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

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

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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.

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But women sport a stark-naked mons veneris for many reasons, ranging from the practical to the provocative. Herbenick's explanation is a tame one: She thinks it's mainly a response to skimpy clothing trends. "Our underwear today is a lot smaller than women's underwear was 20 years ago," she says. "And if you have hair sticking out the sides of your underwear, that's just kind of, like, unkempt."

Low-slung pants, too, may be a factor: "Certainly when I think of the younger version of Britney Spears and the extremely low-cut jeans she would wear, I remember thinking, If she had pubic hair you would be able to see it," she says.

Pinto's reasoning, too, is more sensible than scandalous: She just feels cleaner down there.

"It could be attributed to visual pornographers' desire to infantilize women, or simply to make genitalia more visible to the camera."

"I work out a lot. I get sweaty," she explains calmly. "And it starts to smell when you've got hair down there. So yeah, it hurts, but I just feel so much cleaner."

Pinto, who's candid about her active sex life, points out that she's never waxed at the request of a boyfriend or a partner. "I did it the first time for me," she says, "and I still do it for me." Pinto was 17 when she first waxed it all off.

Though Pinto says sex has never felt any different to her without pubic hair ("Once we get going, who cares?" she says with a laugh), there certainly remains a sexual motive for taking it all off: Drawing back the curtain of pubic hair exposes the clitoris, the labia and the vagina for plain viewing. There's a tactile element, too: As one elated young husband named Mark explained to Glamour in 2009, "The skin down there is protected -- it never really touches anything, it never sees the sun -- so it's ridiculously soft.

"You can't really tell how soft it is until a woman waxes. Oh my God, you can't believe how soft it is when you wax," 28-year-old Mark gushed. "It's extremely, extremely soft, so it feels great when you have sex."

Pinto's past boyfriends, she says, would wholeheartedly agree. "Once, I started dating someone when I hadn't waxed in a while," she says, "And then when I did, he went, Oh! This is awesome! Why didn't you do this before?!"

"That was my senior year of high school," she adds. "So every month I would text him, 'Guess who's getting a wax!' And he'd be like, 'Smiley face, so excited!'"

Many men, like Bob Fitzpatrick, a finance student at the University of Michigan, are more likely to perform oral sex on a female partner if she has no pubic hair.

"If she's seeking for you to pleasure her and you have pubic hairs in your mouth, you're not going to be pleased with that," the 21-year-old says. Fitzpatrick, a bright, chatty Lake Forest, Illinois, native who's paired off with a casual-but-exclusive significant other, says he prefers a clean-shaven or fully waxed mons pubis, and giggles as he recalls one particularly dismaying encounter. "I was like, Oh no, five o'clock shadow?! This is gonna be itchy on my face!"

* * *

Although sex, hygiene, and clothing are all contributing factors, Fitzpatrick, Herbenick, and Pinto all agree that there's one main driving force behind America's villainization of pubic hair: pornography.

When a team of researchers from George Washington University took a closer look at Playboy's representations of women's genitalia throughout the years, they found that in issues dating from the magazine's inception in 1953 up through the 1970s and '80s, more than 95 percent of the centerfolds and naked models sported full, apparently natural pubic hair.

In the late 20th century, though, that changed. As Joseph Slade, professor of media and culture at Ohio University, puts it, the media legitimized voyeurism and turned it into a way of life; suddenly, porn viewers wanted to see everything more deeply and without the veil of hair. Thus, Playboy's love affair with the au naturel look faded: By the 1990s, more than a third of the models appeared to have removed some of their pubic hair. And in the new millennium, less than 10 percent of nude models now sport the full pubic bush, while a third remove their hair partially and one-quarter remove it completely. Playboy has trimmed down the standard from the un-modified, detail-obscuring "fur bikini" it helped popularize in the 1960s to the vanishing act it promotes today.

Hugh Hefner's magazine, however, isn't the only supporter of the tress-less treasure chest. Rather, says Slade, genital alopecia seems to have hit the entire adult entertainment industry. "Depilation took hold in visual porn in the 1990s, though some actresses trimmed for movies before then," Slade says. "It was easier to keep crotches cleaner on the set. But certainly the practice is widespread in video porn today. Enough so that backlash has created a niche fetish for 'full bushes.'"

But while the sleek, slick, bare labia majora is more common in visual porn today than ever before, the stylized hairless vulva has actually been around for centuries. According to Slade, as far back as the 15th century, women -- especially prostitutes -- often shaved their pubic hair to avoid lice infestation, which is where having a muff may have picked up its stigma of being "unclean." In the years following, medieval and classical European sculptors and painters omitted pubic hair from depictions of female nudes; In fact, the notion of pubic hair in general was so unholy that every last naked prophet on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is completely hairless below the neck. But life didn't dare imitate art -- at least, that is, not until Playboy.

Slade cites two potential reasons for porn's fixation on the bare vagina. "It could be attributed to visual pornographers' desire to infantilize women," Slade says, "or simply to make genitalia more visible to the camera. Male porn stars often shave their pubic hair for that purpose, too."

Many feminists understandably take umbrage at the first, Slade says. "Bare pubic areas are most common in videos advertised as featuring young women, because it does infantilize them or make them look pre-pubescent." It's less common, he says, in porn featuring MILFs (American Pie's now-famous acronym for "mothers I'd like to fuck"), because mature age is the appeal.

THE CULT OF THE SPHYNX

Herbenick and Fitzpatrick both believe one demographic group has embraced the hairless-cat look more fervently than others: college students.

In theory, this should come as no surprise; The average U.S. state university actually has all the right features to act as a veritable incubator for anti-pube sentiments. Where else do youth, skimpy clothing, rampantly available pornography, and non-monogamous sexual habits all converge so gloriously?

