Illustrations by Sophie Yanow

A few bikini waxes ago, I pulled off my pants and underwear, loosely folded them into a pile atop my shoes, hoisted myself onto the waxing table and briskly flopped my legs into a diamond, my feet touching sole to sole. While waiting for the esthetician to return with a cylinder of green wax and conduct my regular procedure – a “women’s deep bikini with top,” which clears the underwear lines and keeps some bush around the labia – I had a montage of thoughts. First, I am a feminist; I claim to do this for myself, not my long-term male partner, or anyone before him, or any societal expectation. Second, the only times I ever got Brazilian waxes, removing almost all pubic hair, were during the year and a half in college when I was deliberately celibate and only my hands, my vibrator, and my full-length mirror saw my crotch. Third, I am a survivor of rape.

Yet here I am, month in and month out, dropping my pants for a stranger, letting her slide hot, green, organic wax along my vulva, around my labia, and across my lower abdomen with a thick, pale wooden popsicle stick just so I can feel “clean.” How can I subject a part of my body with such a complicated narrative to this hedonistic ritual and still call myself a feminist?

*   *   *

I sent an email to 42 friends from a spectrum of gender and social identities for general suggestions on where to start: I asked women and those who identify as female whether they groom and what their vulva waxing routine is. If not female-identified, I asked what they think of this ritual. (Many of the individuals interviewed in this story asked that only their first names be used, some asked that their names be changed, and others asked to be made entirely anonymous.)

Among the dozen responses I received, my friend Ayo, 31, a New York City-based actress, responded, “It is amazing how often what happens between our legs and underneath our clothes gets debated. One day I hope that will go away and we can all choose what we want to [do] with our bodies without a political debate. But alas, such is the plight of women. Everything we do must be discussed and debated.”

I held Ayo’s words close. Why was I forcing this debate? Was I exacerbating our plight? Twenty minutes into my first in-person interview, I stared blankly at my source, wondering why the fuck we were scrutinizing the topic. But then another 50 minutes passed, my yellow legal pad filled with endless notes, and my audio recorder time stamped at one hour, twelve minutes and eighteen seconds. Clearly, it wasn’t moot.

A month later, Ayo and I sat down to talk, her body alternating between resting an elbow or two on the table and leaning back in her chair. Her movements punctuated the way our exchange became a montage of her memory and thoughts: a conversation she had among female and male friends in graduate school where the men – uninvited – disclosed their female pubic hair preferences; a women’s studies class she took in college that examined hierarchy as a giant spider web; how she’s heard people say waxing is something only white people worry about; how she feels that women of color, as one herself, have a different view on body image and grooming; and how those of us who identify as women aren’t having enough conversations and discussions with one another across our various social identities.

And it seems, if this is our discussion around vulva grooming, isn’t it ushering us toward something deeper, so to speak? And we both think maybe it is, in fact, relevant.

*  *  *

For the past four years, I have been a dedicated Uni K Wax Center devotee. They provide a full menu of face, body and bikini waxing services for women, men and teens at insanely affordable prices, especially for New York City. Women’s bikini waxes range from $21 to $47, depending on the amount of hair removed. To compare, at Berenice Electrolysis & Personal Beauty Center on the Upper East Side, bikinis start at $85.

“We don’t take a sexy approach in anything that we do, but we take it from a hygienic perspective,” says Noemi Grupenmager, founder and CEO of Uni K Wax Centers.

There are currently six Uni K Wax locations in New York, with another 24 centers spread between Florida and California, and 150 set to open around the country in 2014 and 2015. Monthly, in New York alone, 70 percent of all waxes are bikinis, and 90 percent of bikini waxes are either “full” (everything off) or “Brazilian” (most everything off, with a landing strip, or something subtle like that, a technique Grupenmager, originally from Argentina, credits herself with having developed.)

“At the beginning of the ’80s, I saw these little bathing suits from Brazil that needed a special bikini [wax],” says Grupenmager. “When we created the Brazilian bikini, we made a revolution in the waxing industry because after that, everybody started imitating us.”

