In the late 1980s and ’90s, seven Brazilian sisters started a revolution in Midtown Manhattan that would alter the feminine landscape in the United States for years to come. When these women opened the doors to their J. Sisters salon, they introduced a signature service from their native country: the Brazilian wax.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and 87 percent of 333 American women between the ages of 16 and 40 admitted to removing their pubic hair regularly; even more said they had done it at one point or another.
Why do we even have pubic hair, anyway? Some consider it a cushion that protects the delicate area from friction, skin abrasion, and injury. Perhaps these follicles serve a similar purpose as eyebrows, eyelashes, and nose hairs: to trap dirt and particles that might otherwise invade the warm, moist pubic area that could in fact be an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And biologically, pubic hair has been linked to pheromones; some theorize it traps these scents that potential mates may pick up subconsciously.
So, say it does do all these things. Why have people become so desperate to get rid of it—subjecting themselves to having it violently removed with scorching, 140-degree wax? Everyone has their reasons—some women say it feels cleaner, while others swear it’s just plain sexier to them and/or their partners.
It’s possible a lot of the stigma about pubic hair is historical. After all, removing it is not exactly a modern phenomenon—as early as the 15th century, some women started shaving down there to prevent lice. But, since this was an act practiced most commonly by prostitutes in those days, many ladies kept their hair in place for centuries following that to avoid being perceived similarly to their more sexually liberated counterparts.
Thanks to a cultural shift—which has included references to removing pubic hair in trendsetting television shows and media outlets such as Sex and the City and Playboy, respectively—going bare down there has become pretty much the norm these days. But can altering the environment of the nether regions pose consequences to health? The answer is a resounding yes.
In one study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, scientists found that 60 percent of women who removed their pubic hair experienced at least one health complication as a result. The most common was epidermal abrasion—microscopic cuts to the skin—which can lead to severe irritation and infections, and, as a previous study notes, could actually increase the possibility of transmitting sexually transmitted infections such as herpes and genital warts. Ingrown hairs are often another uncomfortable side effect. Researchers also discovered that overweight women were nearly twice as likely to experience these complications.
Whether you opt to go au naturel or clean-shaven, there’s still some extra maintenance that needs to happen to keep your private area more hygienic. Some companies have actually begun marketing—take a deep breath—pubic hair oil to tame unkempt hair down there. If this is what you think you need to justify letting it grow out, try a DIY version. Apply pure jojoba oil to moisturize the skin, and add a tiny, tiny bit of tea tree oil for its antiseptic and antimicrobial properties. A bonus: This antidote also nourishes shaven skin, too, and will help prevent ingrown hairs.
Unfortunately—in centuries past and the present day—the ideal of going hairless down there can sometimes point to a deeper issue: body shaming. Why is it that women feel compelled to trim, shave, and wax, while male counterparts rarely consider it? In case you were wondering, surveys have shown there are more men who don’t mind when women have a little hair down there than those who absolutely prefer a clean shave. Just sayin’. At the end of the day, that’s each woman’s prerogative, and her private business, thank you very much.
Illustration by Foley Wu