We’ve all seen, heard or experienced ourselves the public debate over the pubic hair-removal phenomenon. Whether people – largely women – decide to keep their full bush intact, or dare to bare “down there” has become a surprisingly public issue, with internet articles and Guardian think-pieces alternately deriding those who don’t shave as being repulsive and unhygienic on the one hand, and berating women who do wax it all off as brainwashed ‘anti-feminists’ on the other.
But what of the history of pubic hair – and its removal? Where did this curious phenomenon come from – and how do ‘pubic hair trends’ even get started? Concrete gets down and dirty to discover the real history of pubic hair removal.
Pubic hair removal was on-trend for the ancient Egyptians. Considering pubic hair ‘uncivilised’, both women and men employed such methods as bronze and flint razors, a primitive form of ‘sugaring’, and home-grown depilatory creams made from such bizarre ingredients as arsenic and quicklime in their quest for total hair-removal. Ouch. The ancient Greeks plucked out women’s hair, often as soon as it started to appear on a pubescent girl’s body, using tweezers. (‘Virgin waxes’, where girls just entering puberty have their first pubic hairs immediately waxed off, are, startlingly, not a new trend.) Being able to devote the time and money necessary to obtain a perfectly smooth pudenda (incidentally, also the Latin word for ‘shame’ – yep) was regarded as a status symbol.
Early modern period
During the Renaissance, Italian books featured a litany of hair-removal methods – but curiously, none for men. 16th century doctors recommended hair removal on the grounds that too much represented an “imbalance of the humours” that also made a woman ‘manly’ and unattractive, “intelligent, but disagreeable and argumentative”.
Full bush, however, was the trend for most women for most of modern history. Catherine de Medici, a noblewoman of the same era allegedly forbade her ladies in waiting from removing their pubic hair. And by the time Elizabeth I came to power in England, she would set a new fashion for hair management, in which she would leave the hair on her body untouched – but removed her eyebrows entirely.
Prostitutes did shave the hair down there, mostly as a way to prevent infection with pubic lice or fleas, but would then cover up the shaved hair with a miniature ‘pubic wig’ known as a merkin – and these date back to the 1400s. (This means that those rather bald-looking poonanis sported by the prostitutes in TV’s Game of Thrones may, in fact, be moderately historically accurate – but noblewoman Melisandre has no excuse!)
For much of the Victorian era, full bush was the norm – and it continued as so right up until the invention of the bikini. While women did then depilate their bikini line, for a while that was as far as it went. 70s full bush was a notorious trend in Playboy and Penthouse, as each strived to show more than the other without being deemed obscene. (Implausibly, it was generally agreed that nude photographs were not pornographic unless they showed pubic hair or genitals.) In the 80s, extra trimming became de rigeur, as changing pantylines (v-front bikinis, anyone?) the rise of comparatively hairless porn and eventually episode of Sex and the City engendered change.
Interestingly, Playboy only did its first totally-hairless nude shoot in 2001, though it’s quickly become their norm since then. And whatever your choice of pubic-grooming, there’s likely historical precedent for it.