Waxing, versus shaving, removes hair from the root level. Waxed hair takes weeks – instead of days – to grow back, thinner, while shaving stimulates growth. Historically, waxing services were resigned to beauty salons, where, for Grupenmager personally, the process was painful, expensive and arduous. So she created an alternative – natural wax, safe for the most sensitive skin; affordable prices leveraged by faster services; and uniformly trained technicians in a clean, welcoming, precise environment designed for hair removal only. The first Uni K Wax Center opened on the third floor of a South Beach office building in 1993, marketed in the local yellow pages under “Hair Removal,” a heading Grupenmager begged the publication to create as she was the only such specialized listing at the time.

I asked Grupenmager why she waxes. “I don’t wax for my boyfriend, for anybody,” she says. “It’s just for me.”

*   *   *

“Can I actually be doing this for myself if it’s part of a heteronormative structure?” asks Sarah, 28, who identifies as a lesbian, has a long-term female partner and works in social services with the LGBT population in New York City. She’s waxed twice in her life – once for a mid-winter vacation, once to go to the beach – describing both experiences as “borderline shaming” when we recently met for coffee.

In my pursuit to dissect waxing culture, I added heteronormativity to my concerns about whether or not it was feminist. (Heteronormativite: “of or pertaining to the practices and institutions that legitimize and privilege heterosexuality, heterosexual relationships, and traditional gender roles as fundamental and ‘natural’ within society,” according to Wiktionary.)

The first time Sarah got a bikini wax, she and her girlfriend went together. “The woman who was doing it had asked me, ‘So, are you getting a Brazilian wax?’” Sarah shared. “I was like, ‘No, no. It’s just a bikini wax. My girlfriend made the appointment for me.’”

Yet the esthetician continued offering comments like: “A lot of girls come in here because their boyfriend asked them to,” and “I’m doing something nice for him.”

“And I was just like, ‘Why are you telling me this?’” Sarah continued. “I know why she’s telling me this because that’s the standard story that happens there. But I even specifically said that I had a girlfriend. She’s actually here with me…and now I’m getting waxed, and you’re up in my private area, and you’re talking about girls with boyfriends. It’s just a strange experience.”

Over GChat, my friend Joanna Hoffman, 31, a poet and LGBTQ advocate, expanded on Sarah’s sentiments regarding vulva waxing heteronormativity. “I’d like to say there’s less likely to be pressure to wax in lesbian relationships, but that’s not really the case,” wrote Hoffman.

When I asked Hoffman if there is a misconception that lesbians don’t care about vulva grooming, she said there is, particularly among straight people. “I think there’s a perception that certain manifestations of patriarchy, like the need for women to remove body hair, wear makeup, etc., dissipates if there isn’t a man in the picture,” Hoffman wrote. “But the truth is that these beliefs are so internalized that they’re there regardless. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with a woman wanting to wear makeup or shave, wax if she wants to. It’s problematic when woman feel like they have to.”

*   *   *

A friend of mine told me about renowned New York City-based sex educator and entrepreneur Carlin Ross, who along with veteran artist, author and sex educator Betty Dodson, runs Dodson’s Bodysex Workshops. My friend, a middle-aged mother of several boys who asked that her name and identity be omitted, raved about the workshops, noting a portion when participants show their vulvas. In an email, she told of the incredible vulva diversity amongst participants and wrote, “Removing the pubic hair exposes the inside of the vulva. Those elaborate ribbons of inner labia that furl out” become unveiled. I had to meet Ross.

At her apartment, Ross wore a tank top and jeans, her bare feet exposed, her shiny brown hair pulled back, her effervescent energy simultaneously grounded. “I’ve noticed that a lot of the young women have hairier bushes now,” Ross said of a recent Bodysex Workshop. Ross was intrigued that the younger women were ungroomed. They seemed unphased – why would they groom?

As a sex educator, Ross thought this was exciting. The only women in that workshop who were fully bare were a gynecologist and a psychologist, both in their forties.

“Hair is a protection,” said Ross. “It keeps fluids off our genitals. And it was really there by nature to protect us. So if you’re having casual sex and you’re in your twenties, putting on a condom and shaving your whole entire bush is very bad from a health perspective.”

