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.
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.