/ 30 March 2012

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Hair Today

No matter how many things a vagina lacks, it does not lack pubic hair — Yoruba proverb

Thuli *, a 25-year-old professional at one of Johannesburg’s auditing firms, has trimmed, arched eyebrows and thick eyelashes accentuate her heart-shaped face. A touch of blush highlights her cheekbones and blends into her flawless chocolate skin. Every so often, her left hand flicks back the tresses of her wavy R10 000 human-hair weave that falls to her shoulders.

We are discussing Brazilians. No, not the actual inhabitants of Brazil, but the phenomenon that has more in common with plucking, tweezing, shaving, trimming, waxing, threading and laser treatments.

Thuli and I are sitting at a sidewalk café in one of Johannesburg’s trendy design districts. Our conversation is about the removal of pubic hair.

Two weeks before, she prepared a special Valentine’s Day surprise for her partner: a heart-shaped vajazzle — Swarovsky crystals used to decorate shorn lawns.

“He loved it!” she squeals in delight. And, as if confessing a terrible secret, she suppresses a giggle and says: “But I think I love it more!”

The Brazilian has taken Johannesburg by storm. Every day, more beauty salons offer their clientele “clean and comfortable” premises for the removal of pubic hair. With upper-lip waxing, eyebrow threading and underarm laser, the full Brazilian has become part of an array of services offered to trendy, and not always young, urbanites.

Body hair, it seems, is under siege. And it is not only women who are subjecting themselves to the excruciating practice of hot-wax hair depilation. Some men are baring it all and in their privates too.

Up close and personal
Named after seven Brazilian sisters who opened a hair salon in New York City in 1987, a Brazilian bikini wax involves the use of hot wax to remove pubic hair. Unlike the bikini wax, where only hair exposed when wearing a bikini is removed, the Brazilian involves the removal of all the hair in the pubic area. Just a “landing strip” — a vertical line along the labia ­– is left.

But more women are opting for the full Brazilian or Hollywood, where all is laid bare. Although it would take until the mid-1990s for the trend to truly catch on — apparently too creepy and taboo-ish to consider — the Brazilian is causing a revolution in contemporary ideas about the body, beauty and sexuality.

But just how new is the baring-it-all-down-there phenomenon?

As it turns out, the removal of pubic hair can be traced back to 4 000 BCE in Egypt and India. With body hair considered unhygenic and unsightly, both men and women shaved unwanted hair on their bodies, including in the pubic area.

For Muslims, the beautification of the human body is considered a part of nature. Among the 10 practices considered by the Prophet as integral to sunan al-fitra (customs of nature), shaving pubic hair is one in a list that also includes clipping the moustache, letting the beard grow and plucking the hair under the armpits.

Cultural artefacts from ancient Greece depict female bodies without pubic hair. Although this does not tell us how many women shaved their private parts, it does point to what was considered beautiful and aesthetically pleasing.

Thuli remembers the holiday when she went back home to KwaZulu-Natal and her mother saw her full Brazilian for the first time.

“She started screaming: ‘Hai! What did you do to yourself, where is it, where did it go?’ I was so shocked because she went wild. It was as if I had a missing toe or something. It took me a while to realise what she was talking about. She made me promise to grow it again, but it’s too late for me; I am a convert.”

Symbols of womenhood
African cultures have elaborate hair practices, but there are few documented sources of pubic-hair depilation. Historically, Tsonga girls who were about to reach reproductive maturity would shave their heads and pubic hair as a symbol of womanhood. In its stead, a clay merkin with reeds would be inserted between the initiate’s legs to symbolise the re-growth of hair and the girl’s rebirth as a woman.

African art critic Nomboniso Gasa suggests that, like the Greeks, there are few African sculptures that show women’s pubic hair. Generally, socialisation has discouraged women from exploring — even looking at — their genitalia.

Pubic hair among the Zulu and Kikuyu, for instance, symbolised a woman who had come of age and in doing so taken on responsibilities and expectations of how to behave socially.

References to pubic hair in Yoruba proverbs and verses allude to the vagina’s power to conceal and women’s ability to keep secrets.

“I can’t believe I am talking to you about this stuff,” Thuli confesses as she takes a sip of her wine. “I mean, who calls a meeting to discuss one’s genitals, eish!” We bellow with laughter at the eccentricity of it all. Even if we are willing to bare it all, talking about our genitalia is still considered taboo.

I interview Johannesburg women — black, white, young and old — who are vehemently opposed to bald ­vulvas. Some spurn the practice of shaving any part of their anatomy, preferring the au naturel look and arguing that bowing to peer pressure is a slippery slope.

Sarah*, a champion of sorts for body hair, warns that “once you start with one thing, you may as well give up and turn your body over to the court of public opinion”.

“We have enough negative imagery about how fat or thin we are, the size of our noses or buttocks, and now to add this?” she says, her hands pointing downwards to her crotch for emphasis.

Progressive hair loss
For some, the removal of pubic hair is a symbol of female oppression. It is not just that having no bush infantilises us, it also carries with it connotations of male sexual fantasies. Pubic topiary also has a bad rap because of the porn magazine industry. The Journal of Sex Research found that, over the past 50 years, pubic hair has become less and less visible in Playboy magazine, suggesting that images of the hairless ideal are setting the standards for attitudes towards sexuality and body hair.

So what do we make of the Brazilian offerings in Johannesburg’s beauty salons? Is it just a Western fad that will bypass many of us on the continent? Maybe so. But René Smith, head of René’s Beauty Clinic in Linksfield, says: “When I opened 14 years ago I hardly did any ­Brazilian waxes. Now I mainly do Brazilians and laser treatment, which is more permanent hair removal.”

And the generational configuration of her clientele is also changing. It is not just the young, cool and hip taking to egg-smooth montes veneris. “My clients range between 16 and 50 years. It’s about hygiene.”

But moving beyond the physical, there is something deeper and more symbolic about shaving pubic hair. A woman in her mid-40s says: “It is part of a ritual for me of taking care of my body and myself, man or no man. It’s about treating myself.”

Can below-the-belt fashion be more than female oppression? Can women reclaim this much-maligned practice and turn it into an empowering and nurturing process of self-love and appreciation? Or is this, as a cynical male friend put it, “internalised oppression” — a patriarchal plot to make women think that it is their idea?

Whether you shave or not, prefer the full Brazilian or the bikini wax, are willing to talk about your intimate parts or prefer not to, there is something quite liberating about having the choice — and perhaps in this sense women have made some strides in coming to terms with their bodies.

Thuli and I are just about to pay for our drinks and something about this hair debate strikes me as confusing. Why is hair on our head acceptable and on our bodies embarrassing? I ask her whether she finds it contradictory to pay to get hair extensions on the head and pay to take it all off her crotch.

“This is the 21st century, dah-ling,” she croons as she picks up her bag to get to her next appointment. “Live the contradictions.”

* Not their real names

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato is a writer and development consultant