I don’t remember when I started associating being hairy with being dirty. I’m sure it happened slowly and over time, as my thin blonde hair grew thick and coarse on my calves, under my arms, and in between my legs. I must have been 16 when I decided — per my older sister’s guidance — to shave all my pubic hair off. And this is often how we learn, don’t we? Under the tutelage of another woman, we come to understand that this is normal or abnormal, clean or unclean. I remember emerging from my neighbor’s pool in a white bathing suit, my sister gawking at the shape my bikini took to my healthy knot of dark pubic hair, and uttered – gross.
It wasn’t until ten years later — after hundreds of disposable razor heads and bottles of shaving cream — that I considered a Brazilian wax. I had been seeing a new and older man, and after a few rounds of sleeping together, he asked if I could wax. “Believe me,” he said at the time, “this feels a little inappropriate.” And it felt a little inappropriate to me, too: a sting of embarrassment at my misstep.
I booked my appointment with Sonya a few weeks later, when (I was told by a female friend) the hair had grown long enough to uproot the follicle properly. I didn’t know what to expect, and as I took a seat in the SoHo spa, where lavender towels and lemon water were meant to soothe me, I adjusted the hem of my dress, and bit my fingernails down to the base.
Sonya instructed me to lay down on my back, spread my knees to make a diamond shape with the soles of my feet touching. The molten wax was a beautiful emerald, and felt warm on my skin as she gently rubbed her popsicle stick up and down the folds of my labia. Sonya seemed at ease, and so I allowed my shoulders to sink back into the seat, entertained my esthetician’s friendly bantering as she patted the first paper strip over top. It was only after I began to answer her question — as she jerked her hand up in one absolute sweep, her mouth fixed in a permanent smile as I called out in pain — did I know this would be my last Brazilian.
Why my first Brazilian will be my last
Though the whole procedure lasted about 20 minutes, when I looked down between my legs to my bare vagina, I saw a wounded body. The pad of skin was pricked with blood, and a rosy hue had spread out like wings between my legs. Many women experience pain, and indeed, there are dozens of articles and threads on Reddit, Buzzfeed, and Glamour, that attempt to prepare women for the pain. The bottom line is that it hurts. A lot. But there’s a reason that it hurts.
I’m opening my body up to infection.
About 24 hours after I got my first Brazilian, my vagina erupted in angry bumps. I had read about ways to prevent this: changing your workout clothing religiously, wearing loose pants, uncrossing your legs, and washing the area with soap and water. Still, like a low growl, my body produced tiny pimples that covered my groin. I couldn’t help but think: is this what it means to be clean?
There have been reports that, in fact, the practice is very unclean. Some women have written on their experience of infections, ingrown hair, and even burning. After the appearance of my own bumps, I found that some women have contracted Molluscum contagiosum. NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff reported on a study that found a correlation between pubic hair grooming and infections that affect the skin, like HPV and syphilis.
When I shuffled from Sonya’s room to the front desk and shoved my card into the card reader, I signed off on a bill of $94.00, with a generous tip for Sonya. As the wide-eyed receptionist looked over her desk with an air of pity and shared understanding, she asked me when I would like to make my next appointment.
My next appointment, I said, hadn’t been on my mind.
The spa recommended a treatment once per month, which would total to a whopping $1,128 per year. A substantial cut of my yearly income would be dedicated to removing my pubic hair, a sum that I couldn’t imagine a man considering. Indeed, some estimates report that women spend up to $23,000 over the course of their lifetime on hair removal.
In an interview with The Hairpin, feminist writer and thinker Caitlin Moran has a problem with the way the cost — and the pain — of Brazilians have been normalized. I can’t help but agree with her feeling that “anything that’s normal that involves pain and costs a lot of money that boys aren’t doing” deserves some serious (re)consideration on my part.
It’s not for me.
Personally, the vagina has been an epicenter for shame. From my sister’s adolescent disgust to my lover’s “inappropriate” request, the idea of my vagina curdled from a source of pleasure into a place of dirtiness.
Many feminists have written on the experience of a Brazilian as self-motivated and even empowering. While I am a large proponent of empowering women in all choices — including their choices on body hair — if I examine my own decision to wax, the root of it is in shame. The literal and figurative cost in no way would be worth the lack of hair. It would, however, be worth the lack of shame.
When I look down at my vagina and see the hair growing back, I no longer feel dirty. It was discovering the source of my shame that allowed me to redefine my relationship to it. And in deciding not to wax my pubic hair, I’ve never felt freer.