Rhonda makes her customers wait outside. There’s a convenient park bench to the right of the glass door entrance. Customers wait there for Rhonda to unlock the door. They wonder if passers-by deduce their reasons for sitting alone on this bench. They clasp their crossed legs a little tighter, just in case.
The extra cloth stretching across my midsection somehow rendered me a second-class citizen. The boys at the pool circled my friend, whose exposed skin attracted them like chum to sharks. But she was a willing victim, testing out the power of her body, the bikini stings straining at the right spots. She had power. I pulled my monogramed, nursery-colored towel tighter around my body.
Web MD advises, “Treat razor burn and ingrown hairs by gently exfoliating the affected area with a washcloth in the shower. You can also trim the hair short—but avoid shaving—until the redness and irritation has subsided.”
Rhonda’s shop is full of vulvas. The blinds serve as panties, hiding away the delicate parts of a body contained within. There are books: The Great Wall of Vulva, Vagina: A New Biography, The Big Coloring Book of Vaginas. There is a tray of what seems like tissues but are actually plaster-cast vulvas. Some are small and compact, like rosebuds. Others are long and flat, like oak tree leaves. They sit in the open air, unashamed.
There is a tray of what seems like tissues but are actually plaster-cast vulvas. Some are small and compact, like rosebuds. Others are long and flat, like oat tree leaves. They sit in the open air, unashamed
The skin under the stomach hair grew dry and scaly reptilian secret. “I didn’t have anything like that until after I had you kids,” Mom said. I was well aware of the disgust in her voice. I quit swim team. I wore shorts to the pool.
Web MD says, “Resist the urge to perform DIY surgery on razor bumps and ingrown hairs. The bump could get infected and you might be left with an ugly scar. You can try gently lifting ingrown hairs with a toothpick, but don’t use anything too sharp. If the hair doesn’t lift easily, stop, and if the area is tender or hot to the touch, see your doctor.”
In Rhonda’s workroom, blurred pictures of the female form line the wall, with only one or two body parts in focus: a nipple here, an elbow there, a few hips. The blurred naked forms are not sexual. They’re only shapes. Hairless shapes. Rhonda tells you to take off your pants and where to leave your panties.
I tried bleaching kits. The skin stung and hissed but the hair remained. I tried wax. I got it all over the bathroom but the hair remained. I ordered avant-garde products from the internet and infomercials. I couldn’t bear to bring a razor to the otherwise soft skin of my stomach, to set into motion a lifetime of stubbled stomach skin, to come so close to a form of self-harm.
“Sienna Miller’s preference for a Brazilian created a slight problem while she was working on her upcoming film, Hippie Hippie Shake, which takes place in the 1960's. ‘Sienna's private parts were digitally enhanced, giving her a rather unruly, loud and proud bush,’ an insider told Female First, after revealing that an old-fashioned merkin failed to do the trick.”
Rhonda motions for you to sit on a hospital-style check-up table. She waits patiently while you scramble up, hyper aware of your half-nakedness. She inexplicably puts a fan between your legs and aims it at the target area. She asks if you’re nervous and then laughs, but not cruelly.
Rhonda tells you to take off your pants and where to leave your panties
Self-consciousness spreads like a skin rash, the kind you get from a barrage of non-FDA approved hair removal cosmetics. Side effects include loss of voice, lack of motivation for social activities, feelings of inadequacy, shame, and social withdrawal. Treatments include ugly glasses and schoolmarm ponytails and sarcasm.
"When someone recently asked me what I think the biggest challenge is for young women today my on-the-spot answer wasn't about equality in the workplace or combating misogyny, but what do to with their pubes.”
Rhonda first asks you why you’re getting waxed. If you look like you’re “going to slaughter,” or answer that your boyfriend/husband/fuck buddy asked you to, Rhonda refuses to wax you. She doesn’t charge a cancellation fee, but she spends the duration of the appointment giving you a pep talk and a lecture in laywoman feminism.
Liquid courage worked better than wax. I went to parties because they’re dark. I let hands grope around the edges of my secrets. Men threatened to discover what lay beneath my party dress, but I held them to the edges of my insecurities. Hair is the best kind of self-imposed birth control. I tried to let their desire cure me without letting them see me. Everyone left disappointed.
Daniel Smith from Essex told the Daily Mail, "I like it interesting, like unwrapping a present and finding a surprise. I do prefer some hair so a design like the landing strip or heart shape is good for me and no surprise, vajazzling is popular in our town."
Rhonda asks what kind of hairstyle you want. You peer up at her expectant face with confusion. You don’t know what you want, just wax something. She hands you a hand-drawn hairstyle menu, little color penciled legs with pizza-shaped triangles of varying sizes. One is shaped like a heart; one is like an ocean wave. One includes no hair at all. You point at it like a dart missing the bullseye.
So many women look with wonder at the names for their own bodies
But this guy was different. The room was blank and dark so there was nothing to concentrate on except each other. I didn’t want to concentrate on anything else anyway. Furtive feelings and tepid touches escalated as the hours dwindled into single digits. Counting down to the grand reveal, the great tapestry of my secrets to be laid bare on my abdomen. Still, I left before I let him in, regret burning more than any depilatory cream.
www.getwaxing.com says, “Later, the Greeks adopted this ideal of smoothness. The old Greek sculptures show us that. The sculptures of women are polished, shiny and all, and there is no pubic hair at all, whereas the sculptures of men do show pubic hair! The Greeks thought pubic hair on women was ugly and upper class ladies removed it. The Romans did not like pubic hair either and young girls began removing it as soon as it first appeared.”
