My Thursday short column is up at Healthy is the New Skinny: Bare Down There: Waxing, Beauty, and Pain. It’s a brief look at teens and bikini waxing, and the growing popularity of the Brazilian wax among very young girls (including, as the article notes, among those who have not yet hit puberty and begun to grow pubic hair.)
Lots has been written about pubic hair and what its removal means. Count me among those troubled by what seems the almost pedophilic fetishization of hairless vulvas in pornography. (To put it simply, I find it sexually and aesthetically unappealing as well as politically problematic.)
But the larger point is that waxing, like so many other beauty rituals, hurts. (That’s true whatever’s being waxed, whether it’s the pubis or the lip or the space between the eyebrows.) As older sisters and mothers and the media instruct young women about how they should best pursue beauty, they teach girls that pain is not only a rite of passage into womanhood, but a necessary (and continuous) aspect of maintaining femininity.
Pain happens on a spectrum, from the merely itchy (pantyhose) to the permanently body-altering (major cosmetic surgery.) High heels, piercings, and hair dye all exact both a financial and a physical price. “Beauty hurts”, older women say to younger women. And it’s not just beauty, but love that hurts: think of what we expect girls to go through with first intercourse — or with childbirth.
For much of history — and in many other parts of the world — this pain has been and remains mandatory. Girls have their genitals mutilated against their will in Mali and suffer fistulas from giving birth too soon and too young in Afghanistan. There’s nothing quite comparable in America, where we at least claim to give girls and women a choice to avoid these agonies. We don’t cut off little girls’ clitorises, we generally don’t force 15 year-olds into marriages, and we certainly don’t mandate Brazilian waxes for high schoolers.
But as most women and some men know, the cost of saying “no” to pain is very high. If a teen girl wants to feel confident at the beach in her bikini, making sure she’s bare down there (or damn near) is a price she must pay. Young women are raised to fear ridicule and social exclusion far more than physical pain. Watch what most young women do when they trip and fall: they leap back up, more worried about what others have seen than about any injury they’ve sustained.
The law doesn’t mandate you wax your vulva or straighten your hair or put on hose and heels. The state doesn’t force you to give up carbs and dessert to fit into a bikini. But the fact that certain behaviors aren’t genuinely compulsory doesn’t mean that they can’t feel obligatory. And for so many women, the pain that comes with meeting those obligations is less than the social cost of refusing to pursue beauty.
Any solution to this problem of pain has to meet girls where they are. Parents can refuse to let their daughters get waxed or get their ears pierced, but in most cases that only delays the inevitable. The solution, whatever it is, depends on opening up a conversation with our sisters, our daughters, our mothers, our friends and lovers. And in that conversation, we need to look at the ways we consciously and unconsciously valorize physical and emotional pain as the price of beauty and true womanhood.