Blogger Debate: teens removing pubic hair - time to panic, or par for the course?
This month, Emily Gibson in the Guardian declares that "pubic hair has a job to do – stop shaving and leave it alone". It's a hot issue with Mumsnetters, too - recently aired on this Mumsnet talk thread, which asks if parents would be worried if their teenage daughters removed all or most of theirs. In the latest in our series of blogger debates, we ask Mumsnet bloggers Sarah Ditum and Glosswatch where they stand.
Should parents panic when their teens whip it all off?
Sarah Ditum: NO
"The best best thing you can give her isn’t a lecture on porn culture. It’s an honest answer."
If your teenage daughter is willing to discuss bikini waxing with you, think yourself lucky. The extent of my mum’s involvement in my depilatory practices was slinging a Silkymit at me when my ankle-skinning adventures with a borrowed Bic became too painful to ignore. Looking back at those adolescent years (and also down at my scarred shins), I wish I’d had the brains to ask for help; but the thought of discussing body hair (ick!) with a parent (double ick!) was more than my hormonal sensibilities could stand.
But let’s say you’ve spawned something less awkward than 13-year-old me, and that spawn has asked you how to deal with her burgeoning fanny fuzz. Now, your immediate (and quite reasonable) reaction might be, “Jesus Christ, leave it how it is, and anyway who do you think will be looking?” It seems obvious that any tending of the pubic region is a preparation for sex.
Obvious, but in my experience not always true. When I was still too mortified even to consider swapping spit with a boyfriend (let alone dropping my knickers), the idea of a girl from my PE class spotting a bit of rogue bush in the changing room was too horrendous to bear thinking about. And no wonder: pubic hair was kept well under wraps back then, and even more so now. All those high-cut shorts in the Olympics, and not a whisper of a whisker to be seen.
In fact, the only places I’ve seen untrammelled pubes have been on embarrassment-proof Euro girls in swimming pool changing rooms, and in porn. Neither of which are accessible teaching resources when chatting to your teenage child about body image. By the time your daughter is casting longing looks at the hot wax kits, the damage has been done: her idea of the human body has been formed in an anti-hair society, and no amount of maternal disapproval will change that. In fact, a pro-pube parent is probably the shortest route to the salon.
So rather than freaking out because we imagine our children are becoming hairless sex dolls for some mystery pervert’s delectation, we owe it to them to stash our fears and think about why pubic hair is such a big deal. After all, few think it’s necessary or desirable for teenage boys to have a naturally furred face: in fact, learning to shave is a male rite of passage, and for girls too, having enough to be worth yanking out can feel like a pleasing mark of your maturing body.
If your daughter asks you about mons maintenance, the best thing you can give her isn’t an epilator or a razor or a lecture on porn culture. It’s an honest answer. What hurts, what doesn’t hurt. How can you avoid nicks and ingrown hairs. What do you do between treatments, and is the stubble bearable.
And once you’ve been through that stuff, embarrassing as it is, you know she’s equipped to avoid the worst depilatory disasters. Hell, after all that, she might even decide that it’s too much bother and she’d rather go long and curly. But whatever happens, it’s her decision; and knowing that what you do with your genitals is up to you is as good a life lesson as any.
"If you believe that your sexual desirability is contingent on you looking like you’ve not yet hit puberty, then I reckon something’s wrong."
Whatever teenage girls are doing, we’re meant to be worrying about it. If they’re not binge drinking and sleeping around, they’re cruelly outperforming boys at GCSE and A-level. There’s not a thing they can do right. So who cares if they’re shaving every last inch of their nether regions? It’s just one more thing to add to the endless list.
Well, I care, for one. Because I rather like teenage girls (and okay, this may be related to the fact that I’m not actually the mother of one). But also I think your teenage years are a crucial time for developing your own identity, both socially and sexually. If you believe that your sexual desirability is contingent on you looking like you’ve not yet hit puberty, then I reckon something’s wrong.
I started my teens modelling myself on Madonna in her Like A Virgin phase. To be fair, I looked like a total slut (thanks, C&A Clockhouse!) but I felt bloody brilliant. I thought I was super-attractive, although looking back I suspect my male classmates were terrified of me. Still, I wasn’t Madonna-like for long, as said classmates eventually plucked up the courage to tell me what the real problem was: I was too fat. Desperate to please, I developed anorexia and spent the next ten years in a completely sexless state, no periods, no hair, no breasts, nothing. It was an utterly miserable way to be, but even so, in sexless silence I felt accepted.
I associate the current pressures on young girls to be “sexy” not with the Madonna-style sexuality that I first embraced, but with the sexlessness that later followed. Young women are meant to be so thin they cannot menstruate; their breasts are artificial; their pubic hair should not exist. This does not teach them to be sexually assertive, active participants in intimate relationships; it positions them as objects, hyper-sanitised so that the boys around them don’t ever have to get their fingers dirty with real women.
I write this as the mother of boys, and yes, I have fewer worries that the minute my sons hit their teens they’ll each be booking in for a back, sack and crack. I do however worry that, should they be heterosexual, their expectations of the women around them may be completely distorted. I want them to understand that women aren’t dolls – they’re fellow human beings who sweat and smell and grow and secrete, and all this can be incredibly sexy in a happy, relaxed, sharing relationship (within reason – I’m not suggesting farting is some major turn-on, but still, I’ll let them be the judges of that). In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran writes that “if you listen in to conversations on the back row of the bus, you can hear 14-year-old boys being horrified to discover that, on fingering a 13-year-old girl, she has pubic hair”. I find this incredibly sad (not that I’ve ever overheard such a conversation; the last time I overheard back-of-the-bus misogyny, it was to do with women not offering enough anal. Perhaps there are regional variations in bus sexism).
I’m conscious that if you’re a teenage girl in the current environment, you might not want to be the trailblazer, the first to display a full-on hairy muff in the showers while your mates look on in horror. Perhaps that’s too much to ask of girls struggling with a million and one other insecurities. Still, there’s one other thing I would mention: whenever I have shaved hair from anywhere, it has grown back thicker and coarser, and covering a more extensive surface area (the one annoying exception to this rule happens to be the eyebrows, which is particularly frustrating since it totally holds true for chin hair). I believe teenage girls need to be aware of this risk before they merrily pick up their Ladyshaves. Perhaps my own muff disaster zone could be used in a public awareness campaign (it’s okay, I’d still be wearing pants; the growth really is that widespread).
To summarise, I’m not suggesting we all become the Pube Police, checking the plughole for slightest hint of anything short and curly. But worry? Yes, I think we should. I’d like girls to grow into confident women who aren’t afraid to assert their own desires. It’s not just about looking sexy, but about being a confidently sexual human being.