'Back, Crack and Sack' Pubic Shaving Trend Baffles Experts

The battle against body hair has reached the genital areas. Young people increasingly feel that their pubic hair is disgusting and unsexy and are undertaking drastic measures to get rid of it. The idea is a not new one, but the possible motives behind the current trend has a number of people worried.

Once again, the pornography industry pointed the way. In the late 1990s, the first female porn stars began appearing with shaved pubic regions. At the time, it was something novel. But these days, with most female porn stars having their pubic hair removed, women with natural pubic hair are gradually turning into oddities on pornography Web sites. They do show up here and there, of course, but only on fetishist sites featuring things like female dwarves and women clad in latex.

What's more, intimate-zone depilation isn't just popular among porn stars. In Germany, at least, the chances are increasing that the young lady next door is also experimenting in pubic-hair reduction as well.

According to a representative poll by Leipzig psychologist Elmar Brähler published this Monday, 50 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 25 admit to shaving their pubic hair. The study also shows that men in the same group are following their lead: A quarter of them either trim or remove their pubic hair.

It wasn't long ago that men were proud of their public hair, no matter where it happened to sprout. But now that seems to be changing. The devotees of the latest trend are removing much of their pubic hair and trimming the rest into playful diamonds or so-called "penis beards." Or perhaps they leave an "N" for Natasha or some other form of decorative pattern.

In the past, if you were waiting in a depilation studio, you'd usually find yourself in the company of women, bodybuilders and an almost exclusively gay male clientele. Nowadays, no man needs to feel ashamed when ordering the standard selection of treatments at the front desk: "back, crack and sack."

The reasons behind the trend are unclear. The depilated of both sexes like to say that the naked, smooth skin simply looks better and better groomed. Besides, they add, it makes sex more enjoyable when pubic hairs aren't constantly ending up in your mouth.

But now even children and teenagers are becoming interested in the issue of pubic hair removal. Many fail to realize that far from all adults are doing it. "They're convinced that this is the only thing to do," says Gudrun Schäfer, a youth educator at a branch in Tübingen of the "pro familia" organization, which offers a number of counseling and educational services related to sexual and reproductive rights.

Schäfer knows a lot about such things. She gives talks in schools, leads discussions in youth centers and provides online advice on the organization's "Sextra" sex-education Web site. She has found that teenagers as young as 14 or 15, who are just entering into puberty, are already waging battles against their pubic hair. "And most of them aren't doing it because they like to," says Schäfer, "but because they feel that pubic hair is disgusting and unhygienic."

In fact, young people have become so obsessed with hygiene that they now see their genitals as inherently dirty. For example, Schäfer says, you'll often find boys applying fragrant lotions to their penises, while girls are obsessively using vaginal douches and keeping genital wipes in their bags. "This borders on hygiene mania," she says.

All of the excitement is no accident. Young people have the media to thank for teaching them that normally hairy private parts are practically taboo these days. And study after study -- most of them funded by companies like Gillette, Philips and Wilkinson, who have cashed in on the trend -- are fueling this belief. According to a study conducted by the GfK market-research group that was commissioned by Wilkinson, 61.9 percent of women want men to shave their pubic hair. Similar sentiments apparently predominate among men, as can be seen from another recent study that concluded: "Unshaved women have fewer sex prospects."

Last November, Brähler came out with figures that were considerably more spectacular than his current results. At the time, a study he had conducted among university students concluded that 88 percent of women and 67 percent of men depilated their genital areas. Those numbers have since been circulating throughout the media. But they were based on a survey of only about 300 students at a university hospital. The new poll, on the other hand, provided representative results for the first time from 2,512 test subjects -- and the percentage of young men who said that they shaved their pubic hair precipitously dropped from close to 70 percent to a little more than 20 percent.

Experts are baffled by the phenomenon. "We can't explain it," Brähler says with a shrug. Nor has the newer study erased the world's memory of the older figures. Just last week, the conservative weekly paper Die Zeit declared in shocking, bold letters: "Shaving One's Pubic Hairs Has Become a Strict Fashion Necessity for Over Half of the Population." But if you believe the more recent report, the figure is actually much closer to 18.4 percent.

