Beating Around the Bush
“I have screamers. Kickers, too.” Her dark tone intended to shock as she casually laid her props on the side table: latex gloves, oil cloths, and more than a dozen popsicle sticks. “This girl from the college, Callie Davis, do you know her? She came in a couple months ago for her first Brazilian, and four of her friends joined to watch... She actually screamed the whole time and tried to shut her legs. I was like, ‘hun, you’re gonna glue your lips and clit together, and then we’ll all be crying.’” Impersonating her victim, she assumed the best wax position she could on the fold out chair, leaned back until she hit the seat’s edge, grabbed her legs, and mimicked Callie’s quivering thighs. Releasing a silent laugh and slight eye roll, she almost empathized with the screamer as she rose from the seat and returned to prepping. She blanketed the wax bed with wax paper ripped from the roll and twisted the dial on the wax pots from low to high.
“I mean, I felt bad for the girl. There were tears between every strip I pulled, and she needed a break so often that it took a full hour longer than my usual fifteen-minute work. Her friends were in hysterics the whole time, too, filming her and everything.” She fiddled with her phone to find a Spotify playlist, placed a flat pillow on the back end of the bed, and topped the pillow with a white rolled hand towel. “She came back though, Callie, and she still screams. Not as much as the first time. I’m seeing her in three days.”
I first met Maya in January 2016, only a few months before she started working at Beauty Shoppe. It is a small boutique spa housed in a small two-bedroom home and competes with three other spa salons in the small town of Woodstock, Vermont. But it’s really not much of a competition in terms of waxing. Horror stories of burned skin, bruised skin, ripped skin plague the other Woodstock salons, leaving the Beauty Shoppe’s three employees booked six weeks out.
The window into clients’ vaginas and lives is open for business during waxes with Maya. People come in and word vomit on the table, and Brazilian waxes in particular guarantee it. “Brazilians have great stories. There’s always giggles and laughs,” she says, as she giggles and laughs herself. Stories about ex-boyfriends, new girlfriends, shit classes, latest fights – closing the spa-room door opens too many others into the lives and gossip of Woodstock women. “It’s almost like being with a hair stylist, but times 20... It’s a safe place for them to share stories.” She’s the keeper of secrets.
But she’s more than that. She offers things in return. Her abrasiveness that comforts in the most uncomfortable process; her scattered conversation style that distracts from the burning wax on the most sensitive skin; her genuine interest in your life and her personal “giggle” stories to compliment your own. The risky trade pays off. Maybe her most equivalent role could be that of a priest, but a sinning atheist one. Each client comes in for confessional seeking to gossip and repent, and each client leaves feeling cleansed by Maya’s charm and talent for sculpting a glowing, hairless vagina.
Maya’s pride is an everyday accessory that drips and sticks on her like the tacky wax she handles daily. She brags, “By twenty-five, I was married, had a daughter, and owned a house.” It’s as if her flaunt could be rephrased: “Could you do that?” I probably couldn’t. Among body waxing, Maya is a licensed skin therapist, certified massage therapist, lash extension artist, and Dermalogica specialist (in which she recently achieved “expert status”). But cosmetology wasn’t always her plan. She became an esthetician because her daughter Lily had skin care issues, and doctors tried to prescribe her heavy medications when she was only two years old. Maya explains, “I didn’t want her to be self conscious about her face, so taking care of her skin was my top priority. And teenagers are jerks.” In January 2015, Maya began her schooling at Obrien’s Aveda Institute in South Burlington for ten months to complete 1,200 hours of massage and esthetics education. Most stay in beautician school for thirteen months, but as an hour-based program, Maya worked overtime to complete her degree. Her description of her talent is masked by her abrasive charm: “Being trapped in an eight-by-eight with six women is not my idea of a good time. So I was like, let’s get this done, move out and on with my professional life.” She’s impressed with herself, and I’m impressed with her.
