There’s a lot of talk on Twitter today about misogynistic responses to the idea that, just as men might leave their upper lips unshaven in November (for charity), so women might give up the razor – on their legs, armpits, muffs – for a month. It reminded me of something I wrote about pubic shaving and the infantilization of women at the end of last year. It was in response to a Daily Mail article (the whole post is here), and here is the relevant bit:
It’s an old, familiar story that women are reduced by our society – equally by men and women – to mere bodies. Men have intellect and conceive ideas in their brains; women have bodies and conceive babies in their wombs. Men may be cultivated and powerful; any woman who denies her responsibility to reproduce (which means making herself a suitable mate by obsessive prettification and dieting) is frigid, humourless, cold, despicable. That would be enough of a problem but even more disturbing is the way that this instrumental view of human beings is enacted by a conflation of the image of women with that of children.
Women, like children, are to have unblemished and hairless skin, big eyes, should giggle, submit, and be cute at all times, are believed to weep, moan, gabble, and strop more than men, and so on. Their images in films and advertising are so airbrushed that their natural skin tone disappears entirely (a process that perfects the effects of makeup but is not essentially different from the daily application). Perhaps the most remarkable expectaton, no more radical for the fact that it is barely noticed, is that both women and children should have hairless bodies. Only a couple of decades ago it was normal for Continental women to leave their armpits and legs unshaven. Now they have given into the Anglo-American model (exactly as the influence of the Anglo-American capitalist model, which is wedded to this image of the comestible woman increased its grip), and they shave like the anglophones.
Increasingly this shaving has come to extend even to the most intimate regions. A few years ago, while doing research for an academic article, I conducted a quick survey of presentations of centrefolds in Playboy magazine – not, it is fair to say, the most extreme of available porn magazines, and a fair indicator of mainstream (which is to say misogynist) views of the ideal female nude. The findings were interesting.
The pubic mound was not shown full-frontal until 1971, and it took two years before as many as half of the centrefolds showed pubic hair. Throughout the 70s and 80s it was normal for the pubic hair to be left unshaven or (as far as I can tell) only slightly trimmed. But in the mid-90s, just before the release of Britney Spears’s archetypal schoolgirl fantasy song, ‘…Baby One More Time’, a tremendous change took place. The incidence of extensive pubic shaving vastly increased. In 2001 Playboy published its first completely shaven pubic mound, and that style of presentation gradually increased thereafter until by 2006, 6 of the 10 public mounds that were visible in centrefold images were completely shaven.
Adult women, like adult men, have hair on their bodies. If they eat healthy balanced meals three times a day, perhaps enjoying a few units of alcohol with their dinner, snacking occasionally and so on, they might also have deposits of fat, rolls of skin – an adult human shape, in fact. Only when the facts of age are abstracted away by makeup, airbrushed photography, and increasingly intimate shaving, do women start to resemble children, whose unwrinkled faces, svelte – because swiftly growing – bodies and the rest are as natural to their stage in life as wibbly bits and sprouting hair are to the life-stage of an adult woman.
It should be a matter of enormous concern that the near-exact mapping of sexiness in adult women onto the appearance of children is accepted as a mainstream view in our society, and that even when – like Samantha in today’s Daily Mail article [referenced in the original version of this post] exemplifies – women intensely feel the burden of trying to manufacture an impossible image, we are to invoke the reliable old ideological shorthand of a woman’s ‘natural duty’ to be slim, attractive, and therefore properly female, to show how the suffering is part of the joy of being a woman who can be loved by a man.
Where is there to go now that the ideal of the adult genitals has been redrawn in the prepubescent form? Cosmetic double mastectomies? Broken and reformed, thinner hips? As so often, it is worth reading the Daily Mail from time to time, just so that we can reflect on the hideousness of the ideological commitments we all – men and women – make every day.