Rhonda asks you if you know where your vagina is. You look at her incredulously. Your vagina seems incredibly obvious: a sticky wax elephant in the room. But Rhonda explains that the vagina is never waxed; it is only the hole, the hole where penises and tampons go. The rest, the neglected rest, is called the vulva. So many women look with wonder at the names for their own bodies.
I let Rhonda see me naked before he does. Rhonda is the first person to see me naked since the last time it was appropriate for my mother to see me naked. I thought it would be harder after years of ardent concealing. But her matter-of-factness seeps into my skin while she spreads hot wax all over me. “This is a lot of hair,” she says. Even professionals agree.
Roger Friedland writes in The Huffington Post, “Shearing genital hair cleans up the zone. It displays free-standing sex organs, separated from reproductive sense, staging a physical encounter between erect boys and open girls in a magical garden where one can live forever.”
I am jealous of how easily he takes off his shirt, his pants. No hesitation, no preparation
Rhonda is writing a book. She bites her lip and says it isn’t ready yet. She is just an esthetician, not a writer. She tells every client about it in hopes that one will have a connection or an idea or just encouragement. Currently, her ideas live in a fifty-page Microsoft Word document and a repurposed Anthropologie catalog filled with pasted clip art and pictures of diverse genitalia—and in the pants of many local women.
“Have you ever had a boyfriend that liked all your hair?” Rhonda asks. This had never occurred to me as a possibility. I never let anyone try. I shake my head. I’m actually thinking about how I’ll find out the answer tonight. “I did once,” she overshares. “He couldn’t get enough. But I like it bald, I like to feel my smooth lips.”
Porn star Sasha Gray was naked on the television show Entourage without shaving her pubic hair. Salon reports the men of Twitter’s reaction:
Yea she had a sicko BUSH
Sasha Grey had an ENORMOUS fucking 70s bush. WTF
That shit was so uncalled for
Sasha Grey really should shave her bush
Entourage was wild. So was Sasha Grey’s bush. #EW
did anyone else think that was disgusting. ITS 2010!
Rhonda hates food-related euphemisms for vulvas. They imply a consumer-based approach, she argues. It makes it seem like vulvas are only for eating. Plus, they sound gross. “Cake?” she spats. “I hate cake!” She smiles when she says her friend let her daughters pick out names for their vulvas. One of them calls it Sparkle Princess. Rhonda approves.
After leaving Rhonda’s, I meet with him for lunch. He wants to know how it was. I cannot tell him, partially because I’m embarrassed and partially because he has no frame of reference for these things. I am jealous of how easily he takes off his shirt, his pants. No hesitation, no preparation. I can’t imagine him standing in front of the mirror, scrutinizing every detail, removing every hair.
Porn star Sasha Grey responded to the controversy on Twitter: "A lot of bush comments after tonight's #Entourage episode. If you're curious...that's what a grown woman looks like. Besides, I shave where it counts. I'm happy to contribute to making it ok again:) All 'fashions' have their cycles!"
Rhonda wants to sell a line of products with her book. She says getting a bikini wax should be like getting a haircut—you should also learn a maintenance routine. She pitched the idea to a businesswoman who promised to help her develop and market her ideas; the businesswoman propositioned her sexually. Rhonda pitched her idea to an entrepreneurial group that helped her start her bar; they were too uncomfortable with vulvas.
I felt embarrassed for being the kind of women who must be told that, to hear the earnest usage of the word gorgeous, to see the honesty in his eyes
He told me my body was gorgeous and I laughed. Not a nervous giggle but an actual guffaw. It was not the reaction he was hoping for. But the melodrama of the moment struck me at just the right angle. I felt embarrassed for being the kind of woman who must be told that, to hear the earnest usage of the word gorgeous, to see the honesty in his eyes.
Ashley Fetters writes in The Atlantic, “When a team of researchers from George Washington University took a closer look at Playboy's representations of women's genitalia throughout the years, they found that in issues dating from the magazine's inception in 1953 up through the 1970s and '80s, more than 95% of the centerfolds and naked models sported full, apparently natural pubic hair.”
Rhonda writes out a short feminist reading list for her clients while she waits for the credit card transaction to go through. Many of the people she recommends she’s sought out, tracked down, met with, asked for advice. Some disappointed her, others encouraged her. She believes in hunting down her heroes.
He instinctively turned off the lamp so only the techno-glow of my alarm clock illuminated my increasingly exposed flesh. You couldn’t see the pink tint from the waxing in the ethereal light. There was not a trace of disgust on his face, only wonder and appreciation. His touch made me want to collapse into clichés. For once, I didn’t feel compelled to hide.
The Associated Press reports, “The October issue of Seventeen Magazine is too racy for the Albertsons' supermarket chain. Close-up drawings detail various parts of the female anatomy, under the headline ‘Owner's Manual’. But there's plenty of racy stuff still on the Albertsons' magazine rack, including Men's Health with an article called ‘Six Secret Ways to Turn Her On.’”
Rhonda doesn’t charge me for my $50 waxing if I promise to read her book. She makes this deal after I tell her I’m a writer and a feminist. Suddenly, I am bold and she is shy. “I’m not a good writer,” she says. I tell I’ll be glad to help her out the best I can, even though I’m just a student. She smiles. I put my pants back on.
Song: Like a Virgin – Madonna
References available on request
illustration by Andrea Coates
Andrea Coates’ work focuses on deconstructing mass media images as well as the performance of femininity. Her practice involves the collection and alteration of appropriated photographs and material, as well as paper, object and digital collage, and photography. @andreacoates www.andreacoates.com
Samantha McCormick is from North Carolina, where she teaches high school English and writes on the side. She graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2015 where she majored in English and minored in creative writing and journalism. @McCormickSam