February 13, 2014

Mannequins: Foreshadowing The Return Of The Retro Bush?

In preparation for Valentine's Day, American Apparel debuted lingerie-wearing mannequins with pubic hair. Is this a new era in female pubic hair grooming?

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In January 2014, an American Apparel store in New York City displayed mannequins in lingerie with bushy pubic hair (Just in time for Valentine’s Day shopping! Did anyone want to buy a Merkin?) The public was apparently so outraged, that the mannequins literally stopped them in their tracks.

Some reportedly gawked at the mannequins: “The windows were attention grabbing, with most people on a recent Friday, stopping, pointing and laughing”. When American Apparel asked on twitter, “What do you think of our pubic hair PR crisis?” one woman simply responded, “Que horror!” (What horror!).

Is the public truly disgusted by something natural? Do female bodies make people so uncomfortable, that they have to nervously laugh? During a recent visit to New York, I passed by the store and observed these mannequins. As I took pictures, one passerby screamed at me, “OH MY GOD, ART!”, suggesting that I was mocking the mannequins and should appreciate their artistic significance. Therefore, it appears that there are various public debates going on about the role of the pubic “bush” and the value American Apparel’s attempt to show the “rawness” of sexuality for Valentine’s Day.

In any case, regardless of American Apparel’s controversial marketing tactics or shady past (the CEO has been accused of racism, violence, and fraud), or whether or not they are trying to change perceptions of beauty, the big bushes of pubic hair on the mannequins bring up a few recent debates and unanswered questions: What is considered normal pubic hair grooming patterns? Do these coincide with popular opinion?

The natural look: A new trend?

The hairless look had a good run- at least in the media. There was a time when it appeared that everyone was celebrating the option to rip it all off.  Celebrities, such as Cameron Diaz, have recently spoken about their new “all natural” grooming habits. Even Gwyneth Paltrow, who had previously gloated about how much she loved the Brazilian wax (See some history about the Brazilian wax here), seems to be advocating full force for no more removal.  Known to set the fashions of the times, celebrities have a lot of influence. Will this year mark the “year of the bush?”

Most recently, new trends in mannequins  have emerged, attempted to reflect how clothes will actually look on women. After years of size 0 mannequins, many stores, such as David’s Bridal and now Macy’s and Nordstrom, will feature more realistic measurements including bulges and bumps that many women have.  The idea of the shift is to entice more women into buying their brand’s clothes. According to American Apparel, since the debut of the mannequins their sales have increased by 30%. It is unclear whether there is a direct correlation between the bush and the increase in sales, but it appears that American Apparel is suggesting that women are responding to the mannequins’ reflections of reality. Even if the mannequin’s pubic hair does reflect reality, does the public feel disgusted by it because it is aesthetically displeasing? Have we become so bombarded with the idea of a hairless vulva that we can’t fathom something so bushy? This leads us to the next point. What is the current state of affairs in terms of pubic hair grooming?

Pubic hair grooming patterns

Just as perceptions of beauty have changed over time, patterns of pubic hair grooming have also shifted throughout the centuries (Ancient Egyptians  are believed to have pioneered “Brazilian” waxing!)  The most current and widespread data on hair removal practices comes from researchers at Indiana University.  In 2010, Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick published a study reporting on the pubic hair removal habits  of 2,451 American women ages 18 to 68 years. Despite the media’s influence and the seeming popularity of the hairless look, the researchers found that there was significant variation in removal patterns and characteristics, and these differed by many variables such as age, sexual orientation, relationship status, more positive genital self-image and sexual function, and having received cunnilingus in the past 4 weeks. Herbenick reports, “Women were more likely to go bare if they were younger, bisexual (rather than straight or lesbian) or not partnered.” The authors concluded that the practices were very diverse, and it is more common that not for women to have some pubic hair.  Therefore, if the practices are so diverse, why do some women groom completely and some do not?

Hair or no hair: What does this mean for sexual health and sexual pleasure?

The decision for some women to groom has been linked to questions of both sexual health and pleasure.  Aside from financial issues and the potentially painful experience that hair removal causes, there are also worries of minor issues, such as ingrown hairs, and more risky possibilities such as inflammations and infections- and even more risk of contracting STIs while the skin is healing. In fact, when it comes to waxing as the method of hair removal, the state of New Jersey is currently debating banning  Brazilian waxes all together to avoid negative consequences of the practice.

In terms of the correlation between grooming and sexual pleasure, it can differ highly from person to person and depend on many different factors. Although the data collected from the Herbenick & Schick’s study showed a relationship between hair removal and more positive scores on the Female Genital Self-Image Scale (FGSIS) and more positive female sexual function as measured by the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI), Herbenick explains that “We cannot know what causes what. There could be a number of reasons why pubic hair removal, FGSIS and FSFI were linked.” Some of these might be a more positive image of her genitals and wanting to show it off, or feel better about receiving oral sex when hairless.

Furthermore, it is unclear why women remove hair and in what capacity, and how this relates to sexual pleasure. The authors report that there may be several factors at play that require more research. For instance, more research may be necessary to explain if women remove pubic hair in anticipation for sexual activity, if they turn down an opportunity for sexual activity if they have not been groomed, or if their grooming practices excite themselves or their partners.

What does this mean for you?

American Apparel may be “reflecting reality” and Cameron Diaz may be prompting the “year of the bush,” but in reality there is no one practice or uniformity to women’s pubic hair removal.  Not all women who do not get Brazilian waxes have full bushes, and not all women are about to ditch the salons completely. Regardless of your motives (getting back at capitalism, perhaps?) behind hair removal or lack thereof, it should be your decision and a decision that makes you feel good. The most important thing to keep in mind being comfortable with yourself, whether that means being hairless, sporting a full retro bush (and of course being safe and avoiding infections! Use your judgment), or something in between. Don’t be swayed by an “everyone else is doing it” attitude; be yourself, and own it! To learn more about sexual pleasure and learning about yourself, check out Debby Herbenick’s books Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction  and Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva.