All illustrations by Ole Tillmann
My friend Kevin, who majored in philosophy at Berkeley and is now a civil rights lawyer, and who supports all sorts of good causes (economic equality, gun control, gay marriage, Palestinian statehood, shade-grown coffee), yelled at me the other day for setting him up with a woman who has the hint of a mustache. OK, more than a hint. Have you ever seen a photo of Frida Kahlo and been drawn lustfully, as I have, to her fabulous, thick eyebrows, those two dark arches flapping above her eyes like the outstretched wings of a raven? If you look closely at that photo, you’ll see two thin bands of gorgeous dark fuzz that seem to have been penciled in at 45-degree angles above each side of her upper lip. The woman I set Kevin up with, a beautiful and ferociously smart poet and translator named Jill, who graduated summa cum laude in comparative literature at a university Kevin was rejected from, and whom I dated years ago, has those same eyebrows, and that same dark fuzz, but in both cases a little darker and a little thicker.
She has armpit hair too, thick and dense and moist, not that Kevin discovered this since they didn’t make it past one quick drink at some bar. She also has leg hair running from her ankles to the top of her thighs (Kevin caught a glimpse of this when she crossed her legs), and a thick happy trail running down from her navel to her well untended vagina, not to mention forearm hair and rectal hair and hairs running around the circumference of her areolas and a little bit of delicious fuzz where her butt crack meets her lower back. In other words, Jill, like Kevin, is—eek!—a mammal with body hair. Gaby Hoffmann, when asked by two smooth ladies at the Sundance Film Festival about the fake super hairy vagina she wore in the movie Crystal Fairy, had this to say: “No. That’s just me. I’m a human. I have hair.” Exactly.
But back to angry Kevin. Weeks ago, when he told me he was “lonely” and “ready to settle down,” and wanted to know if I knew anyone who might be “remotely right” for him, he seemed to have few requirements: “You know what I’m looking for, man. Brilliant, not obese, knows how to tune a guitar. And she’s never set foot on Ibiza.”
“No prob,” I said, and immediately thought of Jill. Lithe, down-to-earth, speaks six languages, no makeup, a dead ringer for a young Patti Smith. The more I talked her up to him, telling him how hot she looked in her mom’s hand-me-down Marimekko dress, no bra, and those vintage Candie’s platforms, the sadder I was that I was no longer with her myself.
Their date lasted 45 minutes. Kevin told her he was “getting over food poisoning” and had to go home early. The next morning, he laid into me. “What were you thinking?” he hissed. “Why would you deliberately withhold from me the most relevant detail about her appearance?” It’s true that I withheld it. When Kevin couldn’t find a picture of her online—since she’s nowhere to be found on social media or anywhere else in cyberspace—and asked me to send him one, I lied and said I didn’t have any. The only picture I had of her showed her mustache quite clearly, and I knew that would be a deal-breaker. Many guys I had shown this picture to over the years had said to me, “I can’t get past it.” Kevin, I feared, would be no different. So I lied and said I didn’t have a picture. My best hope was that Kevin, the most progressive person I know, would, upon meeting Jill, realize that her mustache, when measured against her overall beauty and fabulousness, was trivial. My even better hope was that he would eventually, as I did, grow to hugely dig it.
“Was that really the most relevant detail about her appearance?” I countered. “I would think that her great body, or her great style, or her giant, luminous pale-blue eyes, or even the adorable way she squints those eyes and lowers her chin to her chest when she laughs, which maybe you never saw, since her mustache made you unfunny and sullen, were all equally strong candidates for the most relevant detail about her appearance. As it happens, I also withheld from her a crucial detail about your appearance, namely your highly visible nose hairs, and ear hairs, and sporadic patches of back hair.”
Kevin blushed. In defense of Jill, I had gotten too personal, and I immediately regretted it. For a few moments, both of us too embarrassed to speak, we stared at each other in silence, and I tried very hard not to look at his nose or ears. “You’re not being fair to me,” he finally said. “If there are limits to my open-mindedness, I’m sorry. But I never said I was a saint. If anyone was insensitive here, it was you. You send me on a blind date and expect me, spontaneously, with no warning of what I was facing, to magically overcome ideals of femininity that have been in place for, I don’t know, centuries? Longer? Statues of women in Ancient Greece, you know, did not have pubic hair.”
