An hour and a half before I leave my apartment to get all of the pubic hair ripped out of my body, I wonder if I am making a mistake. To calm myself, I sit at my kitchen table and write a list of the things I told people when asked, in the weeks between the booking and the appointment, why on earth I was getting a Brazilian.
Nearly every other woman I know has, at some point in her life, gotten a Brazilian, or at least a bikini-plus—what if I am missing out on an iconic feminine experience?
It is possible that I will enjoy a hair-free downstairs.
Perhaps I will use the experience as a measuring tool for pain (i.e., gosh, this blister sure hurts but it is only a 3 out of 10 on my Brazilian Pain Scale, 10 being a Brazilian).
When I offered this last explanation to my friend Erin, she said, “You don’t have to hit your thumb with a hammer to understand whether or not it hurts.” Erin got a Brazilian last winter during the first few weeks of a new relationship. Halfway through the appointment, she thought she was going to faint and hobbled out half-shorn. I stare at my list and steady myself beneath the arc of a swinging hammer.
When I was in grade seven, a boy named Jimmy pointed at my arm in the middle of math class and said, “That’s not supposed to be there.” He was referring to the soft hair covering my forearm. I hugged my arms to my belly, hid the hair with my hands, as he leaned in and told me, nodding, “You should really shave that.”
Since I was twelve and already alarmed by basically every inch of my body, I immediately accepted the fact that my arms were also entirely embarrassing, unsuitable, and unattractive. I spent the year in long sleeves, usually muted browns or olive greens, and favoured turtlenecks. My little sister, in her yellows and pinks, sometimes joked that I dressed like a tree to better disappear into the background. Because my mom didn’t let me shave my legs yet, warning that the hair would grow back dark and prickly, I wore long pants, too. It was a hot summer.
I arrive at the salon ten minutes before my appointment. The sign on the locked door instructs me to call, assuring me that an esthetician will let me in if I have an appointment. When no one answers, I return my phone to my pocket, shove my hands back into fleecy mittens, and stamp my feet. Perhaps, I think, fate has stepped in.
As I turn to go, a smiling young woman jogs out from a backroom. She swings open the door and warm air scented with something woodsy, something citrus sweeps over my face. As I pull off boots and coat, a client walks to the counter. She seems breezy. While she pays, I sit on the black leather couch and lean against the fuzzy faux sheepskin throw, page through a magazine exploring such concepts as self-love.
The customer touches my coat as she prepares to head out into the January wind.
“We have the same jacket,” she says, warmly. Soon, we will have the same vagina, I think, warmly.
Poets, politicians, comedians, marketing agencies, and teenage boys everywhere have stipulated the rules for what is acceptable in terms of female body hair since at least 2 CE, when Ovid’s Ars Amatoria recommended that a woman “let no rude goat find his way beneath your arms and let not your legs be rough with bristling hair.” According to Vulture article “A Brief History of Pubic Hair in Art” by Chelsea Summers, a bare female pubic mound was considered “high art,” angelic even, from the medieval period right up to the 1970s, while natural, hairy vulvas were vulgar. Hair curls decoratively and distinguished from male nudes, but, for most of Western art history, female pubes meant porn.
In fashion, the popularity of sleeveless dresses following the turn of the century sharpened Gillette’s gaze on a potentially new consumer base. Their first “women’s razor,” designed specifically to tackle “objectionable hair,” came out in 1915; a million had sold by 1917. The invention of the bikini in 1946 exposed yet more of these offensive follicles. No wonder women began to toe the bikini line.
Soon enough, pornography also pulled the plug on (female) pubes—by the 1980s, most widely distributed adult entertainment featured hairless vulvas. Then, in 1987, the J. Sisters opened a salon in New York City offering a complete pubic wax. Because the J. Sisters were from Brazil, this new-to-North-America service became known as the Brazilian—catapulted to colloquialism in the ‘90s, experienced on-screen in 2000 by Carrie Bradshaw in an episode of Sex and the City, and, for the first decade of the 21st century, as regular a part of a North American woman’s beauty regimen as a manicure.
Above the spa table, cursive font reads “I hope you feel beautiful today.” Sweat curls out from my toque. I fold my arms and try to meet the esthetician’s gaze
. “Have you ever been sugared before?”
“No,” I say, putting my bag on the floor by the table.
A female singer is trilling something poppy and bright over the speakers.
“Have you ever been waxed?”
The esthetician lifts her well-shaped brows.
I feel the need to explain myself and pat the spa table with my hand. “I think this is like a New Terror Thing for me.”
She tells me to remove my bottoms and relax on the table, then hands me a tiny white towel and backs out of the room.
