Cherwell

The Lady Downstairs

Allow me to take you back to a simpler time. It was the summer of 2017; I am lying on my friend’s bed, dolled up to at least the eights, if not to the nines, as I was told this was what a night out in Manchester (Bolton) necessitated. My friend, who shall remain nameless, emerges from the shower with a coy look on her face. ‘Lads,’ she said. ‘I had an accident.’ Pray tell, pray tell, we asked. She began to recount a story of miscommunication; a story of farce, of accident, and of hot wax. Her beautician had not been paying attention to her instructions and had become a tad overzealous with a large supply of hot wax. ‘Now,’ she said, raising an eyebrow, ‘I am a bald eagle.’

This was an incident that has since become inscribed upon my person and my mind. Body hair, the subject of this ambiguous tale, has become something of a commodity. We live in a post-vajazzle, post-landing strip, post-glitter pubes, post-Vivienne Westwood ‘Eve’ suit world. This is not a surprise considering the mass-market, capitalist, ‘dolla dolla dolla’ climate in which we live.

It must be conceded that the body hair, in particular the proverbial bush, has long been a venue of expression, for woman in particular. The ‘to shave, or not to shave’ debate has vacillated back and forth between answers in the positive or negative since the beginning of written history; women in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece favoured the Hollywood, whereas women in Medieval Europe preferred to wear body hair au naturelle. The Late Medieval period proved to be a particularly fruitful period for depictions of Mary Magdalene and her famed ‘feather tights;’ as a result of her penitence in the desert, she is often represented as having grown hair from her toes to her neck. Prostitutes occupy an interestingly functionalist niche, in the sense that they would shave to avoid unwanted visitors (lice, that is to say, are bad for business.) The modern pre-occupation with a hairless cooch and pits can be traced back to the transformations in 1920s fashion that demanded the nether regions be bare. Gilette launched its first razor aimed solely at women in 1915. This phenomenon was only intensified by porn revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s; whether this has spiralled out of control or not is a matter of personal opinion. The vajazzle exists with only God to judge it.

If, then, there is a historical precedence for the modification (or indeed, lack of modification) to body hair, why is it such a controversial topic? One might argue that it is these processes of restriction that make it so. Yet, the picture is exponentially more complicated in our modern world of self-expression, fluid gender-identities and sexualities. Hair has been inherently commodified; a cursory google search will yield thousands of results regarding the Right Way to shave for cis-women, trans-women, trans-men, cis-men, gay men, lesbians, straight women, bi-woman – the whole spectrum. However, it is worth noting that there is something of a discrepancy in the search results for men and pretty much everyone else. The male (more specifically, the cis-male) results were characterised by articles with titles such as the ‘Lazy Man’s Guide to Body Hair Grooming,’ (Esquire) or various Top Ten Tips articles for Easy Manscaping. The other results, on the other hand, tended to focus on queries of adhering to social norms and debates surrounding the morality of shaving. This is not to say that men do not face stigma for hair, or a lack thereof. Would a man bearing a brawny chest full of follicles be accepted onto the sleek, oiled up cast of Geordie Shore? I think not, but there is significant difference in tone in the way that cis-male hair is treated. It is, in short, normalised as opposed to restricted.

With this in mind, I took to the streets. I undertook interviews (asked my friends) with a diverse (diverse-ish, Oxford has access issues) range of people, across a census of ten individuals from different economic and racial backgrounds and gender identities. While the overarching trends appeared to be in favour of people ‘doing whatever,’ the male results tended to reinforce a preference for the shaving of body hair in women, and a lack of ‘manscaping.’ White participants also tended to be more laissez-fair, whereas the people of colour surveyed noted a significant pressure to shave. However, there was a notable unison in the negative reception of various types of ‘body hair art.’ Repulsion was a reccuring word. Perhaps the Vajazzle has more to answer to than just God.

Despite this, from these results it became inherently clear to me that body hair is viewed as something that is intrinsically modifiable, even if there are notable social pressures to do so. While it is certainly commodified, there are expectations underlying the commodification. Therefore, it would be pertinent to move the debate away from discussion of the various kitschy things people are doing to their body hair. Body hair in general, and the bush in particular, is a viable cultural medium, and must be treated as such.