.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE HAIR DOWN THERE

The most staggering aspect of the bald-vulva phenomenon is just how quickly women (and men) have embraced it.

Less than two decades ago, the idea of "taking it all off" seemed painful, unnecessary, and even vaguely fetishistic; As recently as 1996, one harrowing, particularly memorable vignette from Eve Ensler's groundbreaking play The Vagina Monologues effectively turned the idea of removing pubic hair at the request of a sexual partner into something cringe-worthy and perverted. Trimming away a few strays during swimsuit season was one thing, but removing all the hair from one's genitals, effectively turning back the clock on puberty? Traumatizing. Selfish. Inhumane, even.

Or not. Enter the seven Padilha sisters, immigrants from Brazil. In 1987, Jocely, Jonice, Janea, Joyce, Jussara, Juracy, and Judseia Padilha opened the appropriately named J. Sisters salon in Midtown Manhattan, where they began offering what they had dubbed the "Brazilian wax." Years before, a woman in a thong swimsuit with an ungroomed bikini line had strolled by Janea Padilha as she lay on the beach. Why not just wax the full bikini line, she wondered. The peculiar practice would go on to change the world of female genitalia as we know it -- but not for another decade or so. Instead, it would remain weird, taboo, and rarely administered for another 13 years.

Then, in 2000, one groundbreaking episode of Sex And The City made the Manolo Blahnik demographic sit up and take notice: Heroine Carrie Bradshaw found a new swagger in her step after waxing it off. And once Carrie was bare down there ... well, remember when the Sex And The City girls ate cupcakes? Let's put it this way: There's now a cupcake bakery on every other corner in upper Manhattan. Finally, the phenomenon introduced by the seven sisters Padilha blossomed, as spas all over the United States began to offer Brazilian wax services.

By 2003, Victoria Beckham had announced that she thought Brazilian waxes should be compulsory at age 15. Eva Longoria followed suit in 2006, telling Cosmopolitan that "Every woman should try a Brazilian wax once. The sex they have afterward will make them keep coming back." Soon, states like New Jersey and North Dakota were revisiting their regulations on legal cosmetology services after outcries from women who were surprised and dismayed to find that genital waxing had never been officially legalized. Gone were the warm, velvety vaginas of yesteryear -- the smooth, Brazilian-waxed vagina was the wave of the future.

THE EMPEROR'S NEW PRIVATE PARTS

Or was it? Most women don't chat about their vulvas in everyday life, so any concepts of "normal" pubic hair have always been murky and widely varied to begin with. Alanna, who asked that we refrain from using her last name, is just part of a whole generation who feels she's been duped by a certain everybody's doing it, everybody loves it myth.

Earlier this year, the 21-year-old New Jersey native's first full Brazilian wax (and last, she vows) left her smarting in more ways than one. "A lot of girls in my sorority had been saying it was the only way to go, so I thought it was going to be this life-changing thing. This magical cure-all for all my problems down there. I was a little mistaken," she says. "I was a little misled."

In addition to paying $55 for a hair removal job that wasn't nearly as thorough as she'd hoped, her suddenly pre-pubescent private parts simply gave her the creeps. "I'm not a fan of looking like a 12-year-old," Alanna says. "I think people should have hair down there. Our ancestors grew it for a reason. For protection." (To be fair, scientists don't actually know why humans have pubic hair. Some think it's to help trap pheromones, which connects us subconsciously to people we're attracted to; others, meanwhile, think it's simply there to keep our precious cargo warm enough for successful reproduction.)

* * *

Even if Alanna had set out on a noble quest to uncover the truth about "normal" pubic hair, she may still have come up empty-handed: Actual studies on American women's pubic hair removal habits are few and far between.

What surveys have been conducted, however, tend to support what most of America already suspects: that Brazilian waxing is largely practiced among the young, white, heterosexual Sex And The City and Gossip Girl demographics.

Herbenick's studies have found that women under 30 are two to three times as likely to have no pubic hair than women over 30. And Jodi Staiman, an esthetician at the posh Asha Salon in Evanston, Illinois, confirms: The vast majority of her Brazilian wax clients are under 30, and "a good 80 to 85 percent" are in their twenties. (That's not to say, though, that older women don't ever go bare. Pinto's mother, a 56-year-old divorcée, is now a regular Brazilian wax customer, thanks to her daughter.)

Staiman, who administers between five and 10 Brazilian waxes per week (and even more in the summertime and just before Halloween), also notes that her clientele is overwhelmingly white and Asian. Over the last six months, she adds, "I think I've done about eight Brazilian waxes on African-Americans, total." While Evanston and its nearby Northwestern University have disproportionately white and Asian populations, Staiman also credits the low number of black women in her clientele to the fact that coarser hair is more painful to remove by waxing.

Full pubic hair removal, according to Herbenick's studies, is most common among sexually active women, and specifically women who report having frequent oral sex and women who are not in monogamous relationships.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In