I spoke with Dr. Audrey Buxbaum, a gynecologist in Manhattan. “When I see patients, I often talk to them about hair removal,” said Buxbaum. “I tell patients that pubic hair is protective of skin and removal can spread HPV and also molluscum contagiosum [a viral infection of mucus membranes planted atop the skin]. And also we’ve seen some pretty serious vulva and skin infections from shaving and waxing because it damages the hair follicles.

“I generally tell women to trim and not disrupt the skin underneath.”

Even laser hair removal, which permanently kills hair follicles, is a better option, says Buxbaum. One female patient was waxed too far between her labia, and literally tore the skin between her labia minora and majora. “Were it not such a forgiving tissue, she might have needed stitches,” says Buxbaum.

“Women have a right to do whatever they want,”Buxbaum continued. “But I think women need to think about why they’re doing it. Are they doing it for themselves?”

When I asked Ross about her own grooming routine, she described it as “hair reduction,” not removal, all in the name of comfort, especially for running. “Some of the women in the groups had had some laser hair removal, so it kind of got be like, ‘Oh, I never thought of that,’” says Ross. “I never did much as far as bringing the sides in, because I don’t wear skimpy bikinis. The only thing is sometimes underneath I felt like when you’re walking, you get a little bit of this stubble, like, ‘Ugh, get this out of here!’”

Ross continued, never wavering in her matter-of-fact tone: “So I went and negotiated what I wanted – technically it’s a Brazilian because I’m getting that little part around my ass and underneath around my labia, that little area – but I’m leaving everything here”—pointing to the front of her torso—“because I like my hair, and I like the softness of it. And I find that during sex it holds liquids. And it’s juicier. And I just prefer it.”

*   *   *

With each interview, I felt further from gaining any coherent insight into whether or not vulva waxing is, in fact, empowering. I manically collected a symphony of voices so varied and vast that it only further drove home the obvious: abundance is not conclusive.

Laura Maxey waxes because she likes to feel smooth; waxing proves she has “control and power” over her own body. The 25-year-old publicist, also a Uni K client, wrote in an email that she feels that, “as a mid-20s woman, especially in New York City, it’s almost ‘expected’ of us to wax.’”

Amanda has never waxed, but she shaves her entire vulva using a Venus razor with built-in soap. The 27-year-old attorney in California said, “It makes me feel better during sex because everything’s more accessible.” She said it’s cheaper than the alternatives, gives her more control, doesn’t hurt, and makes her feel sexier – more exposed and vulnerable. It’s a calculated choice.

Cindy Barshop, founder of New York-based Completely Bare, which specializes solely in hair removal, said their goal is “to make people comfortable in their own skin.” The self-described "hair removal guru” called her work empowering because she caters her services to be accessible to a diverse spectrum of women. Her voice held a particular delicacy over the phone when she listed and described their wealth of in-store waxing, laser services and at-home products. “I truly believe it’s about making yourself feel better,” said Barshop.

What of actually slathering on hot wax? I searched for an esthetician and spoke on the phone with Cara Mia, a 35-year-old New Jersey-licensed cosmetologist with nearly two decades of experience providing waxing, facials, make-up and hair. “Doing the service, I always feel like I’m helping people out,” she said of waxing. “I feel after servicing my client they feel relief, stress-free, and instantly better about themselves.”

Some women’s routines are contingent on relationship status. Some groom in preparation for seeing long-distance partners. Some wax, but avoid Brazilians or going completely bare because they don’t want to look prepubescent. Some feel oppressed by societal expectations to groom, so they stay natural. Some have skin conditions, so they stay ungroomed. Some groom to wear bathing suits without feeling embarrassed. Some struggle too much with their body image to wear a bathing suit at all.

*   *   *

“My body image issue was hair, not weight,” said Rachel, a 23-year-old feminist, artist, and activist living in New York City, who stood out amidst the choir of female voices with whom I spoke. Wedged in a paradox between self-empowerment and cultural norms, she told me her story over iced tea.

“I was the girl who had hairy armpits when I was eight years old,” says Rachel. “I didn’t realize not everyone had pubic hair at age nine, or didn’t have hair here”—pointing to the middle of her chest. “I remember my cousin in her thirties looking surprised when I admitted I had hair on my sternum. And hiding in the bathroom at camp…and boys saying things, and girls saying things, and begging my mom to let me shave my thighs.”

