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July 2005 Cover
July 2005 Cover

 Speaking Out (of his mind!) Speaking Out Archive  
July 2005 Email this to a friend
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Hair Today...
Your Mother Was a Plucker, But Are You a Cock Tweeze?
By Blanche Poubelle

Miss Poubelle was interested to see that a recent compilation-- The Big Book of Filth-- lists about a hundred slang terms for a woman's pubic hair. Many of these are quite obscure, but many readers will recognize muff and beaver among them.

The puzzle is that the same book lists no words for male pubic hair-- and apparently that's because such slang terms don't exist. So why does English apparently have no words that refer exclusively to a man's pubic hair, but plenty that refer to a woman's pubic hair?

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Just to be clear, it's possible that there are some slang terms that can refer to pubic hair of either sex. There are some instances of bush being used with males, as in this quote from the 1959 Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz "Milty ran off crying... 'What is it, pussy-lamb?' 'I'm never going to grow a bush, Mummy.'" In this passage, Milty is a boy, so bush is referring to male pubic hair. Although Blanche must say that this sounds a bit odd to her, a Google search does turn up a few other instances of male bush, e.g. "He was smiling at me as I explored his bush." Even though the great majority of instances of bush refer to females, it may be that this slang term just means "pubic hair" for some English speakers.

There are also slang terms that apparently can only refer to females. So Google finds thousands of hits for her beaver and her muff, but no relevant hits for his beaver or his muff. There is nothing like muff for men, and it is natural to ask why.

Most parts of men's bodies and women's bodies are pretty much the same. So we don't have different words for nose, toe, eyebrow, or elbow that vary for gender. Women's pubic hair is not really different from men's in any biological sense, but its special linguistic status is probably related to its special cultural status.

Men may have hair on many parts of their bodies-- faces, arms, legs, chest-- and in most contexts there is no reason that other people may not see this hair. Public depictions of men with body hair are common and unremarkable.

Not so with women. In most places, the only hair that is considered publicly acceptable grows on the top of the head. Hair in any other place needs to be hidden or removed. In fact, in the Western artistic tradition until the 19th century, female bodies were always depicted as hairless. La Maja desnuda (1800), by the Spanish painter Goya, is believed to be the first Western painting to show a nude woman with pubic hair, and caused a scandal when it appeared.

The English critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of those who was unnerved by the existence of female pubic hair. He had grown up seeing Greek statues of ideal, smooth women, and apparently did not know that women even had pubic hair. The story goes that on his wedding night, he was so shocked and disgusted by his bride's muff that he