Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader of the site who wanted to know more about what seems to be an increasing trend among women: pubic hair removal.
Why is the shaving of pubic hair so prevalent? Why do so many people (especially women) do it? We've been "natural" for so long, it kinda seems counter-intuitive that such a large percentage of people (seemingly) aesthetically enjoy this. I mean I get that males are aroused by anatomy, and shaving could give them more anatomy to be aroused by, but they're also aroused by signs of sexual maturity and fertility. Wouldn't pubic hair be a pretty blatant sign of fertility?
These are fantastic questions. Thanks for submitting them! As a starting point, I think it’s worth mentioning that pubic hair removal actually isn’t a new practice for women. In fact, we have reason to believe that female genital grooming dates all the way back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks!1 However, I shudder to think about what primitive hair removal techniques might have felt like. Since these early times, the degree to which women have attempted to tame their pubic hair has ebbed and flowed across time and culture, with variations in attitudes toward pubic hair evident in works of art and historical artifacts.
Today, pubic hair removal is common, although not all women do it and the amount of hair removed and the methods used to get rid of it vary substantially. A “revealing” Internet survey of 2,451 women found that female hair removal practices varied considerably by age.2 Specifically, while the majority of women under age 50 were in the habit of removing at least some pubic hair, most women over age 50 chose not go au natural. The most common method of hair removal for women of all ages was shaving, with far fewer (i.e., less than 10%) opting for wax, electrolysis, and laser treatments, which is not surprising considering the greater expense and physical pain associated with these techniques. Of those women who engaged in hair removal, only a small minority remained hair free at all times—most women engaged in total removal only on an occasional basis or attempted partial removal instead.
As for the big question of why so many women remove their pubic hair, research suggests that one contributing factor is conformity to social norms.3 In Western cultures, hairiness is generally viewed as undesirable for the female genitals and body—as evidence of this, one need not look further than Playboy magazine and other forms of pornography, where the only hair remaining on the female body these days is on top of their heads.4 Removal of pubic hair is seen by many as a way to “improve” the female body, which means that women who do not conform to this norm may be subject to social costs.
Of course, women may choose to bare it for other, more personal reasons. For instance, some women do it because it makes them feel more feminine and attractive, or because it brings them more sexual pleasure.5 In light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that women who choose to be hairless get the most action.2 However, we don’t know if it’s because women who shave are more sexually active to begin with or because shaving helps them obtain more partners.
In terms of why men seem to prefer hair-free genitals these days, I can’t say exactly why because it is not a topic that has really been studied. You’re right that pubic hair is a sign of sexual maturity and likely fertility; however, it’s important to take account of the current social and cultural context. For one thing, pornography (and it’s increasingly hairless world of both men and women) is shaping perceptions of attractiveness. Also, in many parts of the world, body hair and the scents it traps are now seen as “dirty”—consequently, smooth skin and the artificial smells of deodorants, soaps, and lotions are preferred. In addition, we live in a world where fertility cues are becoming an obsolete consideration in the selection of female partners as a result of scientific advances in contraception and in-vitro fertilization. Beyond that, sexual practices are also changing, with oral sex becoming increasingly prevalent. Pubic hair may be considered an obstacle for both men and women when it comes to performing oral sex, which may also help to explain why shaving is "in." Thus, whereas pubic hair may have indeed been considered attractive in the past as a result of being a fertility signal, it is important to remember that the old rules may no longer apply and that our sexual preferences continue to evolve.
In short, pubic hair removal is indeed common these days, but it is a very diverse practice. Women who bare it do so for a variety of reasons, apply different methods, and do it to varying extents.
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1Kilmer, M. (1982). Genital phobia and depilation. Journal of Hellenic Studies, 102, 104–112.
2Herbenick, D., Schick, V., Reece, M., Sanders, S., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2010). Pubic hair removal among women in the United States: Prevalence, methods, and characteristics. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 3322-3330.
3Toerin, M., & Wilkinson, S. (2004). Exploring the depilation norm: A qualitative questionnaire study of women’s body hair removal. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 1, 69–92.
4Schick, V. (2010). Evulvalution: The portrayal of women’s external genitalia and physique across time and the current Barbie doll ideals. Journal of Sex Research, 47, 1–9.
5Tiggemann, M., & Hodgson, S. (2008). The hairlessness norm extended: Reasons for and predictors of women’s body hair removal at different body sites. Sex Roles, 59, 889–897.
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