OK, I'll admit it. I went to grad school on a bit of a whim. Sure, getting an MA was always on the "this might be an interesting thing to do some day" list, but it wasn't necessarily at the top of it. But when the economy tanked, my live-in boyfriend confessed he "didn't see a future with me" and things in my life generally felt kind of stagnant, I made the leap. After all, who wouldn't want to while away a couple of years in the company of smart people thinking about Important Things?
That's how I found myself sitting in a large lecture hall, surrounded by 18-year-olds in a mid-sized Ontario town. I had been enlisted to work as a teaching assistant for a popular first year class called Film, Media and Communication. It was an endeavour that not only involved leading a couple of tutorials and grading papers---I was also required to attend the lectures and weekly screenings.
If you've never done it, watching a film in an academic setting with a bunch of young people armed with smart phones and speedy laptops is an amusing experience. We would inevitably have to spend big chunks of each screening encouraging kids to put away their devices and keep their eyes on the screen.
But that wasn't the case the night we screened Lisa Steele's experimental video art piece, Birthday Suit---With Scars and Defects. Created in 1974, it's still considered a seminal piece of early Canadian video art. I'd first seen it as an undergrad film student, a million years earlier.
The black-and-white video opens with the artist standing nude before the camera's unblinking eye. Over the course of the 11-minute-long piece, Steele tells the audience the story of each of the scars on her body, charting her (then) 27 years on the planet through a series of spills and mishaps that shape her, both physically and metaphorically.
Only we didn't get that far.
A glitch in the tape brought up the lecture hall's house lights while someone sprinted off in search of an alternate version of the video. In no time, the room was buzzing.
What happened next changed the course of my academic career.
A younger teaching assistant, who was sitting near me, was casting her eyes about the lecture hall in amusement. Lisa Steele's naked self was still frozen on the screen.
"They must be freaking out," she said, gesturing at the group of nearly 300 students (the majority under 20) seated around us.
"Why?" I asked (Little Ms. Naive).
"Because of the '70s bush," she explained with a shrug.
And that's when I got schooled in contemporary pubic hair practices.
For anyone who hasn't been paying attention, pubic hair is decidedly on the wane. In the last decade or so, pubic hair removal (or at the very least, what I will call "extreme trimming") has become a mainstream practice among a growing demographic of young women (and increasingly, young men) who now view the stuff as gross and, most revealingly in our cleanliness-obsessed culture, dirty. Its removal from the female body among younger women (some of whom begin whisking it away as soon as it makes an appearance) is quickly becoming as normalized as leg or underarm hair removal---a practice so ubiquitous among North American women that we barely remark on it.
I know: a lot of you are probably thinking "Duh, silly writer. Who doesn't know that?" Well let me tell you, kids---if you don't seek out mainstream porn, don't sleep with people under the age of 25 and avoid spending time and money in waxing establishments, it's the kind of thing that could escape your notice. After all, we now live in a world that provides women with change cubbies within all-female locker rooms at the gym, so that we need never be naked in front of one another (even as female fashion encourages more and more skin reveal).
I'll spare you from a rehashing of my entire thesis here (yes, that's right: I devoted an entire year to writing about the politics of pubic hair removal), but it basically boils down to this: the female pubic region (though male bodies are by no means exempt) has become a place where capitalism and body control now co-mingle, giving women one more body issue to worry about, a whole new set of aesthetic services to enlist and a whack of specialty products to buy. That's because somehow we're managing to sell women on the idea that the curly little strands associated with physical and sexual maturity are unclean, unruly and unsexy. Exactly what women (supposedly) aren't supposed to be. To me, there's something really screwed-up about that.
My new hero is a bright young British writer by the name of Caitlin Moran who has not only been shamelessly referring to herself as a feminist, but has also been questioning why women are so keen to embrace body practices (like, say, intimate waxing) that cause discomfort, cost money and take time. In her new book How to be a Woman, Moran takes on Brazilian waxing, urging women to consider eschewing the plucked chicken look, in favour of celebrating a neatly trimmed-but-far-from-naked nether region.
In one of my favourite passages, she actually describes a "big, hairy minge" as one of only four things that a grown woman should have, later going on to write that a seated naked woman should look "as if she has a marmoset sitting in her lap. A tame marmoset, that she can send off to pickpocket things, should she so need it---like that trained monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark."
A new school year comes with lots of new stuff: new books and binders, new pencils, new lecture halls and (for some) new sexual partners. While I'm of the each-to-her-own mandate when it comes to body practices, I'd like to propose that rather than sticking to the (hairless) status quo, we open up the conversation and start questioning why it is we do what we do when it comes to our bodies. It might be exciting and empowering.
And it'll definitely be way less itchy.
Read more of Meredith Dault's pubic hair rants at thelasttriangle.com.