Five friends on a girls-only break somewhere hot. Lots of gossip, filthy jokes and visits to the local supermarket to buy our body weight in rosé. The villa we have rented has its own pool and there are no menfolk around, so we decide to go not only topless, but bottomless too. Why not? We’re long-standing friends, there’s no amount of saggy bosoms we haven’t seen before and besides, we haven’t gone on holiday to be judgmental. This is genuine sisterhood here.
That’s what I’m thinking anyway, until we all strip naked and there’s an audible intake of breath when everyone catches sight of my, um, bikini line. I look like a circus attraction compared to the way everyone else has elaborately topiarised. They simply could not get over how ‘brave’ I was, allowing it to look like that in this day and age.
By the time we got back home, it had become a minor celebrity – “But have you seen the size of Francesca’s bush?” – and I was so intrigued by the subject that I decided to do a straw poll. Was mine the only retro muff in London? Not so, it seems. One friend proudly told me her “triangle” is now “like seaweed in the bath”, and that she only “cuts the corners for a holiday treat”. If you’ve read Caitlin Moran’s best-selling How To Be A Woman, you will know she has a “big, hairy minge”, a “lovely furry moof” or, even better, a “marmoset sitting in my lap”. Okay, mine’s not a marmoset, but it’s no mole rat either, that is for sure.
Pubes: What a battleground they have become. What a locus for feminist debate. What a cultural semaphore, too, for the way we women perceive ourselves and are perceived by others. The choice we make as to whether to wax, shave, cream or laser down there is such a loaded one. Clearly, sex has a lot to do with it. Those who have it regularly, it would appear from my little poll, tend to be much more pruned than those who do not. But the idea that we only do it to look like little girls for our kinky partners does not tally with the hardcore, slightly intimidating yoginis I’ve noticed in the shower after class, whose clean shavenness seems to be more about self-adornment, in the manner of piercings and tattoos, than anything else.
Although (and this is why it is such a feminist issue), is it actually a matter of choice now? Take the case of photographer and artist Petra Collins, who recently had her Instagram account deleted after she posted a picture of herself in bikini bottoms from the waist down. Why? Lots of people post bikini selfies in much raunchier shots than Collins’. No, the reason her account got deleted was because she had the audacity, the pure tastelessness to not have had a bikini wax beforehand, and — horrors! — you could see her sprouting out of the sides. Could anything be more heinous?
Blame it on the easy availability of YouPorn or our growing inability to distinguish between what is real and what is virtual, but our perceptions of what ‘normal’ versus ‘kinky’ looks like has been radically skewed. If easily accessible porn is the window to others’ nakedness, why on earth would anyone believe women were not born hairless?
You could also blame it on the general societal repulsion for bodily hair, and maybe even the increasing amount of flesh shown by the average celebrity (how could Miley Cyrus be anything other than clean-shaven to wear what she does on the red carpet?). Certainly, looking pre-pubescent feels like it has slowly but surely become the New Normal.
The irony is that, coming from hairy stock, both my sister and I started waxing at the age of 13. We were, among our late-developer friends, pubic pioneers, but that wasn’t a fashion thing; it was because if we didn’t, it would quite literally be down to our knees. I also remember declaring this to my mum in the car on the way to school and not really getting the big reaction that I thought it deserved.
That first wax? Oh, lord. The old dear who administered it clearly hadn’t been doing it for very long, pulling it off in what felt like slow motion and leaving me with big red welts. Of course, in those days it was really just about making sure it didn’t poke out at the sides and join up with your belly button, but, boy has it turned into something else in the last 20 years. It’s partly idleness that has made me gradually revert to a good old bush, partly stinginess (I resent spending all that money on something that so few people see) and partly the fact that I have a partner who likes me as nature intended (or at least says he does). I also like that it bucks a disturbing trend: a whole generation of young men and boys who may not know there is such thing as female pubic hair cannot be a good thing.
I have it on good authority that girls as young as 11 are now whipping it all off the second there is even a hint of pube — in some cases, with the full approval of their mothers. “I see a lot of girls aged 16 or so who have been recommended to see me by their mums,” says the head waxer of one of London’s most popular salons. “And most of them will ask for a Brazilian (if you don’t know already, it’s where hair is removed from the front, back and everywhere in between, with just a frontal ‘landing strip’ left intact) or Hollywood (which leaves you as fuzz-free down there as the day you were born). Sometimes I can’t believe how much they’re spending on it. If you need it done once a month, it’s £45 a shot without tip.” That’s serious pocket money, isn’t it?
The Brazilian is itself a modern invention, brought to New York by Brazilian-born J Sisters in 1987 and popularised by Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw. In fact, although waxing one’s lady garden was first practised thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, on the whole, up until about 30-odd years ago, a good thatch was something a woman could wear in the bedroom with pride. In the 17th and 18th centuries, lovers would exchange pubes as tokens of affection, putting them in lockets. Shaving was something that only prostitutes did, in order to get rid of pubic lice. In terms of art, it was the other way round.
“The ideal female nude in Western art was a smooth-bodied, hairless creature who was oblivious to, and innocent of, her state of undress,” says Alyce Mahon, Cambridge academic and author of Eroticism and Art. “A real ‘naked’ female, in contrast, was represented with all her ‘imperfections’, including pubic and underarm hair. If the ideal nude was meant to elevate the mind away from bodily desire through its supposed innocence, the naked model was staged as the palpable object of male desire,” Mahon continues. See? Hair equals sex! Flick through the pages of Playboy in the late ’60s and early ’70s and you’ll see just that. Scroll forward to now, and having such a hearty bush has become an act of cultural subversion.
But hang on a second – with the new wave of feminism, do we feel a backlash building? I can’t be the only woman for whom a negligible little stripe of fuzz feels not only like pandering to pornographic tastes, but also slightly impractical (a friend who’s just had a Hollywood confirms that when there’s no hair to “funnel your wee, it goes everywhere”). Am I the only one who not only likes to have her bits covered up, but feels rather weird going to, say, the gynaecologist looking like a pornstar?
Look at Gwyneth Paltrow who has, er, waxed lyrical about her bush and how her team had to run out for razors when she appeared on the red carpet in that Antonio Berardi dress with the big see-through side panels. I have it on good authority that Stella McCartney, meanwhile, is seriously thinking of launching a ‘Bring back the beaver’ campaign. Indeed, when I called to check, her office said they were looking for domains to bring the campaign online, and passed on this message from Stella herself: “I think body hair is a really historical topic. Having two young daughters, I am an advocate of being who you want to be, and not judging people. It’s about personal pride and confidence no matter what your personal choices, especially when it comes to sexuality.” It seems a growing number of women agree with her. Saskia De Brauw, Angela Lindvall and Daria Werbowy are just some of the supermodels who have happily bared their lady gardens for the camera.
So, what is the ideal? No one is talking about a total overgrown knicker situation. Ever seen 19th-century French artist Gustave Courbet’s realist masterpiece of a woman’s bits, ‘L’Origine du Monde’? (No? Google it immediately.) Not like that. But not, please, like Iggy Azalea, who ‘accidentally’ flashed her lady tackle at the 2013 MTV EMA awards, either. TMI, Ms Azalea. What I’m talking about is a sensible triangle that perhaps just slightly bulges underneath one’s bikini bottoms.
It’s been two years since that girly mini-break abroad. In the interim, I’ve held my ground; and I bet you the next time we get our kit off together, I won’t be quite so much the odd one out.