Maya has blinding blonde hair that sometimes looks white in varying light, with roots that either match the rest of her head or are dark brown. No in between. Square frameless glasses sit perfectly on the bridge of her thin pierced nose and provide a protective window to her lightly peppered blue eyes. You’d expect her nose ring to be the size of her biting tongue, but it’s a small diamond rests on her right nostril, with a shine that’s been covered by nine years of her life. Her everyday uniform contrasts every aspect about her: a black t-shirt, black yoga pants, and black socks that are sometimes covered by teal crocheted slippers.
The professional attire makes the forever in progress tattoo crawling up her right arm pop more than normal. Traces of faded pink Hawaiian-looking flowers and watery green stems outlined in black sleeve her arm. She grazes her pointer finger over her forearm, tracing the tattoo up her bicep and rolls the black cap sleeve. “It’s been a work in progress for five or six years.” She resists the urge to spill her personal stories the way she usually does while waxing. Maybe it’s because she’s accustomed to a quick fifteen-minute appointment: she performs while waxing and finds comfort in her audience, but never waxes long enough to dig deep into the details. Her voice is soft, her arms are squirming, and her typical abrasion chips away with her discomfort. I try to comfort her the way she comforts me.
“It’s a beautiful tattoo, I really like the colors. Do the flowers mean anything? I would love to get a tattoo but I’m a baby about pain.” I offer a small smile. “But you already know that.” I probably wouldn’t get a tattoo, and she probably knows that. But it’s the third time I’ve specifically asked what her ink means, and I’m running out of ways to phrase my question.
After a fourth try, I learn that her arm is dedicated to family, decorated with birth flowers—I’m corrected— and tributes to the people she loves. “It’s like a sneaky way of having them on my body without having to have names. Because names pretty much always doom every relationship. Ever.” She’s even more hesitant, and her world seems to melt a little at every flower she touches. I want to ask why she’d permanently scribe herself with visible ink when she doesn’t want to talk about it, but I resist my urge.
Hard wax is Maya’s weapon of choice. It’s also called hot or film wax, and it contrasts soft wax. Their names do not align with their retention or pain factor. Soft wax can only be applied once to an area of the skin in one round of waxing. If a strip of soft wax is applied to the same area, the skin is sure to burn or even rip with the hair follicles. It adheres to everything it touches, meaning skin is often times taken mercilessly. Maya once waxed a woman that got a Brazilian elsewhere in town using soft wax, and it pulled skin off multiple places, leaving her with a sore, scabbed vagina. In other words, soft wax is unforgiving. Hard wax, on the other hand, adheres to the hair itself and not the skin, so it can be applied many times in the same area. Maya uses the popsicle sticks to apply about the thickness of a nickel to the waxing area and allows it to set until the tackiness subsides. If the wax has trouble setting because of humidity, Maya uses a setting spray that’s pink and glittery. When she sprays the wax, your vagina has been bedazzled.
There are three main types of waxes for women: the bikini wax, the French bikini wax, and the Brazilian. The bikini wax removes any hair that’s outside of the bikini line, which is mostly inner thighs and only a little bit of the bum. Occasionally, a strip across the very top is removed, but that changes from client to client based on different growth patterns. A bikini wax at Beauty Shoppe costs $50 plus tip, and can range up to $70 at other salons. A French bikini wax can result in two ways. The first would be a standard bikini wax in addition to the inner cheeks of the bum. The second would be the classic “landing strip,” meaning a strip of hair is left in the center of the vagina like a run way to pleasure zones. The Brazilian bikini wax removes everything from the bikini line, to inner butt cheeks, to inner labia. It’s occasionally referred to as “the Hollywood,” indicating the fame and fortune that accompanies hairlessness. At Beauty Shoppe, where the waxing prices are relatively good compared to other salons, a Brazilian cost $70 plus tip. Waxes typically last for four weeks, which means by the third week hair grows back and the next appointment should be booked. If grooming is regular, a woman spends over $1,100 a year on her vagina – and that’s only for waxing.