And as anyone who's ever lived in a freshman dormitory can attest, close quarters and newfound autonomy can produce an open forum for frank, peer-to-peer conversations about sex that would be less likely to arise in other adult settings. In other words, a conversation about pubic hair is more likely to come up in a frat house basement than at an office water cooler.

"If they want to take it off, they take it off. If they want to grow it back, they grow it back. But they're doing it because they want to."

Sometimes, those basements can act as warm, fertile petri dishes for the spread of contagious (and mostly unfounded) negativity. "Guys sit around and they talk about sex, and they think they're supposed to say, 'Pubic hair's disgusting,' and 'I hate pubic hair,'" he says. "They don't want to be judged for their sexual preferences."

And among women, Herbenick says, pubic grooming habits and preferences tend to spread among friend groups -- which leads to "clumps," she says, of women with similar grooming regimens. "Friends talk," she says. "So especially among teenagers and college students, when everyone is trying to be the same, 'the same' is what you get."

Herbenick recalls one encounter in which a popular, well-liked college student in a class she taught openly professed that he had never hooked up with a girl who had pubic hair, and would frankly be disgusted to undress a woman and discover a veil of genital fur.

"Some girls talked to me and wrote in their papers that they had always had pubic hair, and in a couple cases never did anything to their pubic hair," she said. "They never thought it was a problem. But when he said that, they went home and changed it. They really started to feel ashamed about their bodies."

Fitzpatrick, similarly, finds himself in a collegiate scene full of young women far too obsessed with the hair down there. "It becomes a compulsion," he says.

Fitzpatrick's female friends, especially those who confess to not having waxed in a while, have added a distinct new routine to their social calendars: weekend-evening freak-outs. "When they go out on a Friday night to the bar, if they think they might be having sex with somebody later, they're like, 'Is he gonna judge me? What is he gonna think?'" Fitzpatrick says. Other non-waxed coeds simply skip the bar altogether.

Pinto, too, admits that she gets nervous about having sex toward the third or fourth week after getting a wax. "If I haven't waxed and I suddenly end up hooking up with someone, I'm like, Oh, God. No, no!" she says.

And it's true, says Fitzpatrick: Guys can be, and often are, "absolutely brutal." It's not uncommon for a college-aged man to "go out of his way" to make fun of a girl's pubic grooming habits with his buddies after he's hooked up with her -- even if he's never expressed a preference one way or the other, he says. "Then all of a sudden, instead of just being a girl who's had a fun night with her respective guy, she becomes that girl who has weird pubic hair. And nobody wants that label."

But while university campuses may be hotbeds of body-hair negativity, individual college students' attitudes seem remarkably different behind closed doors.

"I personally find myself a little more attractive when I don't have it," Pinto explains. "But one time I had a consistent hookup and he told me, 'Either way, you're attractive. You're a naked girl, and you're in my bed. Doesn't matter.'"

Fitzpatrick, too, downplays the actual make-or-break importance of a woman's pubic hairstyle. "Back in the Victorian age, it was sexy to be really pale because it meant you didn't work in the fields," he says. "Or it was sexy to be fat because it meant you could afford to eat lots of meals."

Similarly, Fitzpatrick says, the waxed or clean-shaven vulva should be seen as little more than a fad -- albeit something of a saddening one. "At first, the powers that be tell you it's sexy, and then by the time you're done, you have a bunch of women obsessively waxing themselves."

"When I first met some of my friends," he adds, "they were like, 'Oh, I only like girls with 34D's who are six feet tall,' and run down this list of high standards. And then a year or two later, once I'd gotten to know them, those same guys were like, 'Yeah, you know, I really don't mind that she wears granny panties.'"

EMPOWERING OR DEFLOWERING?

Herbenick readily admits that today, both men and women alike largely consider pubic hair dirty or unfeminine. In other words, it carries a less-than-desirable stigma among members of both sexes. "But I would put it this way: so does the rest of women's body hair," she counters. "Pubic hair was kind of the last to join." After all, she says, women remove their leg hair and underarm hair all over the Western world, and many report that they would feel ashamed or embarrassed if they didn't. "They wouldn't want people to see that on them," she says. "They say they would feel unfeminine, or that they wouldn't feel sexy."

So what does it all mean? Is pubic hair removal a symbol of feminine pride, something that Gloria Steinem might be proud of? Or does it signify submission to a domineering male agenda?

"It's all in how people deal with it," Herbenick says. As she's seen in her lecture-hall encounters, the hairless vulva isn't always analogous to the clenched fist of female solidarity; just as often, it's a telltale sign of oppression or forced conformity.

But, she says, uncovered, demystified genitalia can just as easily be a symbol of empowerment. "Many women have started to feel a sense of ownership over their bodies -- an autonomy," she says. "If they want to take it off, they take it off. If they want to grow it back, they grow it back. If they want to shave it into a heart, they shave it into a heart. But they're doing it because they want to."

And sometimes, they want to make it permanent. Women aren't just striving for ways to attain that smooth, glossy, doll-like physique -- they're looking for ways to preserve it, too. Many advocate for laser hair removal as a quick, one-size-fits-all cure for the chronic problem of body hair; Pinto, who's already permanently depilated her forearms via laser hair removal, plans to undergo the procedure on her bikini area this winter.

Laser hair removal requires commitment: It can take eight to 12 half-hour sessions to completely remove the hair, with three to eight weeks between each treatment, and maintenance sessions are often necessary in later years to keep growth at bay.

Pinto's mother, a former plastic surgeon, plans to give her daughter the $3,000 procedure as a college graduation gift.

Images: 1. alyushin/Shutterstock; 2. mast3r/Shutterstock.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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