Rachel’s sister was left unscathed from bullying, even though they both have thick and prevalent body hair. Growing up they tried laser hair removal, electrolysis, waxing and shaving, all of which sometimes made things worse. She and her sister got charged more for waxing. Some waxers made fun of them and laughed. It felt horrible and terribly shaming. For Rachel, body hair became all-consuming, something she simultaneously loathed, yet protected, even affecting her relationships with men; she didn’t want them to notice the hair on her butt. “It’s something I don’t have control over,” she says. “The hair sort of has control over me.”

Then Rachel got to college, where she had positive sexual experiences with men who didn’t shame her for her body hair. “To see your beauty through someone else’s eyes first,” she says, “that’s sometimes how it works. That’s one path. And for me it wasn’t the only thing.”

Rachel discovered and embraced feminism. She performed in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. And she took a book-making class for which she made a book about pubic hair. “It actually made me look at hair and see it as more attractive,” says Rachel. [The book] “actually changed my perception of beauty.”

Inspiration for the book came from a visit to the Museum of Sex in New York City the summer before Rachel’s senior year. She saw an old French postcard with text about how, around the turn of the twentieth century, women were shaved in order to make their body hair less inappropriate.

“Our ideas about beauty were created by attempts to make something less real, less sexual, less sensual and womanly,” says Rachel.

In the book-making class, Rachel explored how hairlessness became our ideal beauty using art images of pubic hair, including some by Edward Weston and one by Alfred Stieglitz of his wife Georgia O’Keeffe.

Before the book, Rachel romanticized bare vulvas, while still making it a point of pride not to go bare herself. Yet that year, she became unabashed, more vocal and open, no longer feeling dirty or ashamed. She underwent a holistic shift. “It wasn’t necessarily only vulva, but it was pubic-hair related,” she says. “It was coming to terms with being hairy in that place that made me a woman…and no longer feeling as apologetic about it.”

This past year, Rachel joined the dating website OKCupid. She checked off interest for guys who prefer natural or trimmed vulva hair, refusing to be with someone who expects women to shave their legs or pubic hair. For Rachel, having a guy control how she looks and takes care of herself is “a travesty.” Waxing “hurts, it causes infections, it causes bleeding, it causes rashes,” she says. “It’s a point of preference. And I think it’s fucked-up.”

These days, while hair has faded from Rachel’s immediate consciousness, it’s still a prominent part of her journey. She remembers her therapist in eighth and ninth grade telling her that getting rid of all her body hair wouldn’t solve all of her problems. “It’s no longer a centerpiece of my existence,” she says. “I can’t conquer my body entirely and I no longer try to. I realize that seeing your body as something to fight made me hate it.”

I told Rachel about my conversations with women who preached empowerment mantras for waxing and hair removal.

“I struggle with anything that puts a positive empowerment spin on [grooming] because I think it can be, but I think that that’s often less honest and more like us trying to spin it and claim agency when it’s doing wrong by other people,” Rachel says. “For me, it’s pretending that the culture isn’t influencing how we think about body hair, and pretending that it’s just a personal preference. For me, [that] is doing more harm to ourselves than good.”

Rachel says women need to talk more and recognize how we’re influenced by the media and body image.

“Body hair, weight, Barbie, domestic violence, violence against women, male gaze, street harassment, to me it all feels connected,” she says. “Because to me, hair removal is a kind of violence against women. Just one that we’re tricked into doing and paying for ourselves.”

So I asked Rachel why she participates in hair removal at all.

Rachel thinks maybe removing hair from the entire vulva is more violent than just the sides, and she has dissonance herself since she removes hair from her butt; she sees the contradictions. She tried to start her next sentence over and over, several times, and then said, “I hate when my opinions are rationalizations I’ve made to myself to make myself more righteous and, like, afford my viewpoints and put down others. And I’m aware of that. On some level it probably is that. But for me, to wax the vagina itself is a violence against women.”