The Beauty Shoppe offers other waxing bonuses that are unusual. Maya’s favorite addition to waxing is the vagacial, which is exactly what the name says: a facial for a vagina. Ingrown hairs are a common result of waxing, and even more common with shaving. They occur when the hair is in the process of growing back, and instead of breaking through the skin like a normal growth pattern, the hair curls backwards and grows under the skin. If not treated properly, ingrown hairs can damage the skin and cause pain, bruising, and even permanent scars. Vagacials aim to target ingrowns and remove the hairs from under the skin. The service includes steam to soften the skin, a professional level exfoliation, and then the wax to follow. After the wax is complete, Maya dives in inches away to begin surgery. She uses a small pricker in her left hand to pierce the skin and latch the ingrown while hovering over with pointed tweezers in her right. “C’mon little guy,” is Maya’s go to line during surgery. It’s a competition between herself and the ingrown, and her record is flawless. “Gotcha!” Her pride returns. She often shows her clients the hair to reassure them that their vaginas are as hairless as they can be.
Rebecca Tanner arrives at 9:07am for her 9:00am Brazilian. She’s a student at the college in town and has been a regular Beauty Shoppe client for over seven months. “Rebecca is always late so I’m not surprised. I should just start to plan for that.”
Maya has been at the studio for an hour, preparing the wax and feeling at home. I sit in back left corner of the small room with Rebecca and Maya, out of Rebecca’s sight but in Maya’s earshot. Rebecca is on the table and Maya begins her inspection. “Aggggh she actually went over the same spot six times. And definitely used soft wax.” Maya continues to struggle with Rebecca’s previous “fucked up” wax job as she scrubs the oil cloth over her skin.
Rebecca giggles at Maya’s frustration. “It was the worst thing ever. I was like I know it can be less painful than this, so you’re doing something wrong.”
Their conversation ranges from Jergens In-Shower Moisturizer, politics, male waxing, yoga, and child birth. Rebecca’s facial expression remains calm through every rip of wax. The only flinch in her face is when she smiles at Maya’s stories, so genuine that her head rolls around on the table in response. She’s practiced, unfazed, and underwhelmed by the usual waxing pain. Rebecca engages Maya when she hears male waxing. “Wait, so you wax boys?”
Maya nods with an “mhm” and lays down a strip of tacky wax. “I thought it would be awkward, but it wasn’t. Their balls are just stupid and in my way.” Rebecca’s head rolls left to right. “And it just reminds me how lucky I am to be a girl because all my tender bits are not exposed.” Rebecca chuckles with wide eyes and is almost embarrassed, knowing that she’ll only hear these graphics from Maya, which is why she continues to engage.
“Are they like bigger babies or does it depend?”
“Oh my god, I had a screamer. I got three strips in and he bailed,” Maya says as she rips off the wax. No pained reaction from Rebecca, and Maya knows she’s doing her best. She continues, “Toughen up buttercup. Like seriously, I do this to myself, you’re being a baby.” I break my hidden cover and giggle, but my voice is obscured by Rebecca’s hooting burst of laughter and Maya’s smiling response.
After Rebecca’s wax is over, Maya leaves the room so Rebecca can privately dress. “Maya hurts the least. Like actually she’s just so much better than other waxers.” Rebecca is painless putting on her jeans. “Her Brazilians – I’m totally bare after, and sometimes other places aren’t as efficient like that. Also did you hear our conversation?” Rebecca leaves the studio, and Maya prepares for five more Brazilian waxes that are booked back to back until her lunch break.
It’s 12:00pm. “I have to book lunchtime into my schedule,” she said annoyed, “or else I won’t get it.” A slight twitch in the left top side of her mouth indicated a smile, and I knew she was proud to be so busy. We put on our clogs, winter coats, and Maya topped her head with a pale blue and stark white striped knit hat to leave the waxing warmth of the Beauty Shoppe home.
The 2011 silver Suburu smelled of dusty flowers – a used car stench masked by two Glade vanilla vent fresheners. A pile of clean laundry sat in the backseat, hugged by clean towels on the right and a grey toned car seat on the left.
“Lily loves this song. I mean, these chicks just know what they’re doing.” She turned up the radio, and began to sing in a whisper, “Let my body do the work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work. We can work from home, oh, oh, oh oh.”
It’s not often, but when Maya talks about her daughter, a bouncy childish lift in her tone compliments her typical abrasive voice and embodies Lily. She’s light, excited.
