There are few things as mundane as pubic hair. Everyone has it, and nearly everyone deals with it on a daily basis. Yet, unlike other mundane facets of our lives — laundry, grocery shopping, the sidewalk — pubic hair takes on an unusually meaningful role, for female-identifying people especially.
But has pubic hair — or lack thereof — ever actually been a neutral decision? Or have pubes always been the subject of public scrutiny?
At the start of each new year, people all over the world — egged on by strangers on the internet — stop shaving to let their hair coalesce into its natural form. It’s a body-positive, hair-positive movement that juxtaposes the silky skin, hairless ideal that proliferates the digital world. But 2020’s Januhairy event never ended for me. When February rolled around, I simply didn’t shave. Other than the time I (unsuccessfully) tried to dye my armpit hair purple, I leave my pubes to their own devices.
This simple choice can be interpreted in a myriad of ways — a protest against the patriarchy, a defiant political statement, environmental activism against plastic pollution or even a lack of personal hygiene.
But if you ask me, it’s none of the above.
Although I am under no obligation to explain, my reasons for not shaving are quite simple. I don’t like the look of bare, slightly razor burned skin; and by not shaving, I have one less thing to worry about. I might have long pubes, but pubes have an even longer history.
It should be no surprise that, as one of the first ancient civilizations to develop makeup, the Egyptians also pioneered the development of hair removal tools such as tweezers and razors. While they got the job done, sharp pumice stones might not have been as pleasant a shave as we enjoy today.
It was a similar story in Ancient Greece and Rome. Hair (or a lack thereof) was a symbol of status and heavily idealized in art and culture.
Hair removal was slightly less common in the Middle Ages, as pestilence and plague took center stage. In some regions, a fresh shave even became a symbol of prostitution, prompting women of higher classes to leave their hair natural.
The Renaissance era refocused the Western world on class and status, and there began to be greater consensus that women’s pubic hair must go. One popular hair technique involved boiling arsenic and quicklime and applying it to the hair. Women had to be careful to remove the solution not only after the hair had been burned away but before the flesh was burned, too.
Women who opted to keep their hair were viewed as overly masculine, and in some cases, filthy. Art and greater society had yet to shy away from the nude form, so quite personal choices became publicly scrutinized.
In the 1800s, “ideal femininity” was a lot of things — cinched waists, long dresses, submission. But it was not necessarily hairless. While some women of wealthier classes shaved their armpits, most opted out. Against a backdrop of harsh religious movements, people generally avoided conversations and attention toward anything of a sexual nature.
There were some exceptions, however. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, lovers would occasionally present locks of their pubic hair as souvenirs.
While, in the 19th century, hair removal was generally reserved for wealthier classes, the turn of the century marked a paradigm shift for pubic hair. The sleeveless dress came into style, and Gillete’s razor marketed for women followed closely behind. By the end of the 1910s, women were facing increasingly harsh expectations pushed by hair removal advertisements, most of which focused on armpit hair removal.
Marketing, however, proved to be a challenging endeavor; and gender, once again, became a confounding factor. Because razors were typically viewed as “masculine,” companies such as Gillette used manipulative rhetoric to appeal to a feminine audience. Slogans such as “the underarm must be as smooth as the face” or “classy ladies ALL shave their armpits!” proliferated the media.
Armpit hair went from relatively neutral and inoffensive to a marker of masculinity, and for women, unkemptness. By 1930, the razor industry had nearly doubled its clientele.
Amidst the “hippie” and “peace” movements of the 1960s, many people opted for a more natural look. In some cases, armpit hair became a hallmark of activism and support for the Civil Rights and the antiwar movements.
The 1970s brought electrolysis, an electric hair removal technique, and by the mid-1990s, any remnants of pubic hair positivity from the ’60s had all but been erased. Going hair-free was an unwavering expectation.
Modern day is generally more friendly to feminine folks who choose to grow out their armpits — but in a very cornered way. Trends such as Januhairy and body-hair positive online influencers are shifting the narrative.
But still, rather than being seen as a relatively neutral decision, such as wearing a blue T-shirt or cutting bangs, many people perceive armpit hair as a quirky novelty or the marker of a “free spirit.” This makes sense — after all, not shaving does run contrary to mainstream beauty standards. Armpit hair is still being used to fit people into socially constructed categories in the present day.
Since this history of pubic hair focuses on the Western world, it barely scratches the surface of how pubes have come to take on undue meaning across cultures, geography and time.
While hair choices are banal in every sense of the word, they are crucial in constructing gender. As long the myth of gender persists, pubic hair will continue to be woven into arbitrary, constructed meanings.
The next step in liberating pubic hair might be seeing pubes for nothing more than what they are — a mundane, biological reality.