Tuesday 28 January 2020

The Aesthetics of the Pubis

Sometimes, what is relatively innocuous can signify a great deal. Consider the case of pubic hair, for instance. What decorates - or doesn't - your private parts is very much public property as far as celebrity culture, fashion, the beauty industry, pornography, and the ever watchful eyes of surveillant others are concerned. And, as with most things, not all mons pubis are created equally. For one set of bodies, it means very little. For the other, it is yet another zone of scrutiny and policing despite being hidden under layers of clothing and not on display to all and sundry. Why then does it matter, how is it used to evaluate women's bodies, and what road did Western cultures travel to arrive at a gendering and moralistic aesthetics of the pubis?

Burning questions Channel 4 tried addressing with its Bring Back the Bush: Where Did Our Pubic Hair Go?. Presented by body positive activist and social media influencer credited with #saggyboobsmatter on Instagram and Twitter, Chidera Eggerue, as someone who's for celebrating the female body in all its diversity she still takes a razor to her nether regions because she also feels the pressure of fitting in. She therefore wanted to challenge herself by bringing her bush back for the first time since her late teens, and open a conversation about desirability and body autonomy.

And autonomy here is key, as women face being cancelled or worse for not conforming to pubic normativity. Women can receive rape threats and the rest for even daring to pose online with hairy legs, so how did women's pubes become a hot button topic? Chidera ventures over to California while observing that a great many young people learn sex education through porn, and with it comes a whole set of expectations about what counts as desirable bodies. Speaking to Lena Paul and Casey Calvert, performers and sometime producers they argue what matters in porn is that absolutely nothing is left to the imagination and therefore keeping it shaved renders all the more explicit what is explicit. However, in more recent years Chidera notes there's been a turn back to the bush. Once a niche category approaching a fetish, Casey suggested established A-list performers started defying convention, which then filtered down and across the industry. Lena, who is one of this wave of enpubed superstars says her bush is very polarising, observing that "it feels like our bodies aren't good enough unless we change them."

While out in Hollywood, Chidera explores this further by sampling mirkins from down the ages. Starting with the late 19th century when even showing a bit of ankle was too much, private parts were, formally, very private. Matters then were, well, matted as this was the age of the big bush. Yet out of sight didn't necessarily mean out of mind. Riffing off his theory of evolution Charles Darwin suggested it was natural for men to be hairy and women hairless, meaning one didn't have to go far to declare women with lots of pubes unnatural, deviant, and immoral. Moving forward to the 1950s and the invention of the bikini comes with the invention of the bikini line. From there evolution moves to the landing strip of the 00s (90s, surely?) and from there where we are today. The more women's flesh comes on public display, the more the hair has to retreat until disappearing altogether.

But what about teh menz? Gathering together a group of late 20s/early 30-somethings for their opinions on matters mons, they ranged from preferring trimmed pubes to not bothered at all to preference for completely shaved - for appearance's sake and for oral sex. One guy chipped in to suggest it was a character thing, if a woman does it it shows they're interested in looking after themselves. In other words, pubic hair is a moral issue.

Chidera was joined on her growing out journey by four other social media micro celebs, all of whom make a living from modelling. Six weeks into the experiment, Krissy Vee said she felt uncomfortable and dirty. Rachel Kaitlyn, who also works as a cage dancer, said she was starting to attract stares. Jessie Bell said she had a run in with "a massive dickhead" after riding his shoulders at a festival was told by him that she should shave. And Jessica Megan said she'd lost a couple of photography jobs because she refused to cave in. Gathering them all together for a photo shoot at the end - later to be featured in an exhibition - Chidera concluded that owning a bush is a step toward normalising it and that it was her way of refusing to let others govern her life.

As an intro into some of the issues around the politics of women's bodies, it was okay. But it was a bit weak sauce. Where it was good was demonstrating the ubiquity of the emphasised feminine body standard and how its most ardent gendarmes are women themselves. The confession booth segment of the show was interesting for getting the perspective of others who, almost to a woman, attribute their hair removal practices to the pressure and commentary of significant people in their life - friends, lovers, family members. The panoptican no longer exists because it has insinuated itself seamlessly into the feminine everyday. Its practice and discursive enforcement is just accepted and barely questioned.

Chidera mentions the flex of male power as having something to do with it, but exploring it as an aspect of the pornographic imaginary alone cuts out a great deal. For one, it only explores men superficially. Indeed, a more interesting documentary could be made about the hysterical males who find agency obsessing over a stray pube here, a bit of stubble there, and what it is about the gender order that easily collapses masculinity into toxicity. Chidera does mention feminism very briefly, but in the past tense of the second wave and doesn't really bring it into her discussion. Secondly, what is completely absent is the political economy of the pubis. As with all aspects of female grooming, patriarchy and markets have gone hand in hand to reify and sexualise women's bodies for profit. The disappearance of pubic hair in porn and its subsequent spread into mainstream culture was neither natural nor inevitable. The beauty industry pushed for it and created a market for its depilatory creams, specialised razors, waxing salons, electric trimmers and all the rest, and successfully integrated these into the beauty regimens of hundreds of millions of women. The pubic place is a public place for commerce too. But alas, this history was airbrushed out like so many blemishes on a Playboy model.

As we began, the relatively innocuous can say a great many things. Bring Back the Bush, unfortunately, did not say enough.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

Of course in a capitalist society there's a huge incentive to commodify female beauty by making it dependent on commercially marketed cosmetics. Skin lighteners is a related and very interesting topic. But you can't blame all of it on capitalism- most cultures prefer women with less hairy legs- prenuptual depilating is for instance part of Arabic custom, and is carried out by the bride's girl friends. Although in South America I've read that more body hair is desirable because it indicates more white ancestry. I've personally always been repelled by the "Hollywood" shave, and rather suspicious of men who desire or require it, since it replicates the appearance of a prepubescent child.

Boffy said...

Surely also a question of sexual etiquette. No one male or female wants to get furballs.

theOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarth said...

"Of course in a capitalist society there's a huge incentive to commodify female beauty"

Yeah, I will really miss that!

BCFG said...

Meanwhile in other news the 2 fascists Trump and Netanyahu carve up more of the Palestinians dwindling territories,

"The spectacle at the White House today hearkens back to the colonial era when European powers would arbitrarily set up borders & divide lands in their overseas domains without consulting the “natives", and call their schemes "peace" & prosperity."

But for the Yvette Cooper loving centre left along with the arch pro imeprialist scum such as Boffy, who gives a shit!

Sam said...

Right but therein is a distinction between fully unbridled Bush (and loose hairs) and trimming and the current cultural hegemony for waxed/shaved/prepubesent

davidjc said...

Hair has denoted female power since the dawn of time. In hunter/gather mythology, the flow of female hair - often dyed ochre-red - is typically linked to the flow of menstrual blood, which is the source of female spiritual, reproductive and social power.

Under the class patriarchy of agricultural society, this power is a chaotic enemy force, as seen in myths like Medusa and Rapunzel and in religious rules on not showing hair in public.

In sex as a market place, I guess you’d expect the full range of pubic hairstyles and money-spinning fashion trends.

The first two paragraphs here are a crude knock-off job of the fantastic work done by Chris Knight, Camilla Power and the Radical Anthropology Group.