“Your daughter has good taste,” I respond, hoping she’ll share more about Lily on our .3-mile drive to lunch. Why hadn’t we walked?
“Sad though, that one girl left the band. Camila, I think? Yeah, whatever, Lily jams to Fifth Harmony. She’s got the worst dance moves though. But, hey, she owns them.” She snorts as she imagines her daughter wiggling in the car seat shouting the memorized lyrics – an impressive undertaking for a four-year-old.
We park in front of the town bagel shop, and I wait for Maya in the car. There’s no time to sit inside and eat like a regular lunch break because Maya resumes her day at 1:00pm. If she hasn’t packed lunch for the day, she gets it to go. It’s 12:40pm now, and she returns to the car with her meal: waffles and extra whipped cream.
“Have you ever had their waffles?” I shake my head. “Wow, next time though, promise? These are the best waffles. They’re so fluffy.” She turns back to the road. “Actually, that’s not true. The diner has better – sometimes with blueberries and stuff. Those are the best, these are second.”
We take the left into the Beauty Shoppe driveway, return to the comfort of her studio, and wait for Maya’s 1:00pm Brazilian appointment to arrive.
Hairlessness is trending. Most of Maya’s clients between eighteen to thirty years old receive Brazilian waxes. Maya estimates that she has waxed between 75 to 100 different college women— roughly 10% of the female student population— within the past two years of her time at Beauty Shoppe, and she’s noticed that the overwhelming majority receive Brazilians, if not all. Nonchalant as ever, Maya affirms, “Yeah, I really can’t remember a time a college girl came to get a bikini wax that wasn’t a Brazilian.” I feel a twist in my stomach and try to count all the hairless vaginas. But Maya is not surprised.
In June 2016, JAMA Dermatology surveyed over 3,300 American women on their pubic hair, and 84% reported that they groom. The report also found that younger women are much more likely to groom than older women, and the grooming women also report to having twice the number of lifetime partners compared to those that don’t. Based on these trends, the motivation as to why younger women are trimming or removing all pubic hair seem to be tied to sex. And the report further investigates these behaviors. 59% of respondents said they groom their pubic hair for hygienic reasons. But, in reality, pubic hair serves as a protective shield just like the rest of body hair. Author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano reports to SELF Magazine, “Pubic hair is there for a reason, and it’s to wick away sweat and anything else that goes on ‘down there,’ which keeps you more hygienic than a bald mons pubis does.” Whitefield-Mandrano isn’t against grooming, but she’s worried that the focus on hair removal has developed into an engrained expectation. She continues, “If a woman feels sexier or cleaner or whatever, then fine, go ahead. But I hate the thought of this becoming an inflexible standard.” It already is.
But Maya acts immune. As we sit in the Beauty Shoppe home, I talk to her about society’s expectations of women as hairless in terms of sexual interactions and float the question ‘who do we wax for.’ I’ve struck a nerve, and she jumps to defend, “I wax for myself, to hell with men.” She’s confident and even dismissive with a snort and eye roll, as if she could never be convinced that she’s been conditioned to want a Brazilian. The standard for pubic hair is a cultural problem, specifically in terms of hairlessness, because it seems that young women are removing hair for independent reasons. The only difference between Maya’s reaction is that she’s tried to convince herself otherwise.
Nadia Eckert is a junior at the local college and has been waxing since her senior year of high school. She admits, “I started shaving first, which is the worst ‘cause it grows back quickly. But yeah, that started around ninth grade? It was more of a social thing, like my friend group and I decided to do it together.” Hairlessness was always normal for Nadia; in fact, she thinks it isn’t normal to let it grow, which is something her older sister told her when she was fourteen. Nadia’s been a regular client with Maya, and always gets Brazilians. “My mom tells me to get a bikini wax, but like what’s the point of that?” she asks as if I had the answer.
