Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Beaver: An Endangered Species

Happy Beaver, photo by Flickr user stevehdc, used under a Creative Commons license.

Weeks ago, I posted a Kotex ad featuring a cute, furry beaver. In comments, Euchalon Grandy asked where the term "beaver" comes from, anyway. At first I was surprised he asked, because I happen to know he came of age in the early 1980s, just like I did, at a time when there was lots of discussion (feminist and otherwise) about "beaver shots" in porn. And so I thought, "Duh! It's because beavers are furry. Everybody knows that."

But then I started wondering. Why a beaver, anyway? Why not some other mammal with a thick pelt? (I'm pretty sure this is what Euchalon was actually asking, and I just didn't get it.) Why not a raccoon, or a skunk, or a lemur? I suppose there's a stripe issue with those critters. Then again, the patterning of kitty fur is infinitely variable, yet the term "pussy" persists even though few of us sport calico or tabby markings. (I wouldn't rule out tortoiseshell, however, especially as we get older.)

Why "beaver," indeed? When I showed the beaver ad to the students in my women's studies capstone class, some of them were totally perplexed. They didn't get the ad, because to them a beaver is merely a furry woodland creature. They'd never heard the term applied to women. And so an ad with a beaver representing a pussy was just incoherent to them.

The reason for this came out in class discussion: The norm for pussies is now hairless, as anyone who's flipped through Cosmo in the past decade ought to know. If you don't take it all off, no guy will want to put his package anywhere near your vajajay (in Cosmo's anatomical lexicon). So our kitties are all supposed to be sphinx cats, and the beaver is on the verge of extinction.

Posted by Flickr user *n3wjack's world in pictures, used under a Creative Commons license.

This is a seriously generational phenomenon. It's not really possible for me to fathom it from my perch here on the far side of 40. I know young women, self-declared feminists, who believe that pubic hair is disgusting - that it makes them disgusting unless they're always smoothly waxed or shaven.

Maybe the closest parallel in my generation is that when I hit puberty in the 1970s, people took it equally for granted that girls would shave their legs and armpits. I've lived in hippy co-op houses, I spent years in Europe, I've considered myself a feminist since sixth grade. And guess what? I shave my legs. Inconsistently, irregularly, and often plain incompetently. (Being blind in the shower really doesn't help!) Ditto for my armpits, though more regularly and with less blood.

I choose to do this. But I don't claim that I do it without reference to social norms. That's where I part ways with my friend figleaf, who basically argues that any hairstyle is cool (so far so good) because it's a matter of personal style and choice (um, not entirely).

One of the college-aged women I know told me that a boyfriend pressured her to shave her pubic hair because she didn't look like the women in porn. She, too, made her choices. She shaved it. She hated the ingrown hairs and itching. She grew it out again. She ditched the douchey boyfriend.

She's not the only woman to discover that grooming pubic hair, even just the bikini line, is different from legs or armpits in some crucial ways. It's harder to achieve a smooth result by shaving. Waxing produces a smooth finish for a few days, but it can't be repeated until the regrowth is well past the stubble stage. (There's also some risk of infection, especially with Brazilians.) Laser treatments are expensive and don't work for all types of hair. Whatever the method, it's likely to result in red bumps and ingrown hairs. I'm not a dude, but I assume that red bumps are the very opposite of sexy.

In fairness, men, too, are subject to social pressures to shave. While we women can camoflage stubble under our clothes, they can't so easily hide their chins. Sure, a guy can get away with a ZZ Top beard if he's a lumberjack. For most white-collar jobs, he'd better make sure it looks distinguished and professorial - or just shear it off altogether.

I'm all for choice - but what exactly does choice mean when all the social pressure tilts in a single direction? Where is the pro-growth movement (as figleaf memorably calls it)? What magazine is extolling the glories of the unpruned bush? Organic Gardening, maybe?

I'm not saying women are anti-feminist dupes if they shave, and I sure don't want to shame anyone for doing it. I'm not opposed to grooming. Like I said, I do some of it myself. (And no, I'm not going to overshare on my more personal topiary choices.) But until there's actually a pro-growth faction, our choices will be tightly bounded and subject to pressure and penalties. That's not much of a choice at all. Especially when the pressures are greatest on young women who are still finding themselves and discovering their own bodies and sexuality.


figleaf said...

Just to be clear (and fair to people who don't feel they have a choice) I don't think shaving, or trimming, or *not* shaving or trimming *is* always a personal choice. Instead I think... rather strongly... that it *should* be.

By the way, I think one of the reasons you see fewer ingrown hairs and razor dots on men's faces is because we almost all begin shaving right away, and because we shave every day. (Because, as you point out, it's pretty obvious if we don't.) That said, ingrown hairs and other woes are a serious problem for men too. An even bigger problem if you've had a beard or mustache for more than a month or so. (I don't recommend after shave for anybody but it was invented for men to close pores and to get antiseptic on any open cuts before they can infect.)

I'm under no illusion that shaving, or not shaving, will ever be a completely idiosyncratic decision. But I try so hard to frame it as a *fashion* choice because we actually have a lot more tools for dealing with fashion pressure. Not that fashion pressure is trivial (in the 1980s Joe Garreau wrote that you could "catch more trouble for wearing khaki trousers in Oregon than for sleeping with the minister's wife in Alabama!) Just that we have more rhetorical tools for dealing with it.

And finally, while I didn't coin the term "pro-growth" (that would have been feminist law professor Bridget Crawford) I really like the term because it's such a huge inversion of the usual meaning. For that reason when I use it I'm going to avoid organic-farming allusions to wilderness like "bush" and "beavers" in favor of connotations of real-estate and progress with its associated overtones of "density" and "development." There's nothing wrong with nature metaphors, it's just not as familiar to people today, and therefore perhaps less resonant.

