Trimming the bushes? How 2001.

The fashion in female hairlessness returns to pre-Brazilian times
Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Last week American Apparel set Twitter afire with news that mannequins at its Lower East Side store in New York now boast a healthy thatch of pubic hair. The merkins, evident through sheer lingerie, are intended to convey the “rawness and realness of sexuality,” a company rep said. But in making pubes public, the eager-to-shock retailer is decidedly lagging pubic-hair fashion, a topic given a thorough airing earlier this month when Cameron Diaz endorsed going au naturel in The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Amazing Body. One section of the book, titled “In praise of pubes,” extols the hair surrounding “that glorious, delicate flower of yours,” calling it “a pretty draping that makes it a little mysterious to the one who might be courting your sexiness.”

Removing it all is a recent fad, Diaz posits incorrectly (in fact, Egyptian women applied a toxic poultice of arsenic, starch and quicklime for statuary smoothness). Permanent laser removal, the 41-year-old writes, is “a crazy idea?.?.?.?your labia majora is not immune to gravity,” before asking: “Do you really want a hairless vagina for the rest of your life?”

One assumes Diaz (or her ghostwriter) meant “vulva,” not “vagina,” because otherwise the answer is a resounding “Yes!” But it’s a common error in a culture that uses the term “va-jay-jays.” Likewise, Diaz’s pubic-hair advocacy reflects a larger pendulum swing from the waxed Barbie-doll aesthetic. Last year, self-appointed taste-arbiter Gwyneth Paltrow admitted “I rock a ’70s vibe” on The Ellen Degeneres Show, a 180-degree swing from her cheerleading in the ’90s for the all-bare Brazilian introduced to New York City by the J Sisters salon. The mainstreaming of porn, where shorn shrubbery helps display the machinery, is routinely credited (or blamed) for hairlessness. But it was celebrities, including Paltrow and model Naomi Campbell, raving about their $75 monthly J Sisters visit that made it a fashion statement. Women who didn’t comply were mocked, seen in the 2001 movie Lovely and Amazing, in which Emily Mortimer played an actress who asked for a full-body critique from her lover: “The bush needs a trim,” he tells her. Mortimer reported men would shout to her in the street: “Do something about that bush, girl.” Such directives underlined the hair-removal industry: “Mow the lawn!” a 2009 Schick ad barked.

By 2010, strip malls boasted waxing salons and fashion was getting bored with the denuded look. Vogue fawned over Betty, “colour for the hair down there,” a dye in 10 hues that suggested there was hair down there. The cutting-edge British fashion magazine Love featured nude models on its cover, including Campbell, all with pubic hair. Suddenly, pubic hair’s presence, not absence, was risqué. The shocked response echoed that to Goya’s Maja Desnuda, viewed as pornographic in 1800 for showing female pubic hair.

So it wasn’t surprising that a 2013 poll of nearly 2,000 women by a U.K. online pharmacy found 51 per cent don’t “style or groom their pubic hair”; 45 per cent can “no longer be bothered to keep up the grooming”; 62 per cent said their partner “prefers the natural look.” In part, the Brazilian blowback is practical. It’s expensive; it can lead to infections; it summons pain that Christopher Hitchens likened to “being tortured for information that you do not possess” when he underwent a “Boyzillian” for Vanity Fair.

Women’s refusal to return to their prepubescent state also reflects a defiance seen in Caitlin Moran’s seven-page appreciation of pubic hair in How to be a Woman: “Lying on a hammock, gently finger-combing your Wookie whilst staring up at the sky is one of the great pleasures of adulthood.” Pubic hair’s return also eliminates creepier by-products of hairlessness: “vajazzling” and comparing nether regions, which gave rise to labia envy, “labia loathing,” and the market for cosmetic labiaplasty. Now we get to watch ad agencies court women by celebrating pubic diversity; last fall, the U.K.’s Mother London staged a “Project Bush” photo exhibit of 93 “London lady gardens in all their variety.” After that, American Apparel’s bid to play the trump card is strictly bush league.