When it appears, pubic hair causes a scene. It is so rare in American media, that when seen in advertising or television, reactions flare. An unshaved porn star, whose explicit acts receive no criticism normally, will trigger spasms of disgust and praise across the internet for days.
Last fall, Roger Friedland, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote a demurely titled essay “disappearance” about pubic hair’s absence from American women’s bodies. Friedland writes as one who spent his youth curating women as one would wine. Such men believe they do a courtesy to compare the appreciation of women to the rarefied art of the sommelier. Italian men hold this attitude, he writes, and “[f]or Italian men the smell of a vagina is something earthy. The vagina for them is a prize, a beautiful flower to be admired and won.” One can almost imagine a young Italian man wafting the scent of his lover’s vagina toward his nose, as Friedland describes it. This, it is implied, is the proper attitude toward a lady’s genitalia. In contrast, American men, who expect baldness and find anything else unattractive, are perverted and oppressive. Friedland is well-intentioned when he lets women know that there are men out there who will appreciate their pubic hair in its natural state. However, he fails to recognize that the way he approaches pubic hair trends is informed by an objectified view of women, which is itself the real enemy.
A woman need not be particularly beautiful in order to be objectified. In fact, research in the European Journal of Social Psychology verifies that while each man is viewed as a whole figure, women are perceived as collections of sexual parts. While women do inspect men’s individual sexual attributes, they are more likely to recognize those parts as being part of a complete male body. Women, on the other hand, are assessed in pieces. Thus a woman might become a “nice ass” on a body, whereas a man might be said to “cut a handsome figure”. We are not shy about this behavior. Girls practice it themselves, and begin doing so at a young age. It’s considered nice to tell a friend that she has great legs. A woman might become know for such an asset. Hearing about her singular physical charms frequently enough encourages a girl to identify as “the owner of a great pair of legs,” rather than, for example, a smart student. I once had a man apologize for complimenting my legs. I laughed his apology off at the time, but as I age it makes more sense.
Hand-wringing over the receding tide of pubic hair in America misses the point. It is the wider field of aesthetic norms dictating a woman’s behavior, and the internalization of those norms by women, that are the problem. Some women don’t feel comfortable leaving the house without full makeup, others need to be wearing tottering heels. Pubic hair is not the only feature tailored to the male gaze. To say that it is fine for women to keep their pubic hair long because some men enjoy it does not help, as doing so still keeps women in the male gaze. More women need to adopt an attitude toward their grooming practices that doesn’t originate from their sense of what men will like.
The expectation of a shaved pussy might be new, but it doesn’t signify a troubling new separation of body from function. “Pubelessness is an affirmation of the pure body and a negation of corporeal soul, separating the center of one’s flesh from birth and from knowing,” writes Friedland, in what was for me a true “Oh, brother!” moment. Friedland takes the tone of a weary father explaining the matter to a daughter who hasn’t yet grasped the beauty of maternity. “American women are, in fact, striking a pornographic pose,” he asserts, and they’ve forgotten that their bodies are meant for reproduction rather pleasure. Friedland later argues that while the first feminists were resolutely hairy and natural, later ones embraced shaving as a sign of sexual liberation. To me, this makes sense. Shaving reveals the underlying shape of a woman’s genitalia, clears room for cunnilingus, and decreases the chance of pubic lice transfer. If women want to bare all, they should. If not, they don’t have to do it, and no one should question their decision to not spend the time and money grooming a body party that few see anyway. In fact, experience says most men won’t care; they’ll be satisfied enough with an opportunity to see a nude woman. The ones who do care probably aren’t worth dating for long, anyway.
Tufts of dark pubic hair grow smaller in the photographs by Sarah Friedland that accompany Roger Friedland’s article. By Sarah’s last photograph, barely a sliver of hair remains. We recognize the tufts as different pubic styles, notice how little one differs from the other in terms of area covered, and contemplate the significance of different pubic hair arrangements. By displaying hair abstracted from a woman’s body, Sarah Friedland’s photos tell just one of many ways a woman’s minute features are divorced from the rest of her figure by her own eye and the gaze of others. That argument runs counter to her writer’s words. Roger Friedland’s argument takes objectification for granted and reduces women into beings starved for male approval and waiting to be filled with offspring. He, like many others, offers women pedantic advice, when in fact he should have addressed his argument to men, the main offenders.