Ted Cox investigates our nation’s strange, painful relationship with pubic-hair removal—and he has a Brazilian wax to show for it.
The scabs on my scrotum have finally healed up. The mysterious red bumps on my lower abdomen have retreated back into the skin. The weird little pimples there have mostly disappeared. Small strands of hair are barely poking up across my freakishly bald nether regions. As I write this, it’s been about a week and a half since my first Brazilian wax.
I still shudder as I think about the waxing process: that burning tear across my junk that stopped the words coming out of my mouth. The white-hot sting that ripped breathless curses from my lungs. I feel ashamed at the expletives I flung at the poor woman I asked to do this to me. (“Don’t worry,” she laughed. “I’ve heard it all.”)
Even now that the pain has gone and the sores have healed, I look in the mirror at my hairless skin and think, “Why did I do this?”
Wait, correction: Why the fuck would anyone do this?
This started back in January when my then-roommate and I were headed home from a beer run. She drove while I thumbed through the Sacramento News & Review, an alt-weekly for which I’ve freelanced for almost five years.
I spotted a Valentine’s Day ad from a waxing salon. It showed a couple of toned, hairless bodies pressed up against each other. The tagline was something like “Be sexy. Be smooth.”
I held the ad up to my roommate. “Nothing says love like getting your crotch hair ripped out,” I quipped.
Now, she knows I can’t resist a strange or dangerous writing assignment. She came with me one night as I was trying to track down a fabled midget prostitute. She glared in envy when I told her my editor was sending me to find the city’s best medical marijuana strain. So when she replied to my not-so-academic dissection of the waxing industry, she wasn’t issuing an idle challenge:
“That’s what you should do a story on: getting your junk waxed,” she said. “Because that shit hurts.”
I’m a longtime member of the “manscaping” movement. Years ago I started using clippers to trim my armpit hair because I hated yanking out clumps of clingy deodorant at the end of the day. I’ve shaved my chest hair a few times, but the hairless look never did complement my doughy physique.
With clippers or razors I’ve dabbled in various pube styles over the years. Mostly, it was a courtesy thing for my sexual partners—who doesn’t vacuum the apartment before guests come over for dinner?—and had absolutely nothing to do with trying to make things look, um, bigger. Honest.
And my partners have also spanned the full spectrum of crotch grooming; I’ve seen everything from Mr. Clean to Chewbacca. The majority of the women I’ve been with, though, have employed some kind of trimming technique, usually razors or waxing.
So I knew from firsthand accounts that waxing involved heat, pain, and ripping. So before my roommie’s challenge, would I have ever thought to do it myself?
I feel deeply conflicted about the issue of removing body hair; women are expected to do it while men get a free pass. Entire books call out the obvious double standards when it comes to male and female beauty. Expected hairlessness is another way the media stuffs women’s bodies into cramped, glossy, marketable packaging.
Most media critics peg the manscaping craze—one part of the “metrosexual” package—on Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. But there was a backlash, of course. Babyfaces like Orlando Bloom got pushed aside for the likes of rug-chested Mad Men star Jon Hamm.
Why? I think the Boston Globe‘s Christopher Muther summed up the real issue: “Red-blooded men are furiously trimming, shaving, and waxing themselves like, well, ladies.”
Translation: Women, not men, remove their body hair.
And here’s where the limits of my feminist ideals get tested: I would never end a relationship with a woman for her choice in—or lack of—pubic hair grooming, yet I honestly can’t see myself being able to date a woman who doesn’t shave her armpits or legs.
While talking to my girlfriend about this, I tell her that maybe I’m less feminist than I think.
“Maybe we all are,” she says.
As I started researching for this piece, some questions popped up: why do we even have pubic hair? Why do we only grow pubes on the small triangle of skin between our legs? What are the risks of waxing? Do women feel more pressure than men to remove the hair down there? As manscaping has worked its way into men’s magazines and bro-flicks, are dudes really signing up to get their junk waxed? Is it true that gay men are more likely to wax than straight men?
To answer some of my questions, I called up Dr. Gary Goldenberg, medical director of the Dermatology Faculty Practice at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Offering laser hair removal to his patients since 2003, Goldenberg is intimately familiar with the hair down there.
But first, I need to convey how tough it was to find someone to interview for this story. Right after I pitched this story to the Good Men Project Magazine editors back in January, I began emailing professors of gender studies, biology, or human sexuality. I got no response.
So I sent media requests to dermatology departments at several medical schools. Then I left messages for public relations officers at colleges across the country. Next I requested interviews with government health agency scientists. Desperate to get someone—anyone—to go on record, I emailed male gay- and straight-porn stars and called up adult-film studios.
After reaching out to more than 50 individuals, schools, companies, and organizations, I couldn’t figure out why is was so hard to find someone to talk to about pubic hair.
“Probably because we don’t know anything about it,” says Goldenberg, who I spoke with over the phone a couple of weeks after my waxing.
Goldenberg answered some of my questions: pubic hair grows during puberty because the body jacks up testosterone levels in both boys and girls. It’s curlier than regular body hair because its fibers are twisted more tightly together.
