TO L A DYSC A PE OR NOT? Alex Kuczynski explores our obsession with (very) personal grooming.
My tribe is a hairless one. Two years ago, when I spit into a plastic vial and sent my saliva to a service to have my genetic history mapped, one of the traits that came back – apart from being, oddly, closely related to Dr Oz – was the following: “You are from people with the least amount of body hair on earth.” There was a map and an arrow pointing to a dot, somewhere between northern Europe and Scandinavia, and it basically said, you are here, and hairless. So when I grew pubic hair – probably sometime around 18 years old – it was not a big deal. I never thought of grooming or plucking or shaving or bleaching; it seemed unnecessary, and there wasn’t very much to work with anyway. I also didn’t own a bikini or have sex until my 20s – I know: Freak! – so there was no point.
When I was 24, this changed. I found myself in Istanbul, in a Hammam, at the suggestion of my friend Verkin. In the domed steam room, the attendants scrubbed me raw, massaged me, flayed me with scented tree branches, and anointed me. Then the tellak – the one who scrubs and flays and greases you up – took me by the hand to a private room off to the side and started asking pleasant questions in Turkish. She seemed encouraging, so I nodded affirmatively, even though the only phrases I understood in Turkish at the time were “cherry juice,” “Where is the toilet?” and “Enough with the rugs already.”
With an athletic abruptness, she flipped my legs over my head and started applying some sort of honeyed mixture to the hair of my pubic region. Within minutes, helpless to stop but cautiously willing, I was bare as a baby. Verkin wandered in to check on me. I lay on the marble slab, supine, stunned, stripped, feeling like a simultaneously pornographic and infantilised female version of the Lamentation of Christ.
“Çok güzel,” Verkin said in Turkish to the attendant, who smiled brightly at the praise of her work. Very beautiful. I will never forget those words. I associate them with shock and vulnerability – and chafing. I arrived back at the hotel, and my boyfriend at the time remarked that I looked like an enormous eight-year-old. We continued on our journey, which had started in the ecstatic hedonism of the Greek islands, through Turkey and on into the bound and covered-up monasticism of Syria, where I wore long sleeves, a long skirt, and a head scarf that covered my face. Underneath, my skin was naked, no hair below my eyebrows longer than a grain of rice. I would learn that in Islam, pubic and underarm hair is considered unclean for both sexes and is routinely shaved or waxed. Depilation (removing the hair above the skin) and epilation (removing the entire hair, including the root below the skin) are basic hygienic rituals in Muslim cultures, on par with toothbrushing. In Syria, even though I felt like a filthy sex goddess – giant eight-year-old, I actually fit right in.
Years later, I often reflect on the paradox of the American woman – influenced by porn-star culture, stripping off her pubic hair, coerced into a state of enforced genital infancy – and her similarity to Muslim women all over the world. They spend their entire adult lives never seeing a pubic hair on their bodies, but in their case, it is for religious reasons. In one culture, porn rules; in the other, God. The result is the same.
Trimming or removing pubic hair – the term for the preference for hairless genitals is “acomoclitism” – has long been a custom in many cultures for medical or religious purposes. In ancient Egypt, removing hair meant fewer lice infestations. Greeks and Romans commonly removed all their body hair for aesthetic reasons. In the 16th century, Michelangelo felt it was appropriate to create a David with stylised pubic hair, and by the 18th century, female pubic hair was often the centrepiece of Japanese erotic art, but it was not until the 20th century that the Western tradition showed women with pubic hair. The celebrated 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, who seemed to
Smooth, waxed skin – what is it that drives us to obsession?