Social pressure to shave oneself is having a definite effect. Adolescent girls are more anxious because their genital region is now bare and more exposed to scrutiny. "The girls are very concerned about what they should look like down there," says Schäfer. The inner labia, which gradually becomes visible at this age, is often seen as unattractive because of its wrinkled and protruding appearance. As a result, says Schäfer, "people are increasingly asking me about surgery."

The fear of looking outlandish is not limited to adolescents. Adult women are also worried that their labia, which were previously semi-hidden by their pubic hair, could appear too large or saggy. "A woman's private parts have become her second face," says Aglaja Stirn, director of the Department of Psychosomatics at Frankfurt's J.W. Goethe University Hospital. And the same aesthetic principles are applied to both the face and the genitalia. "The labia should look youthful, well-proportioned and taut," says Stirn.

The History of Hirsuteness

The increasingly vocal nature of the debate over hair removal cannot be attributed solely to the number of people who have succumbed to the fashion. The issue is much more about man's image of himself. It's not just about a fad. It also has a bit to do with the eternally touchy topic of man's relationship to his inner mammal.

For thousands of years, body hair has been viewed as a legacy from prehistoric times and as the expression of the wildly libidinous and animal tendencies of Homo sapiens. And, for just as long, man has felt compelled to carefully prune any rampantly spreading undergrowth. For many cultures, trimming, plucking and twirling out pubic hairs is just part of life.

But we still haven't been able to completely eradicate body hair. In fact, having hair in the areas of the body where it remains has actually had an evolutionary reason behind it. For example, having hair in the crotch and in the armpits keeps one's skin from chaffing. At the same time, it also cools the body by helping sweat to evaporate and, if biologists are correct, it serves as a means of attracting genetically suitable romantic partners by producing particular scents.

The new aspect of the current hair removal movement is that it is spreading at about the same rate as clothing is becoming more scant. Hair removal on the legs and in the armpits began decades ago, and now the genital region is next.

Some psychoanalysts suspect that, behind the desire to shave one's public hairs, there is a secret desire to appear harmless, immature and infantile, so as not to scare away potential mates. That might have something to do with the trend of female pop stars cultivating the young girl look. But the turned-in knee looks and the innocent Bambi face they use in photo shoots doesn't only make them look childish. They also look a bit uptight -- and a bit slutty.

Does this mean that half a generation is backing away from an adult sex life? Precisely the opposite could be true, says Brähler: "Perhaps today's woman is so self-confident that she can afford to expose her charms without covering them up."

The thing working most strongly against the trend's appeal is all the work that goes into it. Even the biggest slaves to fashion can get tired of having to pull out the razor blade every couple of day or having to rip out their hair every few weeks with wax or depilatory devices. With names like "Cleanskin" or "Hairfree," whole new chains of stores promising long-lasting smoothness have appeared to help service this clientele. Hairfree, for example, is the market leader in Germany with 90 branches spread across the country. Some of these stores uses short bursts of light to cauterise hair roots. And there are plenty of dermatologists out there who are happy about all the extra cash being brought in by their expensive laser devices.

Of course, at least eight treatments, applied several weeks apart, are needed for each skin region. For those blessed with a bear chest à la Sean Connory, the process can last almost two years. This is because each hair passes through several phases of growth, and in each case the treatment must be applied during the right phase. This drives up prices. At Cleanskin, for example, a single back treatment costs €200-300 ($280-420), depending on the density of one's hair.

But the cost hasn't deterred customers, and the number of people seeking permanent hair removal is growing rapidly. "Sometimes parents show up with their children," says Ossi Casmir, the manager of a Cleanskin franchise in the southwestern German city of Wiesbaden. "They ask for their first hair removal as a present for their 18th birthday -- like it used to be with a driver's license."

But even with high-tech solutions, customers can't avoid the pain. During laser hair removal, you feel a pinch for each hair removed -- the thicker and darker the hair, the more uncomfortable its removal. "Facial hair is often the most difficult," says Anita Ruppenthal of Laderma, a laser hair removal clinic in Frankfurt. "Sometimes people even jump up out of the chair."

The idea of having one's facial hair removed might strike some as odd. But the fact is that more and more men are now having this done. "It's mainly bankers and other people who wear suits to work," says Ruppenthal. In their case, at least, the motivation is relatively straightforward. "They don't want to spend so much time shaving in the morning."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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