I take off my jeans and underwear and lie down, draping the Kleenex-sized cloth over myself. I listen to the pop song and focus on the lyrics suggesting I
embrace my light. I hope I feel beautiful today, I think.
In high school, I went on a mission trip to Chicago with my church youth group. For a week, twenty fifteen- year-olds from southern, rural Manitoba weeded community gardens in the city’s downtown core, plated food at soup kitchens, and helped kids with math at after-school programs. One shelter hosted a coffeeshop each Wednesday—volunteers served hot beverages and pie while local musicians played short sets. Something about the acoustic strumming, the easy interactions of filling coffee cups and clearing tables, helped remove, for a moment, the barrier between volunteer and guest. People relaxed into armchairs, gathered around tables, clapped politely at the end of each song. On my way to grab fresh slices of pie from the kitchen, I walked into a group of boys from my youth group, giggling in the corner. They did not try to hide their source of glee.
“Look,” Derek said, pointing his chin towards a guest who’d recently arrived. She’d gone straight for a spot next to the stage and was nodding enthusiastically to the music. It took me a second, but then I saw. The woman was wearing an old, baggy tee-shirt and shorts. Her legs, tapping away under the table, were covered with thick, black hair.
Derek’s hand covered his mouth. “Isn’t that disgusting?”
When my esthetician knocks on the door, I close my eyes and chirp, “Yup!” She is wearing bright blue rubber gloves and carrying a tub of warm, sticky sugar.
“I left my socks on.” I am ready to apologize for anything and everything.
“That’s okay. Most people do,” she says.
I look down and my socks seem very far away.
Next, I try to say sorry for the length of my hair.
The salon website told me that each hair should ideally be the length of a grain of rice, but before my appointment I realized I hadn’t bothered to measure my muff nor homogenize it.
I’d squatted in my bathroom and tried to trim but gave up when I felt unsure about whether I should be going for a Basmati long-grain kind of look or more of a Thai sticky type. The only website directive I truly took to heart was its suggestion of popping painkillers half an hour before the appointment. I took two Tylenol extra-strength, quick-relief Liquid Gels. I said a prayer.
Now, trembling on the table, watching my toes twitch in their red Christmas socks, I beg forgiveness while arranging the micro-towel over each erratically pruned pube. My esthetician snaps her glove and cuts me off.
“These are fine,” she says, and begins.
The bush, claims Vogue as of July 2018, is officially back. Online, you can find slideshows of celebrities proudly claiming to, in the 2013 words of Gwyneth Paltrow, “rock a ‘70s vibe.”
I grow out my underarms every couple of months or so, especially in the summer. I like that it feels political but also easy. I regularly shave my legs, though, when I know someone might see them, and each time I do, something like guilt lifts in my chest. Petra Collins, the artist who in 2013 posted a photo of herself with pubic hair poking out from her bathing suit on Instagram only to have the company respond by flagging the content as offensive and deleting her whole account, said she felt “like the public was coming at me with a razor… forcing me to succumb to society’s image of beauty.” In shearing my own hair, I worry I am also succumbing to, or worse, reinforcing that image of beauty.
The bush may have been revived in 2018, but in 2017, model Arvida Byström posed for an Adidas ad with unshaven legs to vitriolic backlash. In the photo, she’s wearing pink socks, a pink shirt, a spiky pink bracelet, and a frilly white dress. The grey Adidas shoe is front and centre and so too is Byström’s right leg. After the ad went live, abusive, violent comments swamped her social media.
My esthetician attempts to maintain a conversation throughout the appointment, which is difficult because I keep clutching my heart through my sweater and moaning. With every strip ripped, my legs flail dramatically.
“Are you related to the Saskatoon Enses, then?”
“I don’t know.” I breathe. “Probably.” I bite my tongue. “Distantly.”
There’s a brief reprieve while she reheats the sticky goo, rolling it around between her palms. I squeeze my legs together for a moment before she slides the sugar over my skin. She yanks—but missed some stubborn strands, so she goes back in.
“Halfway there,” she announces.
I take great solace in this, risk a glance down. I see pink skin peppered with blood. I also know she hasn’t been all the places that she’s going to need to go, and I know those places probably amount to more than half. Still, I am grateful for her lie. My esthetician is taking care of me psychologically.
While her blue, rubber fingers pull each fold, stretching skin I’ve never before stretched, my esthetician asks what I like to read.
“Oh!” I shriek, as my esthetician pulls. “I love poetry!” I tell her the name of one of my favourite collections, quick, before she pulls again.
“You should write the name down when we’re done. I’d like to read it.”
I clutch uselessly at my heart.
