"Ahhhh, Kelly Clarkson!" The politics — and sexual politics — of our hair removal obsession

The modern history of waxing and shaving is also the story of porn, movies, immigration and sexuality

By Rebecca M. Herzig
March 28, 2015 10:00PM (UTC)
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Steve Carell in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"

When asked about pubic hair removal, most American women tend to describe their efforts as a form of “self-enhancement”—a way to feel cleaner and more attractive. While some report opting to remove hair in accordance with their sexual partners’ preferences (and specifically, to encourage their partners to perform oral sex), most instead stress themes of hygiene and sexual desirability. Beginning in the early 2000s, popular media reinforced these themes, tying complete genital waxing to celebrity glamour. Gwyneth Paltrow’s relatively early adoption of total genital waxing was widely reported to have “changed her life”; Kirstie Alley described the feeling as “like a baby’s butt, only all over.” The enhancement provided by complete genital waxing also became a plot element in popular film: in the 2006 comedy "The Break-Up," the newly single female protagonist, played by Jennifer Aniston, goes “full Telly Savalas” and walks naked through the condominium she still shares with her ex in order to tease and entice him.

Male hair removal, too, was promoted and understood as a form of self-enhancement, as signaled by the coining of the term “manscaping,” generally traced to a 2003 episode of the television program "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Much of the attention to male waxing in mainstream popular culture focused on chests and backs, as in the actor Steve Carell’s expletive-laced chest wax in the 2005 Universal Studios comedy, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (a scene that spawned dozens of imitative, homemade videos on YouTube). But the advent of male fashion trends, such as low-riding jeans, that focused on the pubic area and buttocks also drew scrutiny to previously covered areas of the body. Some commentators further speculated that both gay and straight men, influenced by pornography, began removing their pubic hair as a way to make their penises appear longer. Male privates, too, were now public, and were subject to elective enhancement.



The cultural unveiling  of genitalia in popular film, television, and online forums stemmed from the steadily increasing commercialization of erotic images over the twentieth century, and particularly the liberalization of censorship laws beginning in the late 1960s. In Redrup v. New York (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of consenting adults in the United States to possess and read written fiction with ostensibly obscene subjects without interference from the state; in Stanley v. Georgia (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that possession of other “obscene materials” in the private home was not subject to government regulation. Four years later, the Court’s decision in Miller v. California effectively  rendered “pornography” legally meaningless at the federal level, by allowing individual states to set “community  standards” of decency. With a few important exceptions (such as child pornography, which the Court held enjoyed no constitutional protection under the First Amendment), individual states could henceforth determine their own laws regarding pornography. Although in some jurisdictions the effect of these changes was to curtail access to pornographic material, the more general trend was to render films and publications more genitally explicit. Entrepreneurs opted to risk fines or jail time for showing more overt material in exchange for larger sales.

Pubic hair was a key element of this strategy. The first widely circulated pornographic film to show pubic hair, Michelangelo Antonioni’s "Blow Up," was released in 1966; in August 1969, the American dancer and actress Paula Kelly became the first model in a Playboy pictorial to display plainly visible pubic hair.   Spying the lucrative potential of these efforts, theater owners began pushing films with full female nudity concentrated on the genitals—so-called beaver films. The Roxie Cinema in San Francisco ran a steady program of titles such as "Beaver Picnic," "Beavers at Sea," "Beavers in Bloom," "Eager Beavers Demanding Their Rights," and "Beaver Protest." The popularity of more explicit films spurred development of smaller venues, which could evade community zoning regulations because they had too few seats to qualify as “theaters.” As pornographic theaters and arcades proliferated, directors and producers began experimenting with still more graphic content: spread labia (“split beavers”), manipulation of the genitals (“action beavers”), and the addition of sound (“talking beavers”).


As the name implies, “beaver” films focused on female pubic hair. But as pornographic  producers continually sought to up the ante on graphic content to remain competitive, they also branched into new areas. In 1975, Hustler magazine published photographs of very young models without visible pubic hair under the headline “Adolescent Fantasy.” The feature provoked “enthusiastic responses” from male readers and organized outrage from feminists: the political action group Women Against Pornography coalesced the following year. To critics, the popularity of the Hustler spread affirmed Harriet Lyons and Rebecca Rosenblatt’s contention that American hair removal practices demonstrated a “preoccupation” with the “infantile sexlessness” of little girls. Whatever led producers of pornographic content to move toward hairless female models, move they did: content analyses confirm a sharp decline in visible pubic hair on nude centerfold models, as well as a tendency to minimize the appearance of the labia majora and minora. One retired porn actress recalled of her work in the 1980s, “I posed with a full bush. No one in adult entertainment shaved back then. Now everyone does.”