I asked Rachel what she meant by vagina, minding the difference between “vulva” – the whole package of external female genital organs – and “vagina” – that which connects the vulva opening to the uterus. She slid over so her legs were no longer under the table, made a V-shape with her hands over her dark cotton summer dress, framing her pubic bone along her bikini lines, took out a piece of paper and drew a four-quadrant diagram of herself front and back, groomed and ungroomed. She pointed to pen speckles of hair along her diagramed upper thighs and ass. When grooming, she removes all of that, and her direct bikini lines so she can wear a bathing suit without anything showing. But she keeps her pubic hair in a thick, bushy triangle over her pubic bone.

Recently, Rachel went swimming for two days in a row without waxing, yet a little shaving. It was good enough. She no longer feels the need for perfection. She went to the beach with some friends. She had a long hair peaking out of her bathing suit. Her friend gasped her name. “I was like, ‘Oh well,’” says Rachel. “And I went to the water and forgot about it. For someone who’s been obsessed with hair for so long, that’s amazing.”

*   *   *

Multiple women interviewed blamed the porn and adult entertainment industries for popularizing female vulva waxing and grooming practices, especially current hairless trends. Whether those who mentioned or criticized porn were women’s health professionals or self-proclaimed feminists, it was unclear if anyone’s reproach was rooted in substantial evidence.

“If you’re going to make a statement about porn being responsible for what men want,” says Stoya, an award-winning adult performer and writer, “you should have watched a bunch of porn!”

Based in Los Angeles, Stoya, 27, shares a Brooklyn apartment with a photographer friend, as they both professionally need a New York City base. When we spoke on the phone, her cheerful tone held a tinge of rasp, anchored by ample laughter.

“It is just as unfair to men to assume they all want prepubescent vaginas,” says Stoya. “If you can’t look at a grown woman and a 12-year-old girl and not notice the difference without pubic hair...you’re an idiot.”

Stoya was raised a feminist, like her mother, and home-schooled. She grew up believing that gender should have no bearing on what one does professionally as a career, but recognizes that, of course, being a sexual performer can be inherently gendered.

“They’re all different. They’re all beautiful flowers,” says Stoya, and notes that pubic hair varies in the industry – some scenes have pubic hair, some are without. Although “there are always people/assholes telling us how we should be,” says Stoya.

There are online discussions and commentary from porn consumers, all varied and mixed: do more scenes with hair; keep the pussy bald. Though having no hair certainly helps with not blocking the hardcore shots. Bushes can block the visuals of penetration.

Stoya’s inner labia, which she described as looking “sarcastic,” as if “blowing a raspberry,” have been Photoshopped out of published pictures in countries where protruding labia are considered obscene.

Watching sex is limited to an audio and visual experience, notes thirty-year-old Lux Alptraum, a writer, sex educator, and the CEO of Fleshbot, the web’s foremost blog about sexuality and adult entertainment.

“I do think it’s interesting that making the labia more visible is compensating for the fact that you can’t taste or smell or feel the genitals,” says Alptraum.

Most female porn performers don’t wax their vulvas; rather, they shave. Because waxing grows out so slowly, the pubic area is left with stubble. Shaving – or laser hair removal – allows for a quick, smooth fix, especially since porn is shot a certain way.

“There’s an idea that porn enforces a very specific beauty ideal and I don’t think that is true either,” says Alptraum, who simultaneously thinks hairlessness becomes a macro-level problem when “numerous people who don’t get exposed to naked bodies outside of porn – especially in adolescents – grow up with this idea that it’s the norm and the only way of being sexy.”

Stoya herself had always gone bare until 2008, when a colleague’s ex-girlfriend dared her to grow it all out.

Stoya is part Serbian; her body hair is thick and dark. She started growing pubic hair when she was still a kid. First she tweezed the lone growing hairs. Then she shaved and shaved and continued to shave. Sometimes she shaves her pits. Sometimes she leaves the stubble. Sometimes she leaves things bushy. But Stoya always shaved her vulva entirely, until the dare. Robby’s ex said it would be hot – a visual change. So Stoya grew it out. Having pubes cut down on her razor burn, which had been a problem for her, something she struggled with more than the average woman. And it didn’t look good on camera; at one point, she said it looked potentially unhealthy. “I don’t like looking like I have possibly diseased skin around my vulva,” she says.