Before my appointment, squatting in my bathroom and panicking about rice length, I texted my friend Jill for advice. She responded, “Remember that any negative response to your body is just internalized male gaze. It ain’t you, and it ain’t even she.”
And then, “Your time is valuable and you have bigger dreams than trimming ur pubes.”
When Jill got her Brazilian before a trip to Mexico, she went into the appointment with what she, as a redhead, likes to refer to as her “full burning bush.” Apparently, the esthetician was shocked.
“She asked me if my boyfriend minded,” Jill said after her appointment. We were eating pasta in her bedroom, Jill’s legs in a wide triangle to avoid touching the tender skin.
Jill explained to the esthetician that she didn’t have a boyfriend. The esthetician mused that things “must be changing out there,” and asked Jill how the men she dates usually react.
“So I told her finally that I wouldn’t really know what men think about it because I don’t really date men.” Jill grinned, lopsided. “And she closed her eyes and nodded, as if she’d figured it all out.”
When I sit in my bathtub, razor in hand, and contemplate the pros and cons of eschewing North American beauty norms, I know that regardless, for me, the stakes are relatively low. For bodies far more politicized than mine, however, deciding what to do with pubes can be a matter of safety.
Byström, the Adidas model, wrote this Instagram caption: “Me being such an abled, white, cis body with its only nonconforming feature being a lil leg hair. Literally I’ve been getting rape threats in my DM inbox. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to not possess all these privileges and try to exist in the world.”
“I’m scared,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“This is going to be the worst part,” I say.
“Yes,” she says.
I love my esthetician. Her honesty, now, when I most need it. Her hands, quick, firm, non-judgmental. I want to ask her questions about her job or her life but I’m afraid that if I open my mouth, I will only be able to wail.
At some point after the very worst part, she says, “Most people get the back done, too. Would you like to?”
I feel tears hot behind my eyes. “I don’t know.”
“It’s not as bad as the front.”
“Oh, well, in that case.”
“Great,” she says. My esthetician is proud of me. I feel proud of me. “Roll onto your side.”
“If you’re lying,” I say as I turn, “this is the meanest lie.”
She laughs and I feel we are very close trusted friends. She slides the hot sugar goo and I wonder if I’ve ever been closer to another human being.
Finally, she tells me I can lie on my back again and hands me a new tiny towel like I’m a marathoner at the end of a race. “I’ll see you outside.”
I sit up slowly and watch her close the door. I wonder if I have accomplished something. I wonder if I have been transformed. I look at my phone. The whole thing took maybe fifteen minutes.
I never ended up shaving the hair on my forearms, despite Jimmy’s insistence that it “wasn’t supposed to be there.” I suppose this is because, while I said nothing and tried my best to disappear, my friend Jessica started to laugh.
I looked up. Jessica wasn’t directing her derision at me or my arms. With the kind of dismissive glance only a pre-teen can muster, Jessica flipped her hair over her shoulder and said, “Girls and boys have hair on their arms.” I watched Jimmy retreat to his desk. Jessica smirked. “It’s definitely supposed to be there.”
The towel my esthetician rewarded me with is damp and warm and it feels amazing pressed to my skin. I stand slowly and then, when I’m ready, look down.
The first thought is, “Oh, no.”
It’s possible that I hoped when my hair was ripped away so too would be my sense of shame. My disappointment, always, in what my body is or isn’t.
My esthetician does not ask me to write down the poetry book we’d talked about. I understand that our intimacy has ended. I pay fifty-six dollars, tip included. My entire body is trembling, and my esthetician tells me that will go away and then advises that I return in three weeks to do this again. For maintenance.
It did not, I realize, hurt as much as I thought it would. Once, on my twenty-fourth birthday, I leapt off the dock at my aunt and uncle’s cabin and sliced my left foot open on a submerged rock. At the Kenora hospital, a doctor administered three needles to the bottom of my foot and then sutured me with seven stitches. Before she stuck the first needle in, the doctor looked at me hard and said, “This is going to be incredibly painful.”
Removing the hair from the most sensitive parts of my body hurt less than one tenth as much as those needles in the bottom of my foot.
As I walk bowlegged up the hallway to my apartment, I try not to think about the fact that I already had a Needles-In-Foot Pain Scale and have no use for a Brazilian Pain Scale. I try not to think about the fact that I don’t really know anything about pain or beauty or bodies, or how those three things fit together. I try hardest not to think of the words “plucked chicken” or “naked mole-rat” or “childlike.”
Inside my bedroom, I peel off my clothes. Everything slow, gentle. I tell myself I look kind of like a Barbie doll. I tell myself I look like everyone else. I tell myself I only have to wait three weeks.