Is a shaved vagina really an unacceptable health hazard?

This post was written by Reuben on August 7, 2012
Posted Under: Feminism

It’s time to end “the war on pubic hair” according to a prominent physician quoted in the Independent. The article – which many comrades have been sharing –  highlights the health risks of having a “bikini wax” and of  generally screwing around with one’s pubic hair and naughty bits.

Personally I find this whole line of argument rather unconvincing. The key question here is how big are the risks? To what extent does shaving or “vajazzling” raise the risks of infection? After all, whenever we alter our bodies there is always some risk – tattoos and piercings, for example. are hardly risk free. The point is that health and safety are not the only criteria by which we decide what we do with our bodies. And as such only certain risks are deemed so great as to be unacceptable.

Unfortunately, the article offers no estimates on the extent of the level of risk implied by shaving. This is unsurprising because it is not based on any study. Unlike most medical news, this piece does not refer to any research- merely the opinions of  one – albeit quite senior – physician. And this in turn leads us ask how it is that so shaky and insubstantial a revelation can become so newsworthy.

The answer of course is that it pushes some ideological buttons. It has long been common for people to express their ethical and aesthetic preferences in terms of hygeiene and health. Think of how many veggies make outlandish claims about the toxicity of meat, and of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet  (if Gandhi is anything to go by, such a culinary regime causes you to develop a tiny body and a disproportionately large, overly spherical head, but this, I guess, is a story for another time…) And so it is with the denuding of pubic hair. Cultural and ideological discomfort with the practice means that disproportionate attention is given to shaky claims about its health implications.

Now, clearly such discomfort is understandable. The choices women make about hair and shaving are not made in a cultural vacuum. The idealised image of what a woman’s body ought to look like is constructed in a sexist and patriarchal society. And if I somehow woke up tomorrow with female naughty bits, personally I wouldn’t go through the cumbersome process of shaving off the hair when doing so achieves (in my unimportant opinion) no aesthetic gain. That said, the burgeoning opposition women modifying their bodies – exemplified by opposition to vajazzling, and by organised campaigns against cosmetic surgery – leaves a lot to be desired.

Yes, people’s choices are shaped by the culture that surrounds them. Yet that is not a reason to pathologize all who choose to alter their bodies from their “natural” states. Vajazzling, argues Laurie Penny, is all about making  women feel that their bodies are “ shameful and need fixing”. Yet it is more than possible that people with no great feelings of inadequacy would choose to cover their nether regions in ridiculous decorations. One does not need to be a victim of their cultural environment, nor of their own feelings of “insecurity”, in order to want to change what Mother Nature gave them.  If you believe in God as the creator of mankind, then clearly there may be some imperative to encourage people to stay in their natural states. If not, then this is primitivist bollocks.

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