How influential were such pornographic images on ordinary people’s grooming habits? Studies suggest that consumption of porn does in fact affect hair removal practices. The prevalence of bare genitals in pornographic material, one review concludes, leads “to a perception that bare genitals are more erotic.” And, by the turn of the twenty-first century, most American women as well as men reported having viewed pornography. Aestheticians report not only that many men ask their wives and girlfriends to imitate the looks displayed  by porn actresses and models, but also that women often request their first full genital waxes as special “surprises” for their partners before weddings, anniversaries, or Valentine’s Day.

While the appeal of hairless genitals owes much to changing pornographic and mainstream media, the rapid diffusion of total genital depilation would not have been possible without access to affordable, effective tools of hair removal. Waxing fit this bill well. One of the oldest techniques of hair removal still in wide use, waxing entails the application of a heated compound of natural and/or synthetic materials to unwanted hair. Once the hair adheres to the cooling and hardening goo, it is yanked out, either with the application of supplemental cloth strips or, if the wax is of the “hard” variety, without. Evidence of the similar use of resins for this purpose dates to ancient Egypt.  More recently, sixteenth-century English memoirs discuss the use of shoemaker’s waxes to combat “hirsute intruder[s],” while nineteenth-century medical treatises recommend  combinations such as “Plaister[s] made of very dry pitch” pulled off with leather.  Yet the use of waxes to remove hair was relatively rare in the United States before the twentieth century, limited to the occasional use of the melted tip of a candle or stick of sealing wax to remove stray whiskers. As distaste for hair growth on arms, armpits, and lower legs accelerated after World War I, interest in waxes increased. Innovative entrepreneurs began manufacturing and distributing hair removing waxes through the federal postal system, recruiting customers through advertisements placed in popular women’s magazines. Under names that generally played on received Orientalist tropes (e.g., “Moorish Haire Removing Wax”) or the prestige of modern science (“the Lanzette Method”), companies repackaged common sealing waxes as glamorous products. Some, like the wildly popular “Zip” wax, combined a wax hair remover with a sulfide depilatory cream.


Most of today’s waxes bear only passing resemblance to those earlier compounds. Although homemade pastes made from some sticky combination of sugar, honey, lemon, and water remain in use, popular commercial  waxes are now generally based on a sludgy consequence of industrialized petroleum refining called “slack wax,” supplied from small batch distributers located near major oil refineries.   Slack wax, a combination of oil and water, is heated, mixed with solvents, and then chilled; as it cools, more refined wax crystallizes out. Wax specifications such as melting point, penetration, and oil content may be adjusted by controlling the temperature and rate of cooling and by adding solvents. The wax is then further refined, passing through a bed of clay to remove color and through a vacuum stripping tower to remove odor. These refined waxes are blended together to generate particular properties, and further blended with polymers or other petroleum by-products to generate additional flexibility or glossiness.  Anticipating increasing pressure on the availability of petroleum derivatives, natural wax producers are already gearing up for increased exports of cosmetic-grade wax.

The conversion of petroleum waste into valuable by-product has been expedited by the current regulatory climate, which separates regulated “drugs” and largely unregulated “cosmetics.” In the United States, hair removing waxes—like other compounds intended to be applied to the surface of the skin, such as lipsticks and nail polishes—fall under the regulatory directives of the “cosmetics” section of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. This classification means that both hair removing waxes and their myriad ingredients are released from mandatory premarket testing procedures. (In contrast, the depilation of nonhuman mammals in U.S.-based meat and leather production is subject to relatively intensive federal and state surveillance.) In the absence of mandatory federal regulation of technologies used “merely” for “cleansing, beautifying, or promoting attractiveness,” brands proliferate: literally thousands of different hair removing waxes are now available to consumers. The leading manufacturer in the United States, GiGi Wax, is a trademark of American International Industries, founded in 1971 and now one of the largest privately held beauty companies in the country.  The excrescences of transnational oil production have been turned into gold.



