Imagine a woman standing alone in the shower, covered in foam and a safety razor in hand, pondering over her allegiance to different identities and to what extent her choice is her own.
To shave or not to shave–that is a question not only faced by many people, but also a problem within both biomedicine and cultural studies. Shaving pubic hair, either partially or completely, is popular among young women, especially those in Western societies. While the health benefits of removing one’s pubic hair remain unconfirmed, studies of women’s health have largely aligned in recognizing the complications of such a practice (Trager 2006; Riddell, Varto, and Hodgson 2010; DeMaria et al. 2014). Despite these complications, women participants in several studies described experiencing a sense of cleanliness, femininity, and attractiveness in removing pubic hair (Riddell, Varto, and Hodgson 2010; Li and Braun 2017). As a symbol, female pubic hair interestingly finds its power in its invisibility.
Addressing the psyche behind pubic hair removal, social science and humanities studies have turned to the production of normative femininity (Toerien, Wilkinson, and Choi 2005; Crann et al. 2017). Notably, this analytic framework also brings to light some women’s conscious choice not to shave as a feminist act in defiance of a hairless norm (Obst, White, and Matthews 2019; Fahs 2022). As well, commercial and artistic projects have embraced female pubic hair to promote body positivity in mainstream popular culture (London 2019, MacMillen 2021). The decision to keep one’s natural pubic hair can now be as political as it is personal.
The long, and multicultural history of the politics of pubic hair indicates that reality can be more complicated. In what follows, I look at one case from a past moment in history, in which the cultural judgment of the appearance of women’s genitalia carried no negativity towards its hairiness. On the contrary, it so strongly implied pubic hair’s appeal and necessity that individual lives might as well have depended on it. All things considered, the society in question most sincerely held women’s pubic hair, especially young women’s, in high regard. Did it empower young women? That is the question.
The time is the early twentieth century, and the place is the Japanese empire. The specific space of narrative consists of the wellness column of women’s magazines, the content of which I get lost in reading in two different senses. Sometimes, I find myself firmly gripped by the familiarity of women’s health concerns. These include agitation about contracting STIs from sex partners, which persevered through two World Wars and remains woefully relatable. Other times, I end up at a loss because women intentionally expressed their anxieties in ambiguous prose.
Take for example one of the many anonymous letters that sought medical advice from Yoshioka Yayoi. Aside from working as one of the first licensed female physicians in Japan, Yoshioka was also an active contributor to women’s periodicals, including the highly popular Shufu no tomo (The housewife’s friend).
“I became aware that part of my body is abnormal in the spring of the year when I turned twenty-one, that is, two years before I married my now husband. Until then, I thought it was perhaps because I was late maturing, and my body would become normal in the meantime. So, I didn’t give it much thought. However, as my wedding day approached, for the first time, I was assaulted by this great, singular anxiety. That is, when one sees this immature body, won’t they wonder if I might not be able to conceive? However, I hid this worry in my mind and confessed it to no one. Eventually, I got married in October that year. My husband was a person who received a scientific education and, as such, didn’t mind it. Moreover, he even comforted me that this is not necessarily a sign of immaturity but something I was naturally born with. However, as the days passed, our life between husband and wife became depressing. It almost even seems that my husband has lost interest in my person. I’ve even heard that there are many cases where such a defect has caused the lament of the broken mirror [divorce]. Regardless of whether that is a result of superstition or not, is there any medical practice that can remedy this defect?”(Yoshioka 1926, 94)
I would not have deduced from the aforementioned letter alone that the issue at hand was the absence of pubic hair. Without articulating any specifics, the troubled young woman described her own body in the harsh terms of “defect” and “abnormal.” Despite her husband’s reassurance, she remained constantly vigilant and suspicious that the matter was undoing, or would ultimately undo her marriage. Even before I learned of the cause of her apprehension, I sensed her desperation.
Thanks to Yoshioka Yayoi’s response, it becomes clear that the unspeakable “defect” referred to the lack of pubic hair. Japanese physicians, including Yoshioka, typically described this bodily phenomenon as the “hairless syndrome (mumōshō).” While the term literally can mean balding, or the lack of hair anywhere in any gender, in reality, it almost exclusively referred to the condition of women’s pubic hair.
During the first half of the twentieth century, mumōshō occupied a unique position in Japanese medical discourses. Counterintuitively, this was because most physicians agreed that the condition was in itself not at all a disease. It became a case that required “treatment” largely due to the folk belief, which physicians often lambasted as a “superstition,” that lacking pubic hair signified a woman’s infertility. In this narrative, having pubic hair was a prerequisite for normal femininity. It indicated a woman’s capacity to populate the nation as a “good wife, wise mother.” For an empire increasingly in need of labor and soldiers, fertility represented a core quality of respectable womanhood. Not having pubic hair thus invited comments of “bad luck” on one’s body and person, along with the grim prospect of rejection in marriage. As Yoshioka observed in her response, “there are no words as formidable as ‘bad luck'” (Ibid, 94–95).
The concern about not having enough pubic hair drove young women to write to other women’s magazines as well. Shinoda Seiko, another woman physician and a columnist for Fujin kurabu (Women’s club), also encountered a fair share of this particular anxiety. A typical one reads as follows:
“Doctor, I am about to turn nineteen years old, but because I don’t have [pubic] hair, I have turned down marriage proposals again and again and have been spending the days worrying alone by myself. However, this time I find myself in a situation where I can no longer reject and will have to get married this autumn. As a result, I have been worrying and even considered death for several times….”(Shinoda 1924, 341)
Like Yoshioka’s correspondent, the woman who wrote to Shinoda similarly dreaded the exposure of her lack of (pubic) hair. Her fear was so extreme that it led her not only to reject marriage but also to contemplate suicide. Just like the anonymous woman who confessed to Yoshioka, this young woman also suffered her fear in solitude and silence. In a society that held women’s pubic hair in such high regard, its absence entailed self-shaming—if not also self-harming.
In juxtaposition, the stories of past and present echo each other; they each reveal the pressure that normative femininity can impose on women. Be it the modern-day hairless aesthetics or the virtues historically bestowed on hairiness, when normative femininity begins to demand uniformity and evaluate individuals based on their conformity, harm tends to follow. In this light, the antidote to any form of “pubic hair suppression” is less likely to be a sweeping shift from one styling trend to another. The question, in other words, is never as simplistic as to shave or not to shave. Rather, it is about having a choice to decide the matter in diverse ways without experiencing discomfort, anxiety, or shame.
I thank Jul Tancredi for providing constructive feedback on earlier drafts of this essay and thank Dr. Arden Hegele and Lilith Todd for their generous and thoughtful editorial support.
Keisai Eisen, Shunga, egoyomi, 1818, colored woodblock print, 9.6 x 13 cm, The Trustees of the British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_OA-0-449-6 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
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Yoshioka Yayoi. 1926. “Mumōshō ni nayamu ichi dokusha no shitsumon ni kotaete.” Shufu no tomo, January 1926.