This week, InStyle is diving into the changing look, complicated impact, and undeniable power of summer’s uniform: the swimsuit.
It had never occurred to me that I was supposed to groom my pubic hair until fooling around in the back of a Ford Focus with a particularly unwoke boyfriend at age 18.
Before that, Dr. Taber, my elementary school principal, who taught all the fourth-grade girls about “our changing bodies,” gave only a cursory overview of the concept of pubic hair. One day, it wouldn’t be there, and the next day, there it would be—right beneath your Powerpuff Girls underwear. My mother, who carefully instructed me on the art of shaving my legs, never explicitly told me it was something I needed to do elsewhere. She also forgot to mention the lifelong, costly struggle of figuring out how to remove one’s bush. In my conservative small town, I had just one sexually active friend, who didn't get into the topic as she recounted her lurid hookup stories before choir practice. (And in retrospect, I’m wondering how this never came up during our many summers of pool hopping around town in our bikinis.)
Only when I was about 18 and making out with my new boyfriend, was I brought into the know about the comparative neglect of my undercarriage. Things started heating up, and it was hard to miss his not-so-subtle grimace when he was surprisingly greeted by Bob Ross when he was expecting Pamela Anderson. I still remember feeling so small and unattractive as he tugged at my underwear, like I had missed some giant memo. Why had no one told me that I needed to de-frizz before a date? Was everyone in the world shaving their pubic hair except for me?
Soon after, I was shaving every other day from armpit to ankle, walking out of the shower like a glossy seal just emerging from the ocean. I wasn’t actually sure if I was removing it correctly. I was worried what might appear in the family computer’s search history if I typed “how to shave your pubic hair” into Google, and so I just followed my instinct, which meant bumps, ingrowns, and razor burn. But it did the trick: I was hairless, confident, and maybe only slightly itchy. My boyfriend didn’t seem that impressed with my basement remodel. We broke up a few months later.
But pool season had arrived, and the razor habit stuck. While I was totally aloof about the existence of downstairs-scaping beforehand, once I started grooming, I couldn’t believe how I could’ve missed that the whole world was obsessed with purging their pubic hair. The infomercials and advertisements for waxing products seemed to multiply, my friends suddenly went to waxing appointments together, even the most treasured song of my youth—Missy Elliott’s “Work It”—included a lyric about a tidy bikini line that I’d somehow missed (“Call before you come, I need to shave my chocha”).
In a 2016 study, researchers found that more than 80 percent of women in the U.S. have groomed their pubic hair. Some groomed for sex, some for vacation, and others before a healthcare visit. None of these women, myself included, were tweezing, waxing, shaving, or going through other painful beauty rituals because they thought it would make their lives easier or make sex less painful.
Occasionally I would let my hair grow out some, and my bikini area would be reminiscent of teenage Simba’s mane—patchy in some places and uncertain of what it wanted to be. But then there would be a trip to California or a date with a hot barista that would prompt a clean up. Once I was made aware that my hair was unsightly, I never wanted anyone to see it (even accidentally) again.
So eventually I would just shave it all off, ignoring pleas from my OB-GYN who told me that “the hair was there for a reason” during my routine pap smears. She warned that if I kept shaving, I could be susceptible to infection. There are plenty of good reasons to keep your pubic hair intact. It protects your vagina from dirt and bacteria. Removing it can cause infections and warts, and there’s speculation from some researchers that it might even increase your risk of getting an STI. A 2012 study in the medical journal Urology revealed that there were 11,704 injuries related to pubic hair removal from 2002–2010, with 335 (I’m guessing very embarrassing) documented trips to emergency rooms. That’s how far we’re willing to go to make sure people don’t need to be burdened with the unseemly image of a woman who actually has hair where it grows.
But none of these legitimate reasons was what made me decide to go au naturale for bikini season last year after 10-plus years of shaving. Let’s be real: I got lazy. And then I did something better: I let myself be lazy.
My husband and I moved into a mid-century ranch house about nine months ago, and every time I would shave, it would stop up the drain and leave a long trail of hairs behind. Desperate to not let my husband see the evidence of my grooming session, I would frantically clean up the scene of the crime before he could see what had happened. This was, of course, as ridiculous as it sounds. Did I really think he didn’t know I was shaving it in our shared bathroom? Why was I even removing it? My husband certainly didn’t care either way. We’d been married for nearly six years, during which he’s seen much grosser (love is helping your wife pee in a cup before an emergency appendectomy while she’s on pain medication), and yet somehow I was still ashamed of any trace of my natural pubic hair.
Was I shaving because of a look that a boyfriend had given me 10 years ago? I understood then how the simple act of shaving my bikini line had turned being naked into something performative, something wholly for another person and not myself. The thought had never occurred to me that a partner of mine should groom himself. And no partner of mine had explicitly said that he wanted me to. It was just me who had, and upheld, this expectation.
A lot of women say that hair removal makes them feel sexy, and good on them. For me, though, it was more about the embarrassment I felt about my body when I didn’t groom. When you’re constantly removing something on your body, it’s easy to become obsessive about how “ugly” it is even if it’s not.
So one day I stopped. I quit cold turkey and haven’t put razor to pubic area since. I thought back to fourth grade, when my principal handed us those pamphlets going over all of the gory details about puberty. At the time, I had scrupulously read them and studied the diagrams. In the “fully grown” diagram, it showed a woman who had a sizable amount of pubic hair. And I am fully grown.
Recently, I went on a trip to Mexico with my husband and his family—my first beach trip since ditching the razor. I’ll admit that I was a little nervous at first, worried that people would stare at the errant hairs popping out of my swimsuit (or more irrationally that a wave would be so powerful that it would carry off my bottoms and the whole resort would see my unkempt underside). But as I made my way to my beach chair each morning, I realized that no one was paying attention to me, my bikini line, or anything else but where the poolside waitress was so they could order another piña colada. No one ever inspected me or gave me a dirty look if they happened to catch a glimpse of hair, like I was a participant in some archaic beauty pageant.
And sure, there were some girls who were showing off their hairless bodies in their thong bikinis, but there were also others whose bathing suits weren’t hiding their fuller hairstyles as they basked, belly up, in the sunshine. Their confidence gave me assurance, and so I sprawled out in my bikini, wayward hairs be damned. I couldn’t remember the last time I had genuinely enjoyed being at the beach so much. (It also didn’t hurt that my friends were periodically texting me “#bringthebushback” after I’d announced to them my decision to stop bikini grooming.)
Ironically, now I feel more womanly and free than I ever did while I was shaving. And if you ask me (or Chris Pratt, apparently), the full bush is back—and hopefully here to stay.