Generationally, Nadia’s mom has a point, and her reaction to a Brazilian isn’t surprising. Nadia continues, “My mom thinks a bare vagina is prepubescent and just weird.” Her mom was born in the 1960s, when a free bush was all the rage and a Brazilian was unthinkable. So why the shift from mother to daughter? Psychologist Susan Quilliam asks the same question. Her article “Whether, or not? Our On-and-Off Affair with Pubic Hair” first appeared in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care in 2015, and it discusses the back and forth nature of waxing as a trend. A totally bare vagina was not always the desired look. Quilliam argues that the social and sexual revolution in the 20th century enacted individual bodily freedom, which gave rise to the so called ‘bush.’ Dense pubic hair was seen as a statement of confidence by the 1960s, and hairlessness was deemed old-fashioned and erotically repressive. Flash forward to the 21st century, and the trend returns to the hairless fad. The shift seems dramatic, so what’s the cause?
I ask Nadia why she gets a wax, and find that Nadia gets Brazilians solely for sex. She admits that if there wasn’t an expectation, she wouldn’t remove her pubic hair. “It’s painful and expensive, but it’s just socially accepted. It’s not like I want to get a wax.”
College senior India Whistler, another regular of Maya’s, shares a similar incentive. She and her boyfriend Jordan have had conversations about her pubic hair, and while Jordan hopes India would never do anything solely for him, she knows he prefers her bare. India says, “My feeling about pubic hair is that I feel sexier without it, but I wish that weren’t the case. I feel like I’ve just internalized society’s beauty expectation.” Disappointment crosses her face as she twiddles her thumbs, and she continues with a forced smile, “My waxer is always asking me ‘who’s the guy’ and I’m like ‘No! I’m doing this for me. But I guess technically she’s right.”
Men also have strong feelings about hairlessness. Stew Packer, a senior at the college, thinks it’s more natural for girls to be bare. He says,” It’s weirder if you’re not. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but it’s definitely more surprising.” Even though he only sometimes encounters pubic hair, Stew expects that a sexual interaction with a woman will be bare.
“Would you ever wax your shaft and testicles?” I ask, deadpan, but Stew thinks I’m kidding and laughs it off with no answer.
Stew participates in the hairless epidemic, but he and all the other men that have expectations may not be the ones to blame (at least not entirely). The college health center reported in May 2012 that an increasing number of male students were experiencing erectile dysfunction. Dr. William Hart who works at the center held pornography responsible. In the school newspaper, Hart stated that the students couldn’t get or maintain an erection with a partner, and came to him for Viagra. The commonality between these cases was porn. Hart comments, “In the majority of cases, the patients were habitual viewers of pornography, and had no difficulty with sexual performance when they were by themselves.” Porn may explain a lot of problems with sexually active individuals, and it can also explain the trend towards hairlessness. In particular, the women featured in porn have completely hairless vaginas, encouraging the rituals of hair removal.
So where did women learn to be hairless? More specifically, why have we reverted to hairlessness? The billion-dollar porn industry offers one answer, and Psychologist Quilliam agrees: “With the increasing availability of porn, the result is that shaven has come to be seen as the norm; sadly, almost every teenage lad worldwide may at some point have shared Ruskin's alleged belief that hairy female genitalia are an aberration.”
Of course, porn is not new. In fact, there were versions of pornographic images, sculptures, and even live performances of sexual interactions in ancient times. This continued into the 19th and 20th century, with video footage, peep shows, and the openings of different sex shops. In the 1990s, however, porn exploded due to the creation of DVDs and the Internet age. Here is where the shift from bush to bare is most prominent. With the increase in technology came the increase in visibility, and we could simply attribute the hairlessness in porn to practicality: trimmed or hairless genitalia allows viewers to see more vagina and more action. But this practicality can also explain our shift to hairlessness among the millennial generation. The psychology is simple: if I remove all my pubic hair, I will be more desirable to men and better at sex. For men – and all viewers of pornography – expectations are tampered, and bushes are not welcomed.
It’s 10:30 am on Friday, and the table feels warm like my own bed. I’m almost tempted to fall back asleep until my bare legs catch a swell of winter when Maya opens the door. The only protection I have is the unrolled white hand towel across my upper thighs.
