Monday, November 30, 2009

Splitting hairs

Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
Hey boy, take a walk on the wild side
With her back to the already giggling class, she shaded a black patch on the dry-erase board. She stood back with smug composure, before reaching out her finger to pare down the sides into a more slender sliver.
“It’s more like that, isn’t it? It’s almost nothing.”
On the first day of this elective Gender Studies class during my senior year of high school, our teacher’s nonchalantly bold drawing of the Brazilian wax was most likely intended to weed out those unsuspecting students who could not handle such probing discussions.
“So many of you girls are doing this nowadays, it’s staggering. But why? What do you think the reason is for hair removal?”
While others shuffled and snickered, my hands shook with the nervousness that always comes over me when I know I’m about to expose personal opinion in a public forum. I raised my hand, and Carol Winter gestured for me to speak.
“No,” she shot back without a moment of consideration. “Youth. Emulation of youth. Hair is a symbol of power and maturity, and when women remove it all, they can’t help but become subordinated.”
In slight shock, I fumbled with my thoughts. While in retrospect I can see that my own answer may also have been narrow and presumptuous, I could feel in that moment and to this day that it was discounted so absolutely because it did not mesh with her own agenda. Though far from being the argumentative type, I could not let this go so easily. I raised my unsteady hand again. She nodded begrudgingly.
“I don’t think that’s always the case. I see how it’s valid in general, but general isn’t always the point. I mean, doesn’t that perspective automatically assume that the men you’re comparing these women to don’t remove any hair? I know plenty of men who do. Doesn’t that shift the meaning at least a bit?”
What shocked me most was not her reply of, “Generally men don’t, though, and right now we are discussing the general,” but the way in which the class’s uncomfortable giggles transformed into shameless laughter at my mention of men removing their body hair. That unanimously nonverbal reaction spoke louder than any stifled discourse taking place in that small classroom. I hadn’t realized until that moment just how removed my own social microcosm was from the high school mainstream.
At that time, my own grooming habits left me neither Brazilian nor bald, but smooth down the bikini line and the rest trimmed short enough so as to occupy the same dimension as my skin; however, I felt no less attacked. Likewise, my boyfriend at the time did not fall into my aforementioned category of smooth men, but trimmed his own pubic hair short and neat, without actually removing any of it. While these private truths kept me safe from the scrutiny that I myself had opened up, this so-called discussion fueled my already germinating rejection of dogmatically rebellious feminism. Three weeks later, I dropped the class.
The well-meaning but personally alienating dogmatism of Eve Ensler does not seem a far cry from that of Carol Winter. In one segment of The Vagina Monologues, she preaches, “You can’t love the vagina if you don’t love hair.” When reminding myself that each monologue is the story of a different woman, the sentiments in this one become exponentially more tolerable; it should go without saying (but it looks like I’ll say it anyway) that Eve Ensler and this anonymous woman are just as entitled to their opinions on personal grooming as I am mine. But it is the way in which she generalizes and extends her personal perspective well beyond the realm of her own body (and therefore onto mine, as a viewer) that incites my defensive reaction.
Eve Ensler tells the story of a middle-aged woman who tries to save her marriage by shaving her vulva at her husband’s request and elation, but against her own preference and comfort. When told by their German marriage counselor that “marriage is about compromise” and that she should shave her vagina to keep her husband interested, I cannot help but share her disgust with this advice not because of its physical results, but due to the backwards notion that disregarding one’s own desires will lead to a healthier relationship. But between Ensler’s concluding statements of “You can’t love the vagina if you don’t love hair” and “You can’t pick the parts you want,” I can’t help but ask who You is. And if you change who You is, does the meaning and validity of the statement as a whole change?
The walls of the women’s bathroom at the Red Victorian CafĂ© in San Francisco are covered in vastly varying graffiti messages. Many of these enter static conversation with one another. Scrawled on the door was the most fascinating conversational graffiti I’d ever seen, and lacking a camera or pen, I committed it to memory.
You are beautiful! Stop shaving and sucking in your belly!
I agree! Wax and exercise!
When the so-called therapists tells Eve Ensler’s character to make this compromise, it is particularly noteworthy that she does not shave herself; her husband shaves her in the bath. She describes him as being elated, and not noticing when drops of blood fell into the bathwater. On one hand, being shaved by the person who requests it further distances this woman from any aesthetic control that she might wield over her own body. This seems to be the angle that she highlights. But on the other hand, it engages her husband in the process rather than removing him from it and leaving him to reap the benefits as if they occur naturally.
After describing the shaving scene, Ensler regales her audience with laments of how she felt like a little girl, fetishized and dissociated from her adult identity, such that she nearly felt compelled to talk in a baby voice (at which the audience laughs in sympathy). Clearly, this is in sync with Carol Winter’s perception of pubic smoothness as an emulation of pre-pubescence, placed in stark contrast to the empowered, mature woman. In the context of this personal story, this may in fact hold true; the removal of her hair is disempowering in that it disregards her wishes and therefore her autonomy. But does this hold true when applied to bodies that are not being coerced?
The question of to what degree youth is embedded in hairlessness depends completely on how we regard the natural. When nature is regarded as the ideal or even the only basis for judgment, then the allusion to youth inevitably becomes more prominent. Usually, pre-pubescence was the time in our lives when our bodies were naturally hairless. But must contrived hairlessness always be a direct allusion to the time in our lives when this occurred naturally? After all, people who shave their heads are rarely equated to the bald newborn.