Take care,


Sungold said...

Oh, I'm not particularly *attached* to any of the nature metaphors. In fact, given how the equation nature=women has often been used against women - for instance, by defining women's bodies as fertile or infertile, but not men's - I think we *should* be suspicious of nature metaphors applied to women's bodies.

So I'm not necessarily mourning the demise of "beaver." I'm mostly interested in how a generational shift makes an old metaphor unfamiliar and even meaningless. It's not that young people now in their teens and twenties grew up ignorant of actual beavers or shrubberies; they're not so far removed from nature, at least no more so than I was. But the norm for grooming has changed so drastically that the old language makes no sense. In other words, it's not the literal beavers that have changed, or our relation to them; it's the figurative beavers that have been transformed.

It'd be lovely if you really could reduce body hair grooming to a mere fashion decision. I get your point that reframing this as fashion would de-fang it, in some ways.

But can this really work? Isn't body hair a lot more intimate? Isn't pubic hair much more intertwined with our sexuality than, say, whether I wear my skirts long or short, or you wear your jeans tight or loose?

If you look at how Cosmo (for instance) presents pubic hair versus the hair on our heads, the pressure to conform is of a totally different magnitude. Cosmo never threatens women with a total lack of sex (especially oral sex) if we don't change our hairdos. But if we fail to shave! No man will *ever* want us. (By the way, here's a big old gendered asymmetry: while men's individual partners may strongly prefer them to shave their face, I don't see the same kinds of cultural messages disqualifying men from being sexy altogether if they grow a beard.)

I don't think this is entirely reducible to media framing. Everyone sees the hair on my head; it's public. But pubic hair, for most of us (other than nudists) is usually pretty private. The private/public distinction also plays into the sense that this is *intimate* hair. So when the media says "this is the only sexy way for women to look" we're more vulnerable to the message than when it comes to mere fashion. And perhaps it's harder to be critical, because bucking the trend threatens to neuter us. (I'm not exempting myself here, either.)

Finally, while I didn't play this up too much in my post because it's so hard not to sound like a scold, I keep hearing from my students that porn is the key determinant of how they (and especially their male partners) think women should look. The ubiquity of shaved pussies in porn makes it really hard to 1) delink pubic hair from sexuality and 2) argue that the pressures to shave and not-to-shave are in any way equivalent. Obviously not every woman who shaves watches porn, but to the extent that people - men or women - see women's genitalia, they're overwhelmingly likely to be hairless, or just have a landing strip. Other images, like the hairy women of 1970s and 80s porn, are entirely absent or even regarded as a fetish (as far as I can tell).

So yeah, I agree that grooming (or not) totally ought to be a personal choice. But I'm less sanguine than you that simply asserting it ought to be so - or reframing it as merely a fashion choice - will make much of a difference. I don't think the pressures will ease - on women, at least - as long as porn and the women's magazines are in cahoots.

Reg said...

What I want to know is, how do the media/porn industry pull this trick?
This is a genuine question from an outsider on how it is that, because some magazine says this is how you should look, otherwise intelligent people seem to embrace this rather as a Christian fundamentalist embraces the bible.

Isn't this part of the sexualisation of the female child as a fashion model, via pubic hairlessness and size0? The fashion industry, the porn industry, and the magazines with whom they "are in cahoots",, are seeking to legitimise it by transferring it to the adult female.

Our society seems to find no inconsistency in condemning the physical and psychological ravages of the predatory paedophile, while promoting childishness as the ideal of sexual attractiveness in the female form.

Being blind, I can't look at magazines, which prompts me to wonder why those who can find themselves drawn into this dangerous ambivalence?


Sungold said...

Hi Reg! I think porn and women's magazines both play a lot on people's insecurities at the same time as they feed and construct fantasies. Fears and fantasies get all tangled up together.

But I don't want to denigrate people as dupes for following the fashion, because I said, I do a certain amount of shaving too, in full awareness that it's a social construction.

Some people also say it feels better to them. If the pleasure outweighs the hassle, that's cool with me. I just have a problem with people feeling they have no real choice in the matter.

As for the pedophilia connection - I think that the hairless ideal is more complicated. I don't think it's really pedophilic, because a hairless adult doesn't look the same as a child. (This is a point figleaf has made repeatedly when this issue comes up, and I agree.)

On the other hand, hairlessness both underscores a person's sexuality (in women, especially, everything is more visible) and removes a visible symbol of adult sexuality. So I think there is some element of taming unruly sexuality in it, which is in tension with sexualization. And again, I would say my argument only holds true if people see shaving as de rigeur. If it's one option among many, then I think it loses much of its symbolic baggage.

Then again, what culture has even allowed the body to just *be*, without freighting it heavily with symbolism? I would love to know if any anthropologists have written on hairlessness as a norm in Western societies.

Reg said...

Thanks Sungold.
Yes, I jumped on one aspect of this which troubled me, without thinking beyond that impulse.

From my perspective, I'm still left wondering where this consensus comes from. Some journalistic opinion or some designer's aesthetic notion acquires the status of what anyone who wants to have any credibility should aspire to. I don't know how that happens.

On a lighter note, somewhat in the spirit of your March 29 post, a fortuitous coincidence struck me.
Two phrases with similar meaning are to "beat about the bush" and to "pussy-foot around".
It's somehow whimsically interesting that bushes and pussies are keeping company in some totally unconnected part of the lexicon; or maybe I'm just easily pleased.


Sungold said...

Reg, I'm not sure where the consensus originates, and it doesn't help that I was living outside the U.S. (in Germany) when this shift apparently occurred. I'd put my money on porn leading the way and other media following, but I really don't know for certain.

As for the other bush/pussy connection: I hadn't thought of that. But I'm as easily pleased as you are!