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Forget the 70s bush: women removing their body hair goes way further back than you think

Jan | 28 sharesTegan Hedley

The most awkward conversation I've ever had with my mother revolved around her discovering that I, like many other women, get my va-jay-jay waxed. As a woman of a different generation, so to speak, she was horrified - and endlessly inquisitive. She wanted all the details. She asked why I’d want to look like a "child, or a stripper". She even asked if my boyfriend trimmed too "since it's only fair". It was a horrible moment, for both of us. And the fact that I’d pay £25 for the privilege of literally having hair ripped out baffled her even more, which is kind of fair to be honest. "Not in my day" was pretty much the takeaway. 

But then, while modern ladies may be all about the Brazilian, back in the day it was all about the bush. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that hair removal was a fairly recent development - after all, aren’t we always hearing about how we should feel comfortable just being ourselves, about how we shouldn’t let fashion or porn control our bodies - about how hairlessness is a creation of terrible women's magazines? Well, in fact, pubic hair removal goes back donkeys' years - and after seeing how it used to happen, you might be glad it's just a wax job you're getting. 

For now though, we will start with the present, because let’s be honest, we’re all slightly curious about how other ladies are really approaching this hairy subject. Well, a study by Java Dermatology found that 84 per cent of US women had at some point given lady-garden grooming a shot, whether with scissors, razor, wax, tweezers, depilatory cream, laser, or electrolysis. Interestingly, 93 per cent of those surveyed said they generally carried out their minge maintenance themselves at home; unsurprisingly, another survey showed that over 27 per cent of women had accidentally inflicted some kind of "injury" on themselves doing so. Ouch. 

But if the thought of nipping your nether region with a razor makes your toes curl, then spare a thought for the females of old, for whom the hair removal process was even more brutal, and by the look of it, poisonous. Back in 1532, a version of "The book of secrets", which was basically a beauty bible for the sixteenth century woman, advised that women should remove all body hair in a manner that could easily be mistaken for a torture guide: “Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off."

Yes, they are literally warning you not to let your flesh peel off. And while this may seem like just one extreme example, Dr Jill Burke, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh who focuses on art, gender, and the body in the Renaissance period, says that this kind of technique isn't that unusual: “The books of secrets written from the turn of the sixteenth century onwards have a proliferation of recipes for hair removal” she explained, going on to state that these also include “one made of pig lard, mustard and juniper, and another involving a distillation of swallows.” Give me two minutes, just need to pluck a swallow from the sky and set up my home still.

A sunflower and secateurs Credit: Pixabay/ WerbeFabrik

So what inspired historical bush banishing? Well, it seems that while the techniques may have moved on somewhat, our motivations haven’t changed that much. Now, before you go on about the fact that today it’s all about personal choice - and indeed 59 per cent of respondents to the Java Dermatology study stated that they remove pubic hair, in part, because it makes them cleaner - it seems we’re more guilty of giving in to social pressure than we would like to admit. The authors of the 2016 study noted that a huge 20 per cent of women cited their partner's preference as their main motivation for their own grooming, with women also "significantly" less likely to remove their hair if their partner preferred them au naturelA Cosmopolitan survey in 2017 found that just six per cent of British men would be happy for their partner to let it grow. 

But it seems renaissance men were little different. In this delightful little gem, sixteenth century Spanish physician, Juan Huarte, explained that: “Of course, the woman who has much body and facial hair (being of a more hot and dry nature) is also intelligent but disagreeable and argumentative, muscular, ugly, has a deep voice and frequent infertility problems." Essentially, body hair is reserved for men, and while it might make you intelligent (sorry, what?), it will also make you masculine and unattractive in the eyes of society. Sound familiar at all? In another reflection of these attitudes, Francisco Delicado, another author of the time wrote about women approaching prostitutes in Venice, asking them to “teach me and my cousin here how to shave off female hair, since that’s the way our husbands like it." While this may be part of a fictional work, it's also true that any work of literature is, in some part, born out of its cultural landscape.

A waist down shot of a woman playing in the surf Credit: Pexels

We already knew that being a woman - or should I say, being the woman society prefers you to be - takes a whole lot of effort. But the lesson in all of this is that that's really nothing new: for hundreds of years, women have been chopping, burning and even poisoning their pubes, all in the name of "beauty". So whether you're flying like a bald eagle or rocking more bush than a 70s playboy spread, all that should really matter is that it's your personal preference. But hey, at least now if your mum does get nosy (God forbid), you'll have history to back you up. Or, you could just do what I should probably have done: lie. Because trust me, you really don’t want to have that conversation.