Pubes. Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, we’ve all got ’em. But where do our attitudes about them come from? Why do we have them, and what happens when we trim, shave, wax, sugar, depilate, or electrolyze them away?
A Brief History of Pube Preferences
While most modern pearl-clutching about Brazilians has laid the blame for the popularity of “the Barbie look” on Sex & The City and mainstream porn, the reality is that shifting trends in pubic hair removal are nothing new. Rationale and methods have varied, but humans have been trying to figure out whether to embrace, tame, or outright reject the bush for millenia.
Ancient Egyptians invented sugaring to remove their pubes completely. The Greeks, also fans of a smooth crotch (and apparently gluttons for punishment), preferred to pluck them individually. In medieval Europe, however, a rockin’ bush was in such high demand that some women wore merkins — essentially vulva toupées — to get the look.
More recently, American capitalism has done its part to dictate our country’s collective pubic ideal. In the 20th century, manufacturers of safety razors worked to expand the market for their products by convincing women that their body hair was gross and unsightly. With the introduction of the bikini in the forties, they were handed a golden opportunity to expand those same marketing techniques to maintenance of the newly-invented bikini line.
Sixties counterculture did its darnedest to reject some of those beauty standards and celebrate the bush. But gradually the pendulum swung back the other way, accelerated in the early ’90s by references in pop culture, high-profile celebrity endorsements of Brazilian waxing (lookin’ at you, Gwyneth Paltrow), and the explosion of the porn industry which, from a practical perspective, tends to prefer minimal or no pubic hair — it makes it easier to see what’s happening in close-in shots of penetration.
In recent years, some cultural commentators have been keen to declare another shift in trends that favor going au naturel. Even Paltrow, who previously gushed that Brazilian waxing “changed her life,” has reversed her public stance, telling Ellen DeGeneres in 2013 that she now “work[s] a ’70s vibe.” But regardless of what Gwyneth might be up to, as a sex educator I continue to hear a great deal of anxiety from people of all genders — and particularly young people — about what exactly they are “supposed” to do with their pubic hair.
As I discussed in my last column, the answer to that “supposed to” question is whatever makes you feel good and confident in your body. An important part of making an informed choice about what’s best for you is understanding both the cultural context that influences our thinking and the relative risks and benefits of each option.
Like the hair elsewhere on our bodies, pubes serve a purpose. In addition to helping us regulate body temperature, hair is protective. The tiny hairs on the inside of your nose, for example, trap dust, bacteria, and other particles; your eyebrows and eyelashes do the same to protect your eyes.
In a similar way, pubic hair functions to help protect our genitals. By creating a barrier between your body and your partner’s body, pubic hair is a first line of defense to trap and deflect bacteria and viruses you may come into contact with through sexual activity.
So while 59 percent of women who groom their pubic hair cite hygiene as a motivation, the irony is that pubic hair actually functions to help make our genitals less vulnerable to infection (I was not able to find a comparable stat for folks of other genders, but I imagine that hygiene is a common justification for non-women as well).
Knowing this, it’s not surprising that pubic hair removal is associated with a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections. A large, nationally representative 2016 study found that people who reported removing all of their pubic hair at least once were almost twice as likely to have ever had an STI; folks who removed their pubic hair at least 11 times per year were more than four times as likely. Those whose grooming habits fall somewhere between the two extremes experience levels of risk somewhere in the middle. Herpes, syphilis, and human papillomavirus--three STIs transmitted primarily through skin-to-skin contact — were most closely associated with these increased risks.
The increased risk is in part because of the loss of the barrier that pubic hair creates between you and your partner, but also because the act of hair removal itself can cause trauma to the skin. Shaving, waxing, depilatory creams, and other methods of hair removal cause tiny cuts, tears, and other forms of irritation. Even if they are too small to see with the naked eye, these tiny tears are big enough for pathogens to slip through and potentially cause infection.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t groom your pubic hair however you like. As I’ve said, it’s about what you want and what makes you most comfortable. But being aware of these risks can help you make informed choices and take steps to get ahead of them.
Waiting a day or two after waxing, shaving, or whatever it is that you do to get your pubes the way you like them will give your skin an opportunity to heal, closing up those microtears and lowering the risk of infection. Being aware of your partner’s STI status is always important, but perhaps especially so when you have additional risk factors that could make you more vulnerable, so be sure to have those conversations with your partner(s) — even if it seems awkward. Your health is worth it.
For the last part in this series, I want to hear from YOU, Portland! How do you feel about pubes? Have any pube-related stories you want to share with your neighbors? Please send your thoughts, questions, and anecdotes to firstname.lastname@example.org for potential anonymous inclusion in my next column.