Woman holding strawberry over hips (Photo: Timothy Meinberg, Unsplash)

To bush or not to bush? It’s a hairy question

The gender wars are playing out in Australia’s parliament, across TV and on social media. The voices are loud and the positions are entrenched.

But let’s not beat around the bush. There’s one often overlooked area that also needs litigating: body hair.

It’s hard to fathom that, in 2021, the thought of a woman sporting hair anywhere but on her head is still so shocking to many men and women. 

Just last year, self-love and body-positive influencer Mary Jelkovsky lost 2,000 followers after sharing three images of herself in her underwear, where she had purposely let some of her pubic hair show.

The incident highlighted the continuing societal discomfort over this utterly natural aspect of the female body.

The renewed debate comes at a time when more women than ever are either doing self-grooming or going ‘au naturel’ after an unprecedented amount of time spent indoors during the pandemic.

“Friendly reminder that you don’t owe the world a shaved body, a skinny body,” Jelkovsky wrote in her post.

“A tanned body, a curvy body, a fit body, a young body, a small body, a tight body, or anybody that is different than your own.”

“You don’t owe the world your beauty. The world is lucky to have you, exactly as you are right now.”

Mary Jelkovsky

The influencer explained that she hadn’t shaved her body hair in over a month, and as a result, she’s never felt more feminine.

But why is a bush so uncommon to be seen as “dirty” in our society?

Well, Camille Nurka, an expert on elective female genital cosmetic surgery, responds with a question of her own.

“When was the last time you saw a hairy vulva in a TV show?”

The boy literally trimming a girl’s bush with a hedge trimmer in the satirical comedy Scary Movie does come to mind.

Poking fun at women’s body hair certainly isn’t unique to the film, considering society seems to have normalised the idea of hairless women.

Nurka, who wrote ‘Deviance, Desire and the Pursuit of Perfection,’ calls this phenomenon pathologising the female anatomy, which essentially means viewing the female body in its natural state as abnormal.

“It’s about making something entirely typical appear as though it’s diseased,” she said.

According to Nurka, society’s preoccupation with the look of the vulva stems from confusion about what the ‘normal’ female body looks like and deep cultural anxieties about female desire.

Last November, a naked statue in honour of Mary Wollstonecraft, radical writer, novelist, and feminist was erected in the UK and has since sparked much debate and controversy.

The UK Times pointedly remarked that the statue had “an unexpected amount of pubic hair”.

This societal dislike for body hair on women isn’t new. Classical Greek sculptures of female nudes were smooth, hairless, and devoid of labia.

However, the evolution of hair removal technologies and their availability in our everyday lives has also further normalised the cultural practice.

“The development of technologies of hair removal and cosmetic modification is crucially important,” Nurka said. “Because it is the availability of these technologies that normalises hair removal practices.”

“[Which] increases the pressure of social expectations of hair removal.”

Shawn Edge, from Silk Laser Clinics, said requests for Brazilians have actually remained at a stable high in the last 25 years, and their top seller is still the Brazilian and underarms package.

“In terms of technological advancements, more people can get laser now,” Edge said. “For example, people of colour can actually get laser now.”

Edge said she couldn’t get laser in the early noughties because the pigment in her skin was too dark for the technology at the time.

Now most women of African or Asian descent can get the treatment. Even blondes, who initially couldn’t because of the colour of their hair, can now get laser if they wish.

Hair removal is only getting easier, with many people reporting laser as their preferred method due to ease and low maintenance.

Hatch spoke to a dozen women about their short and curlies, and most said they personally felt “cleaner” removing or trimming their pubic hair.

But despite this personal preference, most said they wouldn’t care what personal grooming other people did because it was up to them.

However, many women said they would still be a bit shocked at first to see it in public.

A Sydney woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said if she saw someone else’s pubic hair in public she’d initially be a bit disgusted by it.

“But then my non-conditioned thinking would kick in, and I’d realise their choice doesn’t affect me,” she said. “They should be proud to do what they like with their body as long as it’s still hygienic.”

Interestingly, Nurka said there is categorically no medical evidence to suggest that pubic hair removal is more hygienic or that it produces health benefits.

This means that hairlessness is associated with the feeling of cleanliness, rather than an actual state of cleanliness she said.

“I think once we get into a certain habit of being – that is, when we cultivate habits of hair removal and so on – it begins to feel normal for us.”

“And that is okay.”

“What is not okay is when men and women police other women for failing to conform to a perceived norm.”

Nurka said common ideas about vulval or genital perfection are very damaging to girls and women because they rely heavily on policing women through the feeling of shame.

In Australia, Women’s Health Victoria has developed an online resource called the Labia Library to help combat this.

It also can provide some answers to the “Is my vagina normal?” internal monologue many female idenitfying or non-binary people have.

It’s essentially a photo gallery of real women’s genitals, with and without pubic hair, to illustrate genital diversity.