That conversion would  not have been possible  without the swift and massive shift in capital from crumbling manufacturing sectors into producer and consumer services after 1970. Already by 1977 private and public service employment  accounted for two-thirds of all jobs in the United States, with novel health and beauty services comprising a significant slice of the sector. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, gross receipts from “personal care services” between 1997 and 2002 grew at a rate of 42 percent.  Rapid expansion in American  cosmetic products and services was mirrored in other parts of the affluent world, as capital investment in industrial manufacturing similarly shifted to service sectors. By 2003, the skin care segment of the global cosmetics industry alone was generating more than $24 billion annually, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs. Established conglomerates such as Unilever or Procter & Gamble began devoting significant resources to acquiring and consolidating their share of the beauty business, as when the luxury goods holding company LVMH purchased the fledgling cosmetic lines Hard Candy and Urban Decay.

As markets for such consumer services segmented and matured over the closing decades of the twentieth century, investors and service providers struggled to identify and cultivate new fields of income growth: hair removal provided a lucrative answer to that problem (recall that American women who wax spend an average of twenty-three thousand dollars on hair removal over the course of a lifetime). Some previously untapped populations—teenagers, men, and high-income older women—were encouraged to adopt novel practices of depilation. Some longstanding  habits of hair removal, such as care of the eyebrows, were given fresh emphasis; one search reveals a 232 percent increase in references to “eyebrow waxing” in English-language publications between 1984 and 2000. Along with waxing, other labor-intensive methods of hair removal were promoted. Among the most popular was threading (also known as bande abru or khite), in which the skilled practitioner pulls a doubled, twisted thread over the unwanted hair.


At the same time, previously ignored regions of body hair— such as hair on the back, anus, or perineum—were newly targeted for modification. Waxing is often the technique of choice for such regions, since it is far more efficient and cost-effective for removing hair from irregular patches of skin than plucking, threading, or electrolysis. It is for this reason that industrial poultry production often relies on hot wax for defeathering.

Each area of the body, in turn, might be managed iteratively. Because a Brazilian may be repeated every three to six weeks, a consumer might visit one salon this month and a second salon the next, depending on price, ease of purchase, and other factors, or to adopt one pattern of pubic topiary at one turn and another subsequently.  One could first try a design called a “Tiffany’s Box,” in which pubic hair is shaped, bleached, and dyed into the robin’s-egg-blue square typical of the luxury jeweler’s  packaging; one could subsequently wax the skin bare and add a heart-shaped pattern of glued-on crystals or feathers. Rendering more and more hair “superfluous” and incessantly modifiable in such a way provides recurrent sources of economic growth.



Service labor is at the heart of that growth. Because it is fairly difficult to remove one’s own hair from some of the regions of the body now targeted for cosmetic treatment—the anus, say—depilation usually requires the paid or unpaid labor of a skilled second person. Moreover, because that labor cannot be conducted remotely (as many other kinds of medical, educational, and financial services can be), it cannot be outsourced to workers in distant locations. The service workers who perform the sticky work of genital waxing are tied to their client’s bodily location. In this sense, genital waxing bears important similarities to the forms of service provision—housekeeping,  child care, elder care— more typically studied by theorists of postindustrial labor. The analogic relationship between hair removal and such labor was handily summarized by aesthetician Pegi Carnahan in 2003: “What makes a Brazilian a Brazilian,” said Carnahan, “is when I ‘clean the basement.’” At the time of that interview, Carnahan was cleaning at least five “basements” a day in a Seattle beauty salon.

Just  as with housework, sex work, and in-home dependent care, the tedious and inescapably manual labor of body waxing is subject to remarkably little legislative or professional oversight, whether practiced in salons or in homes. In the United States, each state crafts its own laws and statutes concerning sanitation, sterilization, and infection control, as well as those regulating the boundaries between medicine and cosmetology or between cosmetology and other nonmedical licensed specialties such as “aesthetics.” Even where relatively strong laws and regulations do exist, there is little money for enforcement. The Enforcement Unit of the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, for example,  employs only fifteen inspectors  for the entire state. Given overwork, boards generally only investigate salon workers once a complaint has been filed.

And, just as with housework, sex work, and in-home dependent care, the relative lack of oversight of waxing labor offers some degree of worker autonomy. Small business ownership, for instance, is relatively accessible, with low overhead costs, a number of favorable tax deductions, and the prospect of flexible working hours. The appeal of small business ownership in this realm is clear: in the United States, more than 40 percent of the revenues in hair, nail, and skin services are made by businesses without paid employees, while the average for other industries  is 3.5 percent. Self-employment also provides avenues for creative experimentation and expression, as evidenced by aestheticians developing styles such as the Tiffany’s Box. So, too, the intimacy and repetition of waxing labor can generate strong bonds between providers and clients.

