To Shave or Not to Shave – the Pubic Hair Dilemma Between West and East
Now I want to talk about a sensitive and intensely personal topic, which may appear to be ‘inappropriate’ and ‘obscene’ for some people (although admittedly, I do find it quite humorous). Amidst the recent surge in body-positive and pro-sex feminist discourse, this subject seems to have become increasingly significant and relevant: pubic hair. Indeed, women have already talked about body hair and pubic hair shaming across the world. But I felt that my personal experience with pubes is somewhat unique yet relevant to other women, particularly those with cosmopolitan backgrounds.
Currently, I am 25. I am far past my teenage years of feeling constant anxiety over body image and physical appearance. Overall, I am pretty comfortable with how I look. I am happy with my body shape, diet, fashion style, and makeup routines, and I barely spend time worrying about how people see me these days. But when it comes to hair down there, I still don’t have a clear idea on what I'm supposed to be doing. Should I wax, shave, trim, or leave it natural? I have tried different solutions, but have never been able to feel satisfied with any of them.
To give you a sense of my background, I am a Japanese cis-gender, heterosexual woman, and I spent a significant portion of my life abroad (I am often referred to as a “returnee” or kikokushijo). I want to clarify that I do not fetishize any race, ethnicity, or culture. However, I do believe my cosmopolitan upbringing and bilingual skills have naturally made me feel attracted to and go out with men of various nationalities. And while encountering cultural differences has become rather normal for me, I still cannot get over how opinionated men could be regarding what a woman’s crotch should look like.
The first time I shaved down there was out of pressure. I was seeing an American guy, and the first time I got naked in front of him, I immediately received negative feedback about my bush. “Why don’t Japanese girls shave down there?” “There’s no way I’m going to eat you out.” “Nobody wants hair in their mouth–it’s gross.” I felt so embarrassed, insecure, and sad that he found me ‘unhygienic’ and ‘unattractive.’ I took the razor blade right after that to achieve that smooth look he was craving.
After that, it became customary for me to shave my pubic hair. But when I started dating a Japanese guy, I was now criticized for my hairless crotch. This makes sense, not only because it is somewhat unusual to shave down there in Japan, but also because there is a sexual, if not a derogatory term for women who shave their pubic hair in Japanese: “paipan.” While an increasing number of women in Japan have started to shave recently (I suppose due to western influence and marketing efforts by hair removal companies), online forums are heated with debates among men passionately discussing if a shaved vagina is acceptable or not. According to a survey by How Collect on how men view women who shave their pubes, the most popular perception is: “She’s definitely a slut”(「絶対にヤリマン」) because the only reason you would shave is that you are expecting to get laid. This explains the reaction I got from my ex –taking care of your private areas in obvious ways contradicts Japanese ideals of femininity centered on ‘purity’ and ‘innocence.’
Confused with all the different demands and perceptions toward pubes, I started to get curious about the history of pubic hair removal. First of all, why did people even start shaving in western countries? Based on my research, it all boils down to media portrayals of women, including pornography. Historian Dr. Kate Lister explains that it was desirable for women to have abundant pubic hair in the Victorian era, as it signified youth, health, and sexual vitality. Men disliked smooth vaginas as they looked ‘unhealthy’ and ‘sick.’ However, with the rise of pornography around the 1980s, pubic hair featured less in images, as removing the hair allows viewers to see more. And today, it’s not just porn, but all forms of media that tell us pubes are undesirable. (I remember the scene in Wolf of Wall Street where Leonardo DiCaprio excitedly talks about how women these days are “bald from the eyebrows down.”) Whatever we see regularly shapes what’s ‘normal’ for us. If something is different from the ‘normal,’ we automatically feel disgusted.
The fact that western societies also used to admire the bush proves that positive/negative perceptions towards pubic hair are in no way static or confined to geographies. But what seems constant and universal is that women are always pressured to modify their bodies based on the demands of the patriarchy. If men want it smooth, we shave. If men don’t like it hairless, then we stop.
Recently, not shaving pubic hair seems to have become a feminist gesture among western countries ––a middle finger up against sexist men who tell you what to do with your body. Similarly, suppose you’re a girl in Japan who likes to wax or shave. In that case, you should be proud of your smooth vagina, and tell men to leave you alone if they start accusing you of looking too ‘promiscuous.’ When I reflect on my own experiences with my exes, I wish I had pushed back on their requests or tried to convey my ambivalent feelings to seek understanding.
As we live in an increasingly globalized society, I felt that my experience testifies how cultural differences could couple with sexism, coercing women to adjust their behaviors rather than allowing them to participate in a fair, mutual dialogue. Women may feel like they are in a limbo, bombarded with varying and contradicting orders from men, just the way I did. While women continue to call for change regarding various forms of body-shaming, perhaps my personal story will contribute to diversifying and amplifying the discussion. Or maybe I am trying too hard to rationalize and theorize all this – I am not sure. Although I can joke about my experiences, I believe they deserve to be unpacked further. Something clear to me is that I was intensely hurt and shocked at the time, and I hope my story echoes with women who went through something similar.
About Moeka Iida
Moeka Iida is a public affairs consultant and freelance researcher who graduated from Sophia University. Moeka is also an artist with a passion for surrealism. She is interested in the intersection of social justice, politics, art, creativity, and humor.
Edited by Emiru Okada
Graphic by Maya Kubota