“And statues of men in Ancient Greece were so hairy? A sprig of pubes at most, and every now and then a beard, but otherwise smooth as marble. The ideal of hairlessness, judging from these statues, was apparently gender-neutral. But forget Ancient Greece. Let’s turn our attention to Modern America, where we live. Did you know that women in America did not shave their armpits until around 1915? And do you know why? Because an ad in Harper’s Bazaar, showing a woman in a sleeveless dress with a raised arm, told them to. ‘Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair,’ said the caption accompanying the picture of this modern dancing woman, and her armpit was appropriately hairless. Before this, American women were apparently unaware that their armpit hair was a problem. That their leg hair was a problem too was made clear to them even later, when dresses got shorter. These ‘ideals of femininity’ you refer to, in America at least, are of more recent vintage than you think.”
Kevin, now on the defensive, pushed back. “If I set you up with a woman who had a beard,” he said, “what would you do? Let’s say she’s brilliant, great figure, great style, speaks six languages, summa cum laude, looks great in her mom’s Marimekko dress, but she happens, unfortunately, to have a clearly visible layer of thick dark fuzz on her cheeks. Not common, but it happens. Unusually hairy women often have mild beards. Would you be able to see past it to her other positive qualities? And let’s go even further. What if this woman, instead of having a beard, had, like you, a receding hairline? Not common, but it happens. Women lose their hair too sometimes. Would you buck convention and go out with a balding woman? Or, like me, would you hypocritically hold her to a different standard than that to which you hold yourself?”
Now he was the one hitting below the belt. He had cornered me, and we both knew it. To live in society is to be socially conditioned. It’s unavoidable. Some of us manage better than others to resist it and go our own way. But who among us is perfect? Who was I, who would definitely have serious difficulty on a blind date getting past a woman’s beard or receding hairline, to point a finger at Kevin for having problems with Jill’s mustache?
In the spirit of conciliation, Kevin wondered if maybe we were being too hard on ourselves, and that we weren’t really hypocrites after all. “Holding women to a different standard of beauty than that to which we hold ourselves is only arbitrary if women and men are essentially the same,” he said. “But they aren’t. Men, generally, are much hairier than women, and have hair on places on their bodies that women generally don’t. Isn’t the conventional ideal of feminine beauty—namely, hairlessness—just a logical aesthetic extension of an objective biological distinction?”
It’s certainly an extension, I agreed, but I wasn’t sure how logical it was. Just because women generally have less hair on their bodies than men, and in fewer places, does this make it any less arbitrary to pressure them to get rid of all or most of it?
Let’s imagine, I said to Kevin, in an effort to try to think more impartially about this question, a hypothetical pre-societal state of unfettered hairiness, roughly around 10,000 BCHBEVAGMSISIETC (i.e., Before Cosmo and Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire and Vogue and Allure and Glamour and Maxim and the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” and every other magazine that tells women and men that female body hair is gross). In this ancient state of awesome hairiness, razors and lasers and tweezers and epilators and hot wax and electrolysis don’t yet exist, and so both men and women, all of them, have hair on lots of different places on their bodies. Legs and ass, toes and armpits, nipples and navels, pubes and ’staches, women and men have it all. Men generally have more hair than women do, sure, and in more places, but women are pretty hairy too. Sexual desire, in this state of hairiness, is never dampened by the sight of body hair. Hairy cavemen have sex with hairy cavewomen as much as possible, and always love it. In this state of hairiness, not once has a hairy caveman been heard to say to his buddies, after having sex with a hairy cavewoman, “Dude, it was disgusting. She had fuckin’ butt hair! And a full-on ’stache! Bro, I couldn’t get past it. It killed my wood.”
Now, I said to Kevin, imagine that we are going to build a new society from scratch, different from the one we have now, a society in which men and women will be treated differently only if there is a fair and rational basis for doing so. And to make sure we approach this task impartially, and that we don’t simply rebuild a society that makes life as advantageous for ourselves as possible, let’s imagine that we have no idea what our gender will be in this new society. Woman or man, we have no idea. It’s not in our power to choose. And since it’s entirely possible we will be women, we have to be very careful, because any social mores that disadvantage women could potentially hurt us. With all of this in mind, consider the following five approaches we could take to the issue of body hair: 1) both men and women should leave their body hair alone. Maybe some mild trimming around the nose and ears, but otherwise nothing; 2) both men and women, at great expense of time and money, and occasionally with great discomfort (rashes, ingrown hairs, stubble, etc.), should obsessively remove all of their body hair; 3) only men should obsessively remove all of their body hair, and women can do whatever they want; 4) only women should obsessively remove all of their body hair, and men can do whatever they want; or 5) both men and women can freely choose to do whatever they want, shave or not shave or occasionally shave, without advertisers and fashion magazines pressuring women to turn themselves into hairless mutants, and without women feeling ashamed, as many of my female friends do when they’ve been too busy to shave, when people stare at their hairy legs on the subway.
On what possible grounds, whether moral or aesthetic or hygienic or biological or any other grounds you can come up with, would a rational, self-interested person who stands an equal chance of being a woman in our hypothetical state of hairiness choose option #4?
