This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.
I decided a few years ago, with some persuasion, to shave “down there”.
It was something I never even considered until my sister’s wedding. I was 30, she was 26. She mentioned she had made an appointment and had it professionally done because she was surfing a lot and living on the coast and always in a bathing suit. The fact that my younger sister was, at least in this way, more sophisticated than her older sister who lived in New York and done far more drugs and had never been “promised to Jesus” as a teenager as her sister had at one point, seemed strange.
I felt off guard and out of my usual comfort zone; as I was used to being the more worldly and ironic of the sisters. In talking with her, I realized that I wasn’t against doing it out of some feminist stance as I liked to tell myself. I wasn’t doing it simply because I didn’t really know what “it” was. I had never been inclined to Google things of a sexual nature and I figured if I needed to know about it, my expensive East Coast liberal arts education, and the friends that came with it, should have provided all the information I needed. But, no. We had never talked about shaving even one time that I could remember. Had there been a bikini wax shop on the Lower East Side that everyone else knew about except me? Probably. The Dominican girls in my building were, in reality, decades beyond me in life experience. How did they learn? Did mothers from other countries bestow this knowledge? Was it regional? Did East Coast (or West Coast for that matter…) mothers instruct their daughters in this decision? Or was I really naive and did some moms dictate or direct their daughters shaving regimen more authoritatively? Did they take them to their bikini wax place and pass down the information in some kind of modern female coming of age ritual?
Or was I product of my decade? Girls who listened to Nirvana didn’t seem like the types to be worried about waxing. Flannel shirts and baggy clothes and, by god, we were all Doing It Ourselves! So how did paying some chick, an “aesthetician”, a specialist in the most humiliating and secretly vain practices fit into that ethic, exactly? Did all the late 90’s girls, riot grrls, Kathleen Hanna Bikini KILL girls, also secretly bikini wax? Certainly when I was in my 20’s we didn’t talk about it if we were doing it. And even when I moved into the city and lived in a downtown ‘so hip it was definitely unsafe’ apartment we never talked about waxing as any part of our beauty routines.
I saw razors in the one bathroom we all shared. We girls even borrowed the boy roommates’ razors in a pinch, so there was some level of shaving happening. But I always assumed it was legs we were most worried about. And armpits, though I didn’t shave those until I was in my late 30’s. (The hair was soft and light-colored and wasn’t really noticeable). Also, no one had ever commented on it, so…I assumed it wasn’t an issue. And there was that really cool lesbian in my dance classes who head really, really obvious black, fuzzy armpits, and even sort of had a bit of body odor after class, but she was totally hot and totally powerful, and we all really envied her no matter what she did with her hair, and wasn’t that the holy grail that we all sought? Being the envy of the all the other girls? No, no, I guess I never even considered shaving the other part, because that was like something that they did in California or that maybe strippers did or Sports Illustrated swimsuit models? I didn’t know, but if you would have asked me, I would have guaranteed you that no one I personally associated with, did bikini waxing. I’m not saying I would have been negative about it, but it would have greatly surprised me and I would have probably gotten uncomfortably close to judgmental in the privacy of my own brain.
But, I didn’t, because no one mentioned it and it never crossed my mind. I know New York must have included some event that involved a bathing suit, but if so, I was not so unprepared that I didn’t have fair warning and a razor handy for a hasty shave to make sure I was presentable. In my relations that required nudity (um, early ‘relationships’) it simply did not ever come up. No suggestions, no comments, nothing. I guess at that age maybe you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth? Or maybe the Vassar boys were well conditioned not to say these type of things to the feminist girls they were either raised by or going to college with?
