Sometimes it hurts to be a woman.
It was 10 AM on a Sunday in February. The day was crisp and clear, the sun bright. The New York City streets were filled with eager weekend socializers heading to brunch dates and leisurely park jogs. I too had risen early and made the trek into Manhattan, but not to feast on $15 frittatas or enjoy a brisk run. Instead I was headed to an esthetician in Chelsea for the sole purpose of getting every single hair on and around my vagina ripped out with half a jar of scalding wax.
To clarify: until the moment I sashayed into the salon, I was a depilation virgin, a rare breed in millennial America and an even rarer breed in the island nation of Manhattan. I’d never gotten anything waxed in my life, not even any part of my face. I consider this one of my strongest personal traits. That I tumbled out of the womb with naturally manicured eyebrows is one of my greatest blessings, something I wouldn’t hesitate to include in online dating profiles and professional resumes. I don’t have stray mustache hairs, under-chin peach fuzz or female mutton chops. When I’m feeling blue, “no excessive body hair” is a go-to on my pep list of Things That Are Good In Life (right after “born white and middle-class in America” and “have job”.)
But after several years of listening to my female friends compare notes, I decided the time had finally come to see what the big deal was. Eyebrow waxes and leg waxes be damned; I knew if I was going to do this for the sake of journalism I was going to have to delve deeper. Everyone I knew had been raving for years about full bikini waxes (so clean! so tidy!) So I put on my game face and booked an appointment for a “Hollywood” wax (which, I was told, is a Brazilian sans landing strip). My friends looked at me skeptically. “Don’t you think you should ease into it?” one of them implored over dinner. No! If I was going to do this right, I better go whole hog.
And so here I found myself on said Sunday morning, leafing through a two-month old copy of Marie Claire and waiting my turn. The place looks pristine and slightly impersonal, but I figure it’s better to err on the side of sterile when getting goo poured into your labia. Like a slack-jawed teenage boy, I can’t stop staring at the women coming in and I can’t stop thinking about their vaginas. Are they in for the full treatment or just partial? Do they have vaginal stubble right now? Have they done this many times before? Do they have more sex than me? Is bald sex better sex? Are they secretly terrified too? To distract myself, I read the service “menu.” They’ve got chest waxes. Body hair aside, what kind of woman requires a chest wax? A male one? They’ve also got butt cheek waxes, feet waxes, and shoulder waxes. Almost everything costs at least $20, except for the hand wax which is $9 per hand. My ogling melts into vague compassion. I start to sympathize with people who take it upon themselves to do this regularly. It seems like an extraordinarily costly, painful, and effortful upkeep.
The receptionist calls my name and I head into the back, where an esthetician named Olga* is waiting. Olga is giant and has a thick eastern European accent; I instantly want to earn her approval, and silently hope I don’t scream like a pig because I can tell that she’s the type that doesn’t cotton to pig-screamers. She brusquely orders me to remove my underwear and put on a pair of disposable paper panties. Then she leaves. I do as I’m told. Like a limp doll with one eye loose, I wait dully on the waxing table for her to return with whatever tool kit she is amassing. I assume there will be some kind of paper, a bunch of goopy wax, a couple of popsicle sticks, maybe some sort of tongs just for tongs’ sake, and potentially a little baggy of Mini Oreos – in case I pass out and need to recalibrate my glucose levels.
I feel nervous, in the way that I generally feel nervous before, say, a gynecologist appointment. It’s a bit worse here, because when I visit my gynecologist I’m usually not expecting to have live follicles ripped out of my labia and asshole. Additionally my gynecologist, unlike Olga, is extremely friendly and personable. His name is Raymond and he’s Chinese. On one occasion he told me that I have a very clean-looking vagina and asked me if I douche regularly. I told him no, but blushed a bit and appreciated the compliment internally – in a doctor-patient sort of way, not in a boyfriend-girlfriend way. Olga looks like McGruff the Crime Dog and she smells like socialist baby bath and all of this is contributing to the giant ball of skepticism gestating in my brain. I consider my weird paper diaper, and how strange and wholly unsexy this whole thing is. I vaguely recall reading in a magazine once that occasionally there are women who get sexually turned on by waxing scenarios. Must be a masochistic streak. Also, likely uncomfortable for everyone involved. There’s no way I’d get wet over Raymond the Gyno, but there is really no fucking way I’d get wet over Olga the Eastern Bloc Waxist.
She returns with her wares – wax kit, paper, small dip sticks , various lotions – and wastes no time. I make a few inane attempts at small talk because I’m uncomfortable, which she rebuffs with a few grunts. Instead she tells me to spread it and I comply. After a quick layer of powder, the wax goes on like warm glue. I grit my teeth, grab on to the side of the waxing table, and prepare for hell. I’m not wrong to do so. It literally feels like someone is scraping out my genitals with a very hot, very gooey shovel. And that’s only the first rip. A few more follow in the front, and then she asks me to flip over. Boom, there goes the butt. Cue Looney Toon stars.
When it’s over, she does a once-over to snatch up any stray hairs, which I imagine is sort of like shooting someone 40 extra times just “in case” they aren’t already dead. Then she gloms on some lotion and is gone as quickly as she arrived, on to the next victim. I dress gingerly and hobble out front to pay. It costs $35. I call my best friend; we’d taken bets on how the wax would turn out. She’d said “raw” and I’d said “inflamed”. So far I’m winning. “How does it look down there?” she asks. I’m angry at Olga and my entire pelvic region is on fire, so in my distraction I’ve realized that I haven’t really checked out the ‘situation’. I take a peek; it’s hairless indeed, and so red it’s almost purple. “I don’t know,” I say, “I think it probably looks like a 10 year old girl’s vagina got stuck on a 25 year-old lady.”
