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Rosemund Handler

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A hairy debate

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian

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Years ago, the young son of a good friend approached me. His mother was making tea, and he and I spoke on the balcony. He asked me if I would tell his mother that he was gay and, to boot, HIV-positive. Shock on my part; heated persuasion on his. In the end he agreed to tell her – in my presence.

Much more recently, the daughter of a friend asked if she could have a private chat. A memory of the previous encounter surfaced and I hedged. ‘Why me? What about your mom?’

‘Her? You must be joking. I wouldn’t tell her if I was nine months pregnant!’

Ominous. ‘You aren’t, right?’ She giggles. ‘No, I am not pregnant and if I was, what would you do?’

‘Tell your mother.’

‘No, you would not, I trust you. You’re nothing like my mother.’

‘Surely,’ I say despairingly, ‘if this is a private matter, your mother is still the best person to speak to.’ All of 15 years old, she laughs again. ‘Would you tell your mother that you watch porn with two of your friends? That sometimes we play at being porn stars ourselves?’

Put like that, no, I wouldn’t. ‘Why are you watching porn? You may think you’re 25, but you’re still a kid!’

‘That’s what I want to talk about.’ She bites her lip. ‘I want to shave.’

I roll my eyes. ‘You already do.’

‘No! I mean down there.’

‘You mean you want to shave your vagina.’

‘That’s not what they call it at school.’

Sigh. The c-word and p-word are pretty banal these days, even when rolling off the tongues of babes. The weird part is that I have just read about a teenager who shaved off her pubic hair and lacerated her labia in the process, which turned into a medical emergency. Apparently, the craze among teenage girls is to remove all body hair, especially pubic. As in the harems of sultans.

‘My boyfriend keeps telling me it’s much sexier down there without any hair. It reminds him of the baths he used to take with his little sister. He says it will also be safer for me.’

‘Safer? How?’

‘Well, he wouldn’t – you know – force me, because I remind him of his little sister.’

‘How old is this guy?’

‘16.’

‘What movies is he watching? Has he forced you before?’

She avoids my eye. ‘No, but he is a good – talker.’

‘About what?’

‘He likes us to watch porn together. And do – stuff.’

I don’t want to hear anymore. I want her mother to do the listening; I’ve done mine. But I do tell her two stories, which probably won’t help but make me feel better.

Back in the day when my daughter was 12, she demanded to shave her legs. I inspected the fine gold down and informed her she would be embarking on a life sentence and should wait until she was 14. If she still felt the same way, so be it.

She would have none of it. It didn’t seem worth another pitched battle, so she began shaving. Today, a vocal feminist, she hasn’t shaved her legs in years and is proud of her hair wherever it’s located, like the European women who have flaunted their body hair for decades and haven’t lost an ounce of style or sex appeal.

Then I tell the girl about a man whose first wife was German and his second French. He said the best thing about both was their pubic hair – blond and dark. Secret, suggestive; sexy.

‘Yuck!’ says my young companion. ‘Smooth is in. My friend has a ring through her labia and still manages to shave around it. I would love a labia ring but I’ve got a low pain tolerance, she said it hurt like hell …’

We women owe a vote of thanks to good old Gillette. In 1915, Gillette declared female body hair unsightly, launching the ‘Milady Decollete’ razor for women, an ‘innovative’, very successful marketing campaign to rid women of their hairy scourge.

Even my pragmatic mother-in-law began eyeing her sparse facial hair with a jaundiced eye and plucking out the odd bristler in front of a mirror.

‘Here’s the ugly truth,’ I say, aware that I might as well be talking to myself. ‘If you’re dark, you have dark body hair, and dark people – like you – are more hirsute. If you’re blonde your body hair may be lighter but you could have a nice gold moustache to make up for it.’

‘I know,’ interjects the girl, ‘a kid in my class has wispy blond hair above her upper lip and the boys call her Pubic Lips. That is the worst!

It’s crappy, but not the worst. The worst is that females are viewed as nothing more than marketing targets – the very fate feminists have harangued us to avoid since the dawn of feminism. Judging by what I’m hearing, what’s on TV screens, online and in the flocks of gaudy magazines on the shelves, being female continues to be less and less about becoming womanly and more and more about staying girlish.

I take a deep breath and dive in. ‘Let me say this: you should try very hard to separate what you really want, what makes you feel comfortable, from what others tell you to want, and from all the noise out there. Try to see your entire body as something to be proud of. It’s yours, after all, nobody else’s, so you have to take care of it. And only you should make decisions about what you do with it. If my daughters could manage it, so can you.’

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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