But even after college, not a single boy mentioned it in any way. I guess that could be explained by the fact that the next major relationship I had was with I guy I met while backpacking 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail; and who hadn’t had a shower in several days. The trail was not a place where beauty advice from Cosmopolitan was bandied about over the camp stove at night. We were all lean and mean hiking machines and we had stripped down our entire lives to the most simple and basic of needs: water, food, shelter, making the miles, making memories. It matter absolutely zero what you looked like on the trail because we almost all looked the same – in a word, we were disgusting. We were literally covered in dirt. We smelled bad. That’s what multiple days of sweating, getting rained on, getting sunburned, getting bruised and blistered and not having much in the way of extra clean clothing does to you. Forty miles from a road, there was no laundry service. If you spilled dinner on your shirt you’d being wearing it for all forty miles, and the hitch into town, and probably during a meal because finding pizza always took priority over finding the laundromat. Skin care consisted of applying suntan lotion, sweating it off, applying bug spray, sweating it off, splashing creek water on, and air drying as you tried to get to sleep. Facial hair on the boys was totally expected. The girls looked moderately more concerned with grooming as they had their hair in braids or tied back in a scarf, but a hiking skirt smells just as rancid as hiking shorts after three days in the humid summer weather. So, as you can imagine there were no conversations about bikini area trims. Some girls sent razors in their bounce boxes to be picked up during town stops, used, and then forwarded on to the next town’s post office. I did this, but didn’t bother carrying a razor in my pack. What would be the point? I didn’t having shaving cream. I barely had two ounces of soap. And I really didn’t care. It was totally and completely awesome to not give a whit about appearance. Maybe that experience is what led me to feel so weird when my sister mentioned her bikini wax as we went to the salon to get her done up for her wedding. I felt like my life experience had led me to become an alien. I admitted I had never done it. She said mostly her verdict was that it hurt, but it was nice, because it lasted a while. The conversation mostly stopped there. She had a wedding to think about.
At some point, I started noticing in fashion magazines, on social media and in various random places that waxing was some sort of norm these days. It might have been moving to Las Vegas…or not, that first made me more aware of this cultural zeitgeist against hair. When the sun is beating down on you 12 months out of the year and nine of those are hot enough months that you can, and should, wear shorts and skirts, well shaving the legs is a lot more socially important in Southern Nevada than the cold north of Michigan. In the Midwest, only about three months of the year are shaving months, unless of course you are on some kind of swim team. In Vegas, there is also a huge influence from Southern California and Hollywood. Vegas is basically the “C” team. If you can’t make it as a model in New York, you can try your hand at acting in Los Angeles, and if that doesn’t work out there’s real estate or exotic dancing in Vegas. If things really look bad, the “D” team in Reno is a last ditch stop on the beauty/entertainment career spectrum.
But in Vegas, girls are totally influenced, whether they want to be or not, by The Strip and the strippers. If the point is to show skin, even the wholesome girls in town are going to don a “sausage dress” – a sheath that tightly fits the body and shows as much skin as possible above the breasts and below the upper thighs, basically covering a small area in the mid-section. And since it is summer almost all year long, there are many excuses to wear a bathing suit: pool parties at casinos, pool parties at kid’s birthday parties, pool parties at co-workers houses. All social activity seems to revolve around taking clothes off either to cool yourself off or to titillate an observer. And so after this realization with my sister, I talked to a local, my roommate, about her shaving habits. She had recently been to a pool party and related that it was the first time she had worn a bikini in some time. Having just gotten out of a long relationship, she was feeling her oats and trying out the single life. She claimed that previously she just wore ‘boy shorts’-style swimming suits to avoid the shaving issue and when needed, did her own clean-up to get by. But, being newly on the market again, she had recently decided to get full-on committed to the Brazilian wax.
One day, I gave her a ride to the place she got this service performed. It was called, the Pretty Kitty (no joke!) and they had a punch card for regular visitors (of course, they did)! Some clients paid up to one hundred dollars for the services (legs, bikini and armpits) and there was a discount package that you could buy to make sure you kept up with the maintenance required to keep your kitty pretty. I admit to being fascinated and repelled all at the same time, and was even prompted to read a couple articles on Google to try to understand just what exactly a Brazilian wax was versus what my sister had referred to as a bikini wax. This more risqué wax was even more surface area and cost, but was marketed as a slightly non-American way to show you weren’t too uptight and up for a good time. There were some variations on the businesses websites, described as “designs” you could ask for or you could just go, “completely bare”. I still had not begun to fully understand the awkward dynamics of going and paying someone to do this thing, but apparently according to the websites, it was recommended to do it on certain days of the month and under the dose of a good handful of Advil to numb the pain. What was interesting was that you also needed to deal with the ramifications of the waxing, Red bumps, rashes, pain, in-grown hairs, and that upkeep mentioned previously. It wasn’t really as convenient as some people made it out to be. It seemed expensive, painful, annoyingly time consuming and never-ending. But, I was still somewhat intrigued as to whether that was worth the smooth, beautiful skin and if this was what every partner secretly wanted but just hadn’t asked me for.
So, I posed the question to the guy I was dating at the time, who I understood had experienced this with other girls, making me more insecure than I liked to admit. He waffled quite a bit and ended up saying something noncommittal like, “I’m in line with most guys, I don’t need an extreme either way.” This basically said nothing to me. But, I suspected he would like it, so one night when I was a little tipsy and possibly also looking for an extra special birthday present that didn’t involve a ton of cash, I suggested that I could do this shaving thing. He was well aware that I didn’t feel comfortable going to someone to have it done and suggested that he could do it for me. I was skeptical, but figured that, like in the case of my sister, that the rest of the world was clearly ahead of me in this realm and I agreed. It turned out that he didn’t really seem to know much about the process, beyond doing the actual shaving. I read one online article, paraphrased it as we found some tools for the job, and let him go to it. I admit it was easier with help, but it turned out to be, in his words, “a lot more work than he expected”. By the way, this was after I used scissors to get the whole thing kicked off. I guess 40 years of hair accumulates.
I figured that this huge step I was taking would result in some sort of amazing power where he would be overwhelmed by my irresistible new allure and be constantly thinking about how he couldn’t wait to touch or see this fantastic thing I had done. Well, it turns out that immediately after finishing he said he needed to go fold his laundry. Okay… Seeing that I was naked and cold, I decided to get dressed and warm up. We then proceeded to go to a movie, and dinner, and come home, and rather than ripping my clothes off, he told me he wanted to work on a song he was writing. I was semi devastated. We went to bed that night and despite the New Look, didn’t have sex. In fact, he didn’t really even try to get a good look. The following night, things returned to our regular patterns, but I wouldn’t say that he seemed more into things than normal. It was hard to tell if he was downplaying that he liked it. I said I wasn’t sure I would keep it. Or maybe, I worried, he didn’t like it after all. Is it me, shaved, that he didn’t like? Did he not like it because he just wasn’t really into that look after all and just realized it after our little experiment? Or was the whole thing maybe just not that a big deal beyond what I made it into in my head?
I suppose one might ask if I liked it. I guess I would say that it’s interesting enough…that I am glad I had the experience. For me, it wasn’t that painful and I didn’t get a rash or weird skin issues. But, really it I think I was disappointed that it wasn’t earth shattering. This is what society does to us in terms of expectations. We think if we could overcome that one thing that is making us in some way inadequate, that the entire universe will open up in glory. It’s a bummer, when you work up the courage and go for it (!!!) and end up on the bathroom floor cold and alone and basically the same awkward person, albeit with less hair. I used to feel I was disappointing someone (who?) by keeping with my old ‘seventies’ look. But the whole thing was so incredibly underwhelming that I can’t say that, for me, there is enough justification for all the expense and weirdness. Nor did I have any epiphany about femininity or empowerment, or even advanced topics in grooming. I’m still pretty predisposed to live in my own head, walking around wondering what other people think about, what they decide to do, and how happy it does or doesn’t make them. My Pretty Kitty acquaintance is one of the least happy people I know. My dance classmate in college was the opposite. Certainly there is a gray area in this big hairy (or shaven) world of ours. I guess that’s where I’ve been and where I’ll return.