At the same time, the distinctive closeness of pubic, perineal, and anal waxing can make relations between consumers and service providers complicated, as with other kinds of intimate body care. As sociologist  Miliann Kang observes in her path-breaking study of manicuring, body service labor not only entails prolonged physical contact between worker and client but also the management of emotion reflected and generated through that physical contact. Such emotional work is often made more challenging by differences in affluence, language, and/or citizenship status. In the case of total genital depilation, emotional labor is made yet more intense by the pain of the procedure. In one 2002 interview, an aesthetician described a client who


thrashes around so violently that I’m afraid she’s going to break the table and spill hot wax all over both of us. She’ll kick her legs, rip the paper table-cover, throw the towels onto the floor, and scream “Goddamn you! That hurts!” When it’s all over, she gives me a big hug and says “See you in a month.”

Indeed, to be “waxed to the max” is sufficiently painful that salons routinely recommend that clients consume alcohol or over-the-counter painkillers prior to treatment: Sherri Shepherd, who received her first Brazilian wax on national television during her popular talk show "The View," declared the feeling “worse than having a baby.” Jonice Padhila, one of the women alternately credited with or blamed for bringing the practice of total genital depilation to the United States, noted that “[s]ometimes I walk by [the waxing room] and hear screams.” Due to the intensity of the yanking involved in the procedure, waxing is counter-indicated for individuals using drugs that increase skin sensitivity or easy bruising: Retin-A, Accutane, tetracycline, the blood thinners Coumadin and Warfarin, and some drugs used to treat epilepsy. One salon made light of the pain of the procedure by setting a video montage of clients grunting and cursing during their waxing procedures to the distinctive tune of the “Blue Danube” waltz: rip rip, ouch, ouch.

Again, such complex emotional and physical encounters remain remarkably free of regulatory oversight—including protections for the service  providers. No existing  state  statutes govern acceptable demands on the rate or pace of waxing work itself. One 2004 hair removal manual chirpily noted that a “technician, with training and practice, can become a ‘speed waxer,’ cutting the typical service time in half and increasing profits.” For the self-employed aesthetician  or cosmetologist, speed can translate into higher earnings; but for the worker employed by a large franchise or owner-operated  salon, expectations of speed can simply be exhausting and debilitating, akin to the strict time-management regimes imposed in other domains of work. Waxers may be subject to repetitive strain injuries and exposure to noxious chemicals as well as thrashing, barking, whimpering clients. It is revealing in this regard that the aestheticians depicted in recent popular representations of Brazilian waxing—from "Sex and the City" to "The Break-Up" to Sherri Shepherd’s video diary on "The View"—all appear to be female migrants from Southeast  Asia or former Soviet republics. Brazilian waxing, like other kinds of feminized service labor, relies on the mobile women workers moving through the “lower circuits” of global restructuring. It is revealing indeed that when discussing the production of shunned, “wasted,” disposable workers in the contemporary global economy, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman likened these “collateral casualties of progress” to the ritual removal of hair.

Yet popular discussions of waxing focus almost exclusively on the experiences of clients, and whether they, consumers, are “enslaved” or “empowered.” Although the political status of women and women’s bodily self-determination  is the recurrent theme of most of these accounts, descriptions of men’s genital waxing also have come to emphasize similar themes of domination. When, in late 2007, the writer Christopher Hitchens decided to undergo a Brazilian wax at the hands of New York’s J. Sisters, he likened the process to “being tortured for information that you do not possess." Hitchens’s choice of terms is particularly striking given that the following summer, in the midst of debates over the treatment of U.S. detainees  at Guantánamo, he subjected himself to waterboarding in order to determine whether suffocation by water was indeed torturous. (Hitchens ruled that it is.)

Even as recent disputes over the “liberating” or “oppressive” nature of genital waxing tend to erase the broader contexts of the practice, they reproduce twined assumptions about suffering and consent. Whether an act was considered truly “voluntary” affected commentators’ perceptions of its violence, and vice versa. What— and who—might get to qualify as suffering would continue to inform evolving practices of hair removal, even as Americans began shifting from sticky waxes to more high-tech solutions.


Excerpted from "Plucked: A History of Hair Removal" by Rebecca M. Herzig. Published by New York University Press. Copyright © 2015 by New York University. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Rebecca M. Herzig

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