But the big question—what’s the purpose of pubic hair?—is still a mystery.
Goldenberg says that for doctors, pubic hair growth is a useful guide for telling how far along a patient is in their sexual development. And from an evolutionary approach, he says, our ancient ancestors may have used pubic hair growth as a guide in mate selection.
What about the idea floating around Internet boards that pubic hair traps pheromones and makes it easier to attract a mate?
“It’s a good theory, it may be true,” he says, but he’s not sure how solid the evidence is for that explanation.
Aesthetician Claudia Lopez is reading a book in the waiting area when I walk into the salon.
“Are you ready for this?” she chirps as she stands and leads the way back to her enclosed work space.
“No, not really,” I mumble.
The waxing room is bigger than a closet, but smaller than any apartment bedroom. Cupboards and drawers line the wall opposite the door. Claudia turns down the bright overhead lights. There’s some kind of relaxing music playing.
What looks like a doctor’s examination table takes up most of the room. A clean sheet of paper lies on top of it. Lopez takes her place between the table and a wax warmer sitting on one of the cupboards. She fiddles with the magnifying lamp standing next to the table.
I met Lopez a few weeks ago after I wandered into Tangerine Hair Studio in downtown San Jose, California, and identified myself as a writer. After we chatted, she agreed to wax me for this story.
Now, weeks after the initial meeting, she can tell I’m nervous.
“You might be surprised, you might like it,” she says as I strip from the waist down and lie back on the table.
Claudia wastes no time applying the warm wax to my skin. I’m staring up at the ceiling and taking deep breaths as I feel her pressing down the cloth strip on my upper thigh.
A few hours before the appointment, I called up my friend and fellow writer Julie de la Torre. She scheduled her very first crotch wax as a Valentine’s Day gift for her boyfriend.
Not wanting to appear grossly overgrown to her waxer, she says she made the mistake of trimming a little too short before her appointment. The salon steered her away for another month to grow out the hair a bit.
“Like that lady doesn’t see a million bushes a day,” she tells me with the gift of hindsight.
On de la Torre’s advice, I took 800 milligrams of ibuprofen an hour before the appointment. Though she thinks that instead of numbing the pain, “It might just be a psychological effect to calm your ass down.”
How painful was her first waxing?
“On a scale of one to childbirth, it was pretty up there,” she laughs. “It was pretty painful.”
“It’s like getting a tattoo, sort of,” she tells me. “You just kind of breathe through the whole process and try not to think about it.”
“Your crotch is going to look pretty angry at you for a couple of days afterwards,” she warns. “Don’t expect to go home and make sweet love to your woman.”
With no warning, Claudia yanks the cloth. There’s a sharp tearing sound and a sharp flash as my entire body jerks. I gasp.
She works quickly, applying the wax and yanking strip after strip of hair, each pull ripping a short, desperate breath from my lips.
My friend Julie is full of shit—this is nothing like getting a tattoo.
After the first several strips, Claudia asks, “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I just—” I grunt. “I just can’t believe people do this regularly.”
“It gets better every time,” she says. “The first time is always the worst.”
It goes on for over 30 agonizing minutes. The pain slowly blankets my body with a layer of sweat. She positions my legs to reach my upper thighs and eventually my sack.
A couple times I cry out. I drop more F-bombs than George Carlin at a First Communion.
With my tape recorder running on a nearby table, I ask her about her side of the waxing business. She waxes between 20 to 30 clients a day. Business jumps during swimsuit season.
She says that while most of her clients are women, she gets a lot of straight couples. Often a woman will bring in her male partner for chest or back waxing. Some of the men say they’ve always wanted to try waxing, but have been afraid to venture out on their own.
“I do have a lot men men that are, let’s just say, into sports—cyclists, swimmers—that tend to get waxed more often,” says Lopez.
Her male clients often start out with brow or shoulder waxing. As they come back for more appointments, they’ll move on to the chest, back, and eventually a full Brazilian.
Certain areas hurt more than others. My lower abdomen is the most sensitive part. But the worst pulls were the wax strips that ran across the lower abdomen, my scrotum, and the base of my … well, you get the picture.
Lopez says the hair will grow back thinner, making future waxing less painful. (Goldenberg later explained that the repeated ripping eventually “scars down” the hair follicle, inhibiting hair growth.)
Finally, it’s over. My palms are sweating. Lopez tweezes the straggling hairs. When she offers to wax “the backside”—salon-speak, I guess, for “asshole”—I decline.
When I pull out the $60 fee she had quoted me weeks earlier, she refuses my money. She won’t even accept a tip.
Later that night, my crotch smoldered as though it had been slathered in Sriracha sauce. Slapping in the treatment cream Lopez gave me left a tingly, breezy feeling.
So, it’s been two weeks. I keep getting weird little pimples that heal up after a day.
I still have lots of unanswered questions about pubic hair, hair removal, and why just certain amounts of hair on a person is “beautiful.”
But I do know this: any guy who expects his partner to get waxed, if he’s not regularly getting waxed himself, deserves to be set on fire and run over by a fucking bus.