Now, having had laser hair removal, Stoya is left with a “slightly misshapen tuft on front”; the rest is sparse. And it’s become a thing, publicly, amongst viewers and fans. “People said I was a victim of patriarchy,” says Stoya. “There’s always going to be someone who’s projecting way too much weight on what’s essentially a personal aesthetic choice.”

And sure, it becomes problematic because Stoya is publicly putting herself out there, but “at the end of the day, it’s my body,” she says. “Rather than shit all over an entire gender and an entire industry, figure out what you like and find people who like what you like and are O.K. with that.”

*   *   *

“Not one woman feels confident about her genitals,” Ross says. “There’s a sanctity to the male body and a respect and a privilege that I feel like with a woman, especially when you’re a young girl and you hit puberty - it’s like the whole world is monitoring and regulating your body.”

While writing this article, I obsessively analyzed the justifications behind my grooming routine. During my most recent Uni K visit, the gloved esthetician performed her art: cleaned my pubic area; sprinkled powder on the region getting waxed; turned on a fan that blew cool air onto my vulva to dry the wax while she worked; applied their unique wax in gentle strokes and quick precision, section by section, thickly across my bikini line; pulled each section of wax as it dried; and repeated each application and pull of wax, until everything was smooth and clear.

The entire procedure lasted from 11:34 to 11:39 a.m. In five minutes my unwanted hair was gone, with a trimmed rectangle still coating my labia, ass, and the bottom portion of my pubic region. But while I walked out an incredibly satisfied customer, as I am every time, I couldn’t help but feel like a “bad” feminist. Still.

I like examining my vulva: Watching the hair grow back, week by week; the days right after a wax when it’s fresh, smooth, and plowed; when the first stubble sprouts. Some become ingrown hairs, and I can pick at them – pull them out with tweezers or push them to the surface with my fingers. I like when it’s time for my next bikini wax and I can repeat the process all over again.

It’s my routine with my self, my vulva, and my body. It is a sacred time during which I inspect hair growth, witness its extension above my skin, note how it is thinner than it used to be: sparser, more tender, and more distant.

Sometimes I mourn the thicker hair of my adolescence, after puberty, just before I started bikini waxing. Maybe I’ve permanently altered my body. Maybe this very well impacts women’s rights.

“My vagina is not holding back women as a gender,” says Stoya. “One thing that is holding us back is that we spend so much time bickering over whether it’s anti-feminist or feminist to wear lipstick. What about workers’ rights? Isn’t that a more important thing to question? The fact that Texas and North Carolina are making political choices to take away women’s reproductive rights - that’s a problem. The fact that transgender people are being discriminated against: that’s a problem. Lipstick and pubic hair? Not a problem. [It’s an] aesthetic choice. It’s like getting mad at people for wearing a blue shirt.”

Stoya paused for several seconds. “Walmart’s a fucking problem. The fact that George Zimmerman’s free when he killed someone for being black: that’s a problem!”

This article is by no means complete or holistic. It is missing endless facts. It is missing historical context in hair removal, fashion, adult entertainment, feminism, gender equity, and more. While I spoke with nearly three dozen individuals from a plethora of backgrounds, sexual orientations, genders, races and professions, it is missing multitudes of voices: trans, genderqueer, and male; it is missing religious perspectives, ideas on class, ethnicity, nationality and disability.

Toward the end of my interview with Stoya, she says, “Lipstick and pubic hair are so superficial that they become a way to vent feelings on other issues without having to think: how do you take on reproductive rights in America? Maybe it’s easier to be like, lipstick: feminist or anti-feminist? [Or] I can’t believe you got your vulva lasered.”

That’s the whole point, says Stoya. “The conversation about pubic hair is a surrogate.”

*   *    *

Caroline Rothstein is a New York City-based writer, performer, and eating disorder recovery advocate. She hosts the YouTube series “Body Empowerment” and performs spoken word poetry at colleges and schools nationwide. Follow her on Twitter @cerothstein.

Sophie Yanow grew up in the woods and moved to the city. Her comics obsess over the details of urban life to cover up the fact that she is totally out of her element.

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