All of me

My friend has just had a hysterectomy. I thought she would complain about the post-op pain, the loss of her womb, the sheer inconvenience of not being allowed to lift or drive, but no: her biggest grump is that her pubic hair had to be shaved for the surgery.

It's the combination of having a love mound that looks like the skin of an old lemon, the irritation of the stubble growing back all itchy and prickly, and the shame of having it done in the first place. Herein lies the irony: we pay handsomely to have someone painfully create our bikini line with wax, razors, sugarsoap, or depilatory cream. Yet when it's done for free on the NHS, this beauty treatment becomes a humiliation. And sexy it certainly isn't.

A woman's relationship with her pubic hair is ever so complicated. It would help if we knew what it was for, but we are rarely told. When genitals are discussed in adolescent sex education classes, it's often as if they were hairless. Biological diagrams are painted pink, with not a curly-wurly in sight. We are not informed that the fur on our pubic mound is different to that on our head - far more coarse and with a short life cycle. Within six months, the follicle of a pubic hair dies and the hair falls out, which is why it can never be grown to any decent length.

If we do receive any information about the triangle between our legs, it is almost entirely negative; the multi-million-pound beauty industry encourages us to remove it for aesthetic reasons, the doctor for our well-being. Until quite recently, pubic hair was considered to be a filthy harbourer of germs; our mothers would have been routinely shaved before giving birth.

But women's pubic hair does have a purpose. It's a downy cushion for the symphysis - the sensitive place where the pubic bones meet which can be easily jolted; you can sometimes feel this meeting place when you ride a bike roughly over a bump in the road. And, despite the abhorrence we now have for it, pubic hair was originally designed as an essential element in a female's sexual attraction. It draws attention to the unremarkable-looking female genital area, making it stand out as if framed. It soaks up and concentrates scent produced by sweat, which is supposed to help lure a mate.

But what nature intended, mankind has overthrown. To be alluring, pubic hair's natural coarseness and unruly shape has to be controlled, however painfully. (In the 60s, Mary Quant famously confessed to having hers shaped into a heart and dyed green.) Its submission and absence, rather than its abundance, is what makes a woman desirable. Almost all sexualised images of women show them totally shaved, from pornography to paintings of Venus in high art.

So pervasive are these images, it is said that when 19th-century critic John Ruskin first saw his new bride naked, he was horrified. He'd only ever seen women in stone or on canvas, and his wife's wiry bush both surprised and revolted him. The marriage was never consummated.

In all of these shaven images, the women seem ultra naked and therefore extremely vulnerable. Pubic hair is an obvious sign of adulthood, and its absence lends a child-like look. Even outside the realms of art, men prefer a well-shorn mons pubis. But while they will reluctantly admit to the fantasy, they refuse to acknowledge what it means. The character in Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues, whose husband makes her shave, says, "I felt little when my hair was gone down there, and I couldn't help talking in a baby voice." It is a dangerous thought, but many, perhaps the majority of men, like their women to look like pre-pubescent girls. Such an appetite for shaving has the uncomfortable whiff of paedophilia about it.

Should we all just grow up? As Ensler points out, hair and sexual organs are inextricably linked: "You cannot love a vagina unless you love hair." While it may be a male fantasy, do women really want to look like little children? And, more disturbingly, do men really lust after us more if we are as hairless as an eight-year-old?

It may be fine for us all to have these infantile fantasies; we shouldn't be afraid of imagining almost anything. But it would be refreshing if, just sometimes, a mature growth was welcomed with something other than a grimace.

In Ben Elton's novel Inconceivable, a female patient in the fertility clinic waiting room remembers that she has forgotten to trim her pubes before the appointment, and is devastated. She wants to look her best for the obstetrician. I understand this woman completely; unruly pubes are indeed shameful. But having them shaved can be just as humiliating.

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