On no grounds, of course. That women are pressured to be hairless, and men can do what they want and no one cares, is neither morally nor logically defensible. It’s an obvious point, an irrefutable point, and Kevin’s silence confirmed this. Then he smiled. And his eyes narrowed. There was some fight left in him. He wasn’t done yet. “I understand, intellectually, that holding women to a more stringent standard of beauty is unfair, arbitrary, and morally groundless,” he said. “We’re hypocrites! But, getting back to Jill, this doesn’t change what turns me on. When I see a woman with a mustache, or leg hair, or nipple hair, I can’t get hard. It’s that simple. I am the product of social conditioning, and I can’t help it. Desire can’t be manufactured. I can’t produce an erection at will. No amount of moral argument, no building a new society from scratch, will change that for me. And although I admire your indifference to conventional standards of feminine beauty, and am tempted to find it heroic, I also find it, to be frank, suspicious. You’re not simply tolerant of female body hair. You’re obsessed with it. For how many years, I wonder, have you been trying to set Jill up with your friends? She’s the hairiest woman you’ve ever known, I imagine, and you grew to love it, and ever since she dumped you, you’ve been trying to vicariously, through your friends, re-experience the thrill of it. But the sexual thrill you seem to get from talking about it, looking at it, touching it, is far out of proportion to any possible sexual stimulus it could provide. Female body hair, I suspect, has become a fetish for you. It has a strange symbolic power over you. For whatever reason (you can’t get over Jill?) it has taken hold of your subconscious. Or maybe it’s not about Jill. Maybe you’re gay and don’t know it, and female body hair is a temporary proxy while your sexuality sorts itself out. Regardless, you can’t resist it. And there is nothing heroic about submitting to something over which you have no control. You, no less than me, are a victim of your desire. And neither of us is morally admirable. Wanting women to be hairy is no different, really, from wanting them to be hairless. In both cases a man wants a woman to be something that she might not necessarily want to be. The reason you believe that women don’t freely choose to be hairless, and have simply been brainwashed by advertisers into believing that hairlessness is what they really want, is that you don’t believe that hairlessness is sexy. And just about every other man in America disagrees with you.”
Am I really so alone in thinking that female body hair looks good and feels good and smells good and tastes good? There are few sensations more pleasurable than the feeling of my cock against a woman’s leg hair. The cock is meant to be caressed. And that is exactly what leg hair does. There must be millions of men just like me, but we don’t know about them because they’re too scared to come forward. They’re scared of being called fetishists and freaks. In their defense, and in mine, I submit that a woman’s body hair is neither disgusting nor sexually irrelevant. It is not something to be passed over casually on the way to more obvious sources of pleasure. It is, rather, a sexual organ in itself, to be sniffed and licked and rubbed, pulled and tugged and braided, brushed and chewed and tasted. A woman’s thick happy trail is only disgusting or irrelevant if you don’t understand how the excitement of anticipation, for both man and woman, is enhanced by the slow and gentle struggle of the tip of the tongue as it makes its way down the shrubby path. Long hairs running around the circumference of a woman’s areolas are only disgusting or irrelevant if you don’t understand that the hairs are extensions, in a sense, of the nipple and areola itself, and that the feeling of the hairs in your mouth makes the nipple seem all the larger and riper and plumper. A tuft of hair on a woman’s lower back, just above the butt crack, is only disgusting or irrelevant if you’ve never fucked it.
And with hair, of course, comes sweat, and with sweat comes pungency, and pungent hair is suggestive of what? The vagina. A woman with a hairy body has essentially four vaginas—two armpits, the asshole, and the vagina itself. How could this be a problem for a man who calls himself a heterosexual, and who, suspiciously, claims I might be gay without really knowing it? Put yourself in my place, Kevin, in the following scenario: a phenomenally hairy woman is on top of you, fucking you vigorously. One of her armpits, dark and dense and moist, is pressed over your nose. One of your hands is buried in the other hairy armpit, massaging the wet sweaty hair in your fingers, while your other hand is fingering her asshole and occasionally bringing the tip of your middle finger to your nose to take a good deep whiff. It is at this point that your mind wrenches free from your body, no? You are no longer present on this planet. You are floating in an ether of pure vaginal splendor. A warm vaporous bath of sweat and hair and funk and pungency. I don’t know how else to put it. I can’t make a better case. If I haven’t convinced you, you’re hopeless.
Note: to protect the true identities of “Jill” and “Kevin,” whose names have been changed, certain identifying details in this article were altered. Some of the dialogue was also edited to make it seem more coherent than it really was. Jill’s hairiness, it should be noted, was not fabricated.