“Well, that’s what we assumed it would look like, right?”
“Yeah. Except a lot more red and inflamed. So I win the bet for the ‘inflamed’ part.”
“Okay, you can borrow my “Breaking Bad” box set for a week. Wanna get frozen yogurt? I’m starved.”
On the way home, I start to think of the things I could’ve bought with $35. A class at a very expensive spin studio. My share of my apartment’s monthly cable bill. Two months of Netflix. Eleven Doritos Tacos. Instead I’m in lower Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon and I can’t walk without chafing. I’ve literally just tasted my own tears at the hands of an emotionally unavailable Soviet woman. Things are rough.
I grew up on “Sex and the City,” at a time when mainstream American women were starting to reclaim the more risqué facets of their sexuality. On one level, it’s been great to see more media geared towards embracing new sexual territory in a sex-positive environment. On the other hand, “positive sex” inevitably becomes gray when it involves physical discomfort. Painful beauty rituals and risky sexual behavior have enjoyed a flattering re-brand as “edgy” and modern. If Carrie Bradshaw had casual anal sex or waxed her girly bits, the discomfort became tolerable as an “experience”; the pain became bearable under the guise of cute column fodder. As progressive Western women, we love to assume we’ve moved beyond patriarchy when it comes to beautifying our private parts – after all, it’s “our choice” (even if it involves boiling wax). We’re doing it “for ourselves”. We recoil in removed horror at stories of third-world female genital mutilation, so-called barbaric religious circumcision, back-alley beautification rituals that so obviously place a value on pain for the sake of appeal. I remember doing a college project on FGM in the Congo, and how shocked I was at the time to learn that it’s often women who perpetuate these traditions, who take it upon themselves to fulfill them as a means of reclaiming power over their bodies.
The women at Olga’s salon aren’t slicing off their clitorises, but they are enduring pain for the sake of sex appeal. I myself sucked it up under the guise of choice and a good anecdote, telling myself it was for “empowerment” even though it was a) super painful and b) I really don’t care how my vagina looks to me, so unless I meet Prince Charming in the next eight minutes, nobody will ever appreciate the handiwork. Self-actualization and sexual prowess aside (from where I stand, legs akimbo, post-wax) it fucking HURT. Let’s be real: ladies hurt enough. I’d like for my female status not to cause any more pain than it already does naturally.
And this hairless sheen? It feels fleeting and unnecessary. I just paid Olga one half of a new pair of running shoes’ worth of dollars to temporarily rip naturally-occurring body hair off of my genitals and anus for no particular reason whatsoever. I’m not a stripper, nor will I be in a bikini anytime in the foreseeable future. I don’t even have a boyfriend. What do I get out of it? A better sense of cleanliness (despite the fact that I let a stranger rip heated wax off my cooter while laying on a communal table that’s been used by dozens of women)? Does that imply that having a bush makes one feel dirty? Am I going to admire my own bald cunt and its shiny, reflective surface every time I take a piss? Listen, my vagina and I have been through a lot. We’re past the point of vanity. Our relationship is fine as long as she’s not hoarding yeast and I’m not peeing blood.
The only real reason I can think of for a bikini wax (besides ‘self power’) is to impress a man. That doesn’t seem like much of a reason either, because no amount of love justifies regularly hot-waxing your genitals. [Author’s note: If you think your relationship is threatened by the presence of vaginal hair, you should reevaluate that relationship.] Certainly no guy I’ve ever dated has been out there paying through the nose to wax his balls. An ex-boyfriend once told me that it appeals to men because it emphasizes the idea of youth, virginity and first-time possession. If what I just did was to satisfy a guy’s craving for an untouched woman, then I give up. I am a 25 year old woman, not some high school jailbait, and I’m not in the business of trying to be that way – even if it’s for the sake of eliciting staged excitement during a moment’s roll in the hay. [Plus, let’s make it abundantly clear: Bald pussy = child. Not virginal teen angel, child.] One of my coworkers says it makes oral sex easier. This is also working off the presumption that cunnilingus is happening for every woman who’s getting waxed. I hope that’s true, but I’m not sure if it is.
At any rate, I reckon I’ve only got about 50 mobile years left in me, and you know what? I don’t want to spend another dollar or painful minute on a beauty ritual that isn’t worth it to me personally. To each her own, and maybe for some waxing IS worth it. Having gone under the wax, I can understand the cultish pull of tidiness, the sexual appeal and the rush of silent power, and even to a degree the perverse thrill of looking new, racy, untouched. I assume that the women who frequent Olga’s get something out of it. After all, nobody is a better authority than you are when it comes to your own body parts.
As for me, I think I’ll leave waxing by the wayside for now and save my next $35 for something else. That Sunday, it took me a couple hours to walk normally again. Someday in years from now I won’t be able to walk at all, which will really be tragic, and I’ll wish I’d walked more when I had the chance, and that I didn’t waste a few good walking hours with flaming genitalia one day when I was 25.
*Name has been changed.
Hannah VanderPoel is a writer and filmmaker in New York City. She works at MTV. Previous credits include Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and HBO. You can follow her on Twitter @hanvanderpoel.
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