While Ensler’s character’s experience of being shaved by someone else seems to alienate her even further from her body, I think it is important to consider the meaning of an alternative reaction, as well as the potential perspectives of the vilified husband. By considering his unexplored side of the story, I do not intend to absolve him of the crime of disregarding his wife’s comfort, but merely to identify possible causes for the aesthetic preference. Judging by his elation at shaving his wife, I am inclined to say that his attraction to a smooth vagina does not necessarily stem from the youth fetish that the wife perceives. If it was in fact motivated by a pseudo-pedophilic fetish, I would expect that he would be significantly less excited to be involved in the process. To witness or take part in any aestheticizing process reinforces awareness that the results are contrived. It separates aesthetic choice from mimicry of the natural.
I cannot help but equate this to women people who steal away to the bathroom to fix their makeup not for lack of a handheld mirror, but to avoid exposing the process to peers. I’ve always made a point of fixing my makeup in public spaces, for two self-righteously political reasons. The first is to detach shame and secrecy from vanity, and the second is to make clear that I am not trying to pass my pale matte skin, sharply lined eyes, and stark red lips as anything remotely natural. Likewise, when the aroused observer becomes involved in producing the aesthetic that arouses him, the appeal becomes less about illusion and more about aesthetics for their own sakes. Why shouldn’t “art for art’s sake” be applied to the human body? With a tattoo of Wilde himself over my right shoulder blade, my answer to that question need not even be stated.
In Eve Ensler’s monologue, that which she does not mention speaks just as loud as her victimized laments. Clearly, the hair that she does or does not have on her body is a point of great contention between her and her husband, but this aesthetic struggle remains embedded in her body, blatantly ignoring his. The gaping absence of information on how he treats his own hair or her opinion on it insidiously reinforces the social phenomenon of the male as the unaestheticized observer, natural by default, and the female as the sculpted, constructed object. It is not just the way we treat our bodies that reinforces or deconstructs this dynamic, but the way bodies relate to one another.
For the sake of this discussion, I am sticking to the heterosexual model in part for congruity, though incongruity would shed important light, too. It is also where I have the most experience, albeit decidedly non-normative experience. The viewers of this monologue are left to assume that the husband does nothing to his own body hair, and many viewers may not even think to acknowledge this assumption. How the husband treats his own body inevitably influences the significance of what he desires and expects from his wife. That is to say, what she perceives as the youth fetish depends just as much on his (presumably) unkempt pubic hair as on the removal of hers. How might her perception of the removal of her own hair change if her husband treated his own body in the same way that he finds attractive on women?
When I asked my boyfriend if I could write about him in this rather revealing piece, he reiterated over the phone a line that had stuck in my mind months ago.
“You know, if every hair below my eyelashes disappeared forever, I wouldn’t miss any of it one bit.”
“I know,” I smiled against my cell phone. “I don’t think I would either.”
It wasn’t until I started sleeping with someone who depilitated more of his body than I did mine that I could finally shed Carol Winter’s insidious influence. While I thought that I had resisted her dogma, the influence that it had over me was undeniable. As long as I had been with someone who kept his own body hair, grooming mine to the point of Brazilian was never an option. Even to an aesthete like myself, the juxtaposition would be too loaded with a meaning with which I do not identify.
I have never been shaved by someone else, nor have I ever shaved another person. I have never been asked or told to groom myself differently, and nor would I feel comfortable asking someone else to change their chosen aesthetics. However, I have been influenced by example, which is completely different from what Ensler’s character experiences. When I started sleeping with someone so meticulously smoothed–even his penciled eyebrows are manicured to the degree of John Water’s mustache–I felt that I had been freed. No longer worried about what being juxtaposed with the “natural” male would imply about my own body, I could join him in fabulously unnatural aesthetics if I so chose. And I did.
Perhaps I still have yet to shake the Winter dogma, because even after entering the Brazilian realm, I cannot bring myself to remove all of it. The clearly decorative sliver that I keep, which amusingly mirrors her infamous white-board drawing, indicates the contrived and cultivated nature of my aesthetic choices, right down to the crotch. I am not creating an illusion that I don’t grow hair; I am projecting my choice not to keep it. That slim, useless strip signifies my embrace of the decidedly unnatural–as well as my inevitable over-thinking of aesthetic expression.
Because her husband presumably does not etch his desires into his own body, the dynamic within the monologue becomes inseparable from an issue of aesthetically manifested power. This is inseparable from the subject of youth, but not due to the aesthetic itself. Her husband’s joy and ignorance at taking control of her body puts her in the powerless position of a child. When considering this dynamic, it makes perfect sense that she would associate this unwanted aesthetic with the powerlessness of childhood. It is this dysfunctional (if disturbingly traditional) power structure that lets us know who You is in her statement, “You can’t pick the parts you want.” You is not the owner of the parts. You is objectifying the owner of the parts in a way that disregards her own relationship to these parts. But what happens to this statement if we consider that You is the owner of the parts?
I have to say that you can without a doubt pick the parts of yourself that you want, and keeping them as they come does not necessarily suggest greater comfort with the authentic You, if there is such a thing. Must bodily aestheticism be considered anti-feminist? Eve Ensler, as well asCarol Winter seem to say Yes. But I cannot help but read their adamant rejection of what they consider patriarchal manipulation as just a different way of internalizing it. I cannot help but resent being told that I have been manipulated, and that these choices are not my own. If I were male and made these same choices, what then? What of males who do make the same choices as me? In my mind, keeping hair cannot in itself be a sign of power and freedom, if it disregards freedom of aesthetic choice. Does this not merely present us with a different standard to which we are told to conform?

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic post, Sara. I'm very impressed. Good luck with this blog!