“I’m feeling extra sensitive today,” I say. But I say this every time. Waxes with Maya don’t hurt compared to others I’ve received. She approaches the most painful areas with tender care, her stories comfort, and her speed always helps. But I still warn her, because even after four years of waxing, I still anticipate the heat burning me and the everlasting sting after each rip.
“Are you on your period? Or just starting it?” she asks, reminding me that pre-menstrual cycle is the worst time to wax because your body is extra delicate. She removes the protective towel and glances over her upcoming work.
“No.” I’m more practiced to know when I should and shouldn’t schedule a Brazilian.
Maya is already prepped with her blue latex gloves, and she begins wiping the oil cloth across my skin. She discards the cloth, takes a popsicle stick and jams it back and forth, up and down, in the tacky wax. I clench my fists and the first feeling of pounding sweat coats my body, still anticipating the worst.
“Lily’s getting sooo sassy. It’s nuts. The other day she used the F word on me... like excuse me? I don’t curse in front of you, so where’d you get that?” Maya attempts to amuse me, using her personal giggles to distract against the pain to come. “Right leg in a four please.” I listen and bend my leg so that my right foot rests against my left thigh in the shape of a 4. This position is crucial while waxing because it stretches the skin tight enough to ensure only the hair follicle is removed without damaging the skin.
She twirls the popsicle stick up from the pot and moves from the side table to the bed with a fresh lollipop of wax. It burns as she spreads a long strip of the light purple wax speckled with glitter right below my bikini line. Its pretty shine is deceiving.
“I’m taking her to the Jurassic World in Syracuse this weekend.” Rip. “We’re leaving later tonight.” My skin blushes, and Maya’s hand presses on the bareness to neutralize the pain. “The tickets for her were twice as much as they were for me... I was like, all right, whatever.”
“She’s kind of like a tomboy.” Deep breath in, rip... “The other day she was like ‘I wish I was a boy,’” ...and exhale as long as there’s pain. “But she’d keep her name to Lily because then no one would know her. I was like, fair enough.” I let out a laugh – Lily stories reduce pain. “Left leg in a four.”
The distraction continues and she’s switched topics. “I love driving in the snow. My car has really good all-wheel drive, so doing donuts is like fun,” she says as she spreads another nickel-thick layer of the purple glitter. “Butterfly your legs.”
This part is the worst. When you’re told to butterfly your legs, you know the waxer is about to wax the most private, most sensitive area on your body. I’m vulnerable, helpless, and could stop the barbaric pain at any minute, but I won’t and never have. At this point, my deep breathing is so heavy I could be in labor.
“Yeah, I hate that. My car skids too much,” I manage, in between an inhale, rip, and exhale. Eyes squeeze, fists clench, and everything twitches, but there’s nothing more that I can do. Inhale, rip, exhale. And once more, inhale, rip, exhale. Her blue latex hand rests on the red hot skin.
“You’ll never guess what happened the other day,” Maya says, waiting to spill another random conversation. “This lady came in, signed up for a Brazilian, and then asked me to design her pubic hair in the shape of a martini with not one but THREE olives on top.” Three fingers flew in my face, and finally, she’s landed the story that distracts me enough to subside my heaves of exhales. Rip, and I don’t even flinch. “THREE olives. In pubic hair. I was like ‘Darlin’, I’m not Picasso. The best you’ll get out of me is a lightening bolt,” Maya says shaking her head with absurdity.
“Okay, knees up,” Maya commands, and I lift my cross-legged legs and pull them close into my chest. Two strips of wax slap me, rip and rip, and I’m relieved. It’s over.
Maya peels off the blue gloves and trashes the left over popsicle sticks. She admires her work: a perfectly bare vagina, still red but in recovery, and completed in only seven minutes.
Her technique is flawless. She keeps the wax dial on “high” because her next appointment is another Brazilian and leaves the room to allow me to change.
I rise from the table sore, slide up my underwear with ease, and then my sweatpants – wearing real pants after a Brazilian is too much for me. I open the door to the kitchen area where I check out. The same obscene price appears on the screen, but I swipe my card anyway, sign my name, and book my next appointment with Maya for four weeks later.
*details about place and name have all been changed for privacy purposes.