Time for One Thing: Wax On

A feminist waxes on about bikini waxing.


Joan Walsh
June 12, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Feminism saved me from caring about my bikini line. I didn't shave my legs more than annually throughout my teens and 20s, and shaving along my crotch
felt dangerous and barbaric. The few times I did it, the results didn't impress me. The hair began to grow back within hours, itching like hell, and Don Johnson stubble on my inner thighs wasn't my idea of attractive. Depilatories didn't work. Plus, creating the illusion of a hairless pubis seemed like one more example of how we glorify the sexless child's body over what's womanly, a step in the direction of kiddie porn.

After I abandoned a smidgen of feminism to vanity in my 30s, I began to shave my legs and underarms and even wax an arch into my unruly black-Irish eyebrows. But I still refused to take a razor to my bikini line. Living in fog-bound San Francisco, it didn't matter much, since I don't spend a lot of time at the beach.

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But last summer I vacationed with some high-school girlfriends, and while we were lying by a lake in Wisconsin drinking beer, they glimpsed the thicket of brown hair peaking out from my swimsuit, and they were appalled. "That's gross," they told me. Suddenly it seemed gross to me, too. I had to admit, I liked the look of their creamy inner thighs.

"But I can't shave there!" I protested. They didn't shave there either, of course; they waxed. I flinched at the thought. "It doesn't hurt much more than waxing your eyebrows," Jodie said, and she knew I did that monthly. And there were other benefits, too. Men found it incredibly sexy, Thalia confided: It drove her husband of more than a decade absolutely nuts.

I was intrigued. Back in San Francisco, I noticed women asking for a bikini wax at the salon where I had my eyebrows done, and I began to ask how much it hurt. The answers varied a lot, from "As much as labor!" to "Less than your eyebrows." I had barely gotten through labor -- that's why I only
have one child -- and can hardly stand getting my eyebrows waxed. I wasn't sure I'd survive a bikini wax.

Finally, on a whim, the night before a weekend getaway with my boyfriend, I asked Triss, the Vietnamese salon owner who does my eyebrows, to wax my bikini line. She grinned broadly, and hustled me into her back room before I could change my mind. Triss giggled with anticipation as I took off my pants. She did my eyebrows first and this time they hurt like crazy. "Do you have your period?" she asked when I complained. It was just ending. "Oh, well, everything hurts more then. Not the best time for waxing." Great. I thought about fleeing but my pants were already off.

She spread my legs and arranged them impersonally, like she was moving furniture -- which was kind of reassuring because otherwise this exchange could seem intimate. I was quickly distracted from my self-consciousness, though, by the feel of hot wax on my inner thigh. The first time she yanked out my hair with the white canvas strip, it hurt like ... like a lot
less than I expected, actually.

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It got worse. To have a truly clean bikini line -- no hair sneaking out
from the crotch of your bathing suit -- requires waxing well into what is clearly pubic hair. As I pulled my panties aside for Triss, I could no longer think of this as waxing my inner thigh. And that part hurt just about as much as I'd expected, but it was over quickly. I stood up, relieved, too shy to look at what I'd wrought until I got home.

I can't say the immediate result was sexy. Waxing raises tiny, bright-red welts where the hair used to be, and I panicked that they'd be there for my romantic weekend getaway. Luckily they were gone in the morning. But still, the effect wasn't what I'd hoped. And my boyfriend didn't even notice my sexy new bikini line. When I pointed it out, he tried to feign interest, but I knew it didn't do much for him. That shouldn't have surprised me, since our sex life had always been satisfying but wholesome, meat-and-potatoes fare.

On the positive side of our relationship, he trusted me so completely that he didn't think twice about the bright purple hickey he found on my ... well,
let's just call it my inner thigh. The waxing had broken a blood vessel I hadn't spotted. Any other man might have wondered how it got there, but he took my word it was the waxing and went straight to sleep.

A letdown? A little. But I kept waxing every six weeks, because I had to admit that I found it sexy. I liked the look, I liked the feel and it didn't hurt as much as I'd feared. When we broke up a few months later (no connection with the waxing or his reaction), I kept waxing. Then winter set in, and without a beach or a boyfriend, I
let myself go.

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But with spring here, even a rainy San Francisco spring, I found myself thinking I ought to wax. One of these days I'm sure to have either sex or sun in my life again. I feared the pain, but a friend recommended an esthetician whose waxing she swore by. I felt guilty about seeing someone besides Triss -- like I was cheating on her --
but I decided to try Susan, who used to work at a tony downtown salon.

As I settled in on the table, Susan entertained me with tales of waxing the rich and famous at her old job. "I used to have mothers come in to have me wax their 11- and 12-year-old daughters -- lipline, eyebrows, full leg, bikini. Sometimes the nannies would bring them in, and the nannies would
have to hold their hands. One little girl was so sweet; she was about 11. First I did her eyebrows and it really hurt. Then she said, 'What else does my mom want you to do?' And I had to tell her, 'Your lipline, too, sweetie.' And she just took it. I'll tell you, sometimes it felt like child abuse."
Susan asked if I wanted a wider line inside my "bikini." She seemed relieved when I said no. "Some women come in -- sometimes they're
'dancers,' sometimes not -- and they want what we used to call a 'Playboy strip.' Now they call it a 'landing strip' -- I call it the Hitler look. You can imagine it." I couldn't, so she traced the lines: just a long, narrow rectangle of hair, maybe an inch and a half wide. "That really hurts," she says, shaking her head. "You have to do little tiny strips of hair and it takes forever. That I don't understand."

I told her about my first-wax hickey and she said that can happen. "I heard of a woman who had to get 27 stitches from bikini waxing. The person who did it wasn't well trained -- she used too much wax and pulled off the skin, not just the hair." Luckily, she was finished because I closed my
legs involuntarily at that point.

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Susan put ice on my inner thighs immediately, which cut the sting. Although I had heard of waxing "happy trails," the fine line of hair that descends suggestively from the belly button, she went on to tell me about how any fuzzy body spot is fair game. "You'd be surprised how many men I wax -- shoulders, arms, backs, chests. And no, they're mostly not gay. I do eyebrows for some businessmen. And when I see these guys on the street, with their friends or girlfriends, I just pretend not to know them -- it would raise too many questions."

Susan helped me down off the table and handed me her bill. It was $20,
twice as much as at the other salon, and it hurt about the same. I did enjoy her stories. I could feel normal, well within the mainstream of slightly vain, still feminist, middle-class, middle-aged women. Yes, I wax, but I wax for me, not for a man. I don't wax my daughter. I don't have a landing
strip. Still, I'll probably go back to Triss next time and save the extra $10.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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