Drawing the bikini line at . . . Brazil
Before the Girl from Ipanema went walking, she undoubtedly went waxing. For generations, most Brazilian women have been removing all the hair from their bodies before stepping onto a beach, or into a bedroom.
Nearly two decades ago, seven Brazilian sisters -- Jocely, Jonice, Joyce, Janea, Jussara, Juracy and Judseia -- sought to challenge pubic opinion in New York City with the J. Sisters International Salon. Since then, I hear, a surprisingly large number of labias majora in Manhattan have gone Brazilian.
These days, even the girls from Burlington are getting waxed before stepping out.
Shocked? If you're over 40 and married with children, like me, you might wonder how this trend passed you by -- or how it even came to pass in the first place. But if you're a college-age woman, you might wonder why anyone would hedge on the issue.
The Amazons of Greek mythology cut off their right breasts to better shoot bows and arrows -- to be more like men. But why are modern women cutting off their pubic hair? To be more like little girls?
Perhaps our privates have just gone public -- courtesy of nude beaches, the porn industry and the World Wide Web -- posits Betty Dodson, who produces an instructional video called Viva La Vulva: Women's Sex Organs Revealed that shows women how to get in touch -- literally -- with their feminine side.
Feminist playwright Eve Ensler doesn't split hairs on the subject in The Vagina Monologues. "I felt little when my hair was gone down there, and I couldn't help talking in a baby voice," says the character who shaves it all off to try to save her marriage. Ultimately, Ensler delivers an ultimatum for both sexes: "You can't love a vagina unless you love hair."
I could be making a mountain out of a mons venus, but the ambush began long before the Brazilians began wearing thongs. History had depicted middle-aged women sans pubes since the Middle Ages.
The ancient Greek statue Venus de Milo is not only short on arms; there seems to be no mound of pubic hair peeping from her low-slung drape. "The Birth of Venus," painted by Botticelli in the late 1400s, is nearly as naked as the day she was born. And the hairline of "The Venus of Urbino," painted by Titian a century later, recedes as much as she reclines.
All this Venus envy probably left gentlemen with the wrong impression. In fact, John Ruskin, the foremost art critic of the Victorian era, never consummated his marriage after seeing his wife's "beard." When they divorced, he became engaged to a teenage girl. Meanwhile, his divorcee took up with his protege and had eight children.
What is the raison d'être of pubic hair, anyway? The prevailing wisdom is that it retains the musky pheromones once considered a mighty aphrodisiac. Napoleon Bonaparte was said to have been so fond of the smell that he asked Josephine not to bathe for two weeks before he came home from his military missions.
But now that women have other ways to attract mates -- scintillating minds as well as scented bodies -- pubes have probably reached the end of their useful life, like tonsils. To me, the new era began when Gwyneth Paltrow credited the J. Sisters Salon with "changing her life."
Maybe real women don't wear fur anymore. The naked models in the PETA ads certainly aren't sporting any kind of pelts at all. I asked my cousin, Dr. Sandra Langley, a social-science researcher in Manhattan, if my feminist roots were holding me down.
"This is an old argument, right? If we want to be attractive, are we betraying feminism?" she responds. "If men are telling us that pubic hair is gross or too mature, well that's one issue," Langley explains. "But I think of it more in terms of personal preference, like how we choose to have our hair cut, toes done, jeans fit. I would feel gross if I never washed my hair. I don't wash it for the benefit of the male establishment."
One of my lesbian friends actually has a philosophy along these lines. "Groom unto others as you would have them groom unto you," is her motto, adding that you don't have to get a Brazilian to be well groomed. She and her girlfriend keep what they call "the short cut," trimmed but not down to the skin. They talked about grooming preferences while they were courting to be sure they were thinking along the same hairlines.
Realizing that my line of thinking needed as much updating as my tan line, I decided to call a highly recommended, full-service grooming emporium in Burlington. I warned the proprietress, Cynthea Wight Hausman, that I was new to Brazilians, in both theory and practice. But I failed to mention that I hoped Cynthea's Spa could do for me what the J. Sisters had done for Gwyneth.
When I opened the door, I knew immediately that I was in the right place for a transformation. The giant painting of a budding flower -- à la Georgia O'Keeffe -- hanging over the cozy pink sofa assured me that women were celebrated here. When Hausman greeted me with a hug, I knew I was in the right hands as well.
Hausman doesn't look much older than the college-aged crowd she primarily serves, although she seems much wiser. I took comfort in her maturity. She is a former athlete and the mother of a 10-month-old boy, and she holds a Master's degree in education from St. Michael's College. She learned the fine art of Brazilian waxing as an apprentice in Park City, Utah, the winter playground of the rich, famous and discerning. Since opening her doors here in 2004, she told me, she's served 20 to 25 women every week.
Suitably impressed by this background, I asked Hausman about my foremost concern: pain. I didn't care anymore if waxing meant feminism is waning. I just wanted to know how much it would hurt. "Everyone is different," she replied. Her next comment addressed my previous concerns as well. "Being a woman means you have control over your hair."
Hausman credits massage-therapy training for helping her read the needs of each individual woman. She did seem to know that I wanted to be informed up front and distracted when she got down to business.
"You can be nude, wear a disposable bikini bottom or your own panties," she said. "It's all fine with me. But if you want to leave a little bit, then I recommend the disposable, because it works as a guide for me."
I told her I wanted to leave what folks in Hollywood call a "landing strip." Not that I was expecting a surge in arrivals. Hausman gave me a few minutes to shed my clothes and don my disposable thong. As I lay on the table, I tried to think about all the good times my pubes and I have shared. I couldn't.
When she returned, Haus- man was sporting a pair of surgical gloves and holding a pair of scissors. To get the best results, she explained, hair must be trimmed back prior to waxing. While she snipped away, we chatted away. Turns out she was once a champion bobsledder with a shot at the Olympic Trials. I told her I'd been a swimmer with the same glory days. Before I knew it, she'd pasted warm wax on my genitals and stripped one part of my pudendum bare.
Hausman deftly kept up the conversation along with her nimble work. As we talked about our children, I had to remind myself that the person with whom I was swapping daycare stories was ripping the hair out of my labia.
As for the pain, it was nothing compared to being in labor for hours or, for that matter, training for an athletic competition. Waxing stings briefly then passes completely. The procedure takes less than 30 minutes, including the time needed to tweeze out any stragglers.
My only twinge came after Hausman left the room. Not from delayed discomfort, but the sudden glare of my own flesh. I had forgotten what I looked like under all that hair. Now deforested, I could see what everyone was talking about. It's not the hair that makes us female.
And what about male waxing? Are guys lining up to remove the hair south of their borders? Not at Cynthea's Spa, where the Brazilian is the house specialty. And, as Hausman explained, the term "Brazilian" applies exclusively to women.
I asked a gay male friend what he knew of these matters. "Gay men of all ages, sizes and types are in a veritable craze of 'shaving' their body hair," he reported, noting that on the occasion of his 40th birthday he'd had every hair removed by a Tunisian waxer in Paris. "They want smooth chests and backs, and it's a sure sign that you're out of the loop if you have pubic hair at all -- especially, within that category, any hair on the balls."
Somehow, I failed to find this shocking. Not anymore. In fact, when people ask me how I feel about the Brazilian now, I tell them I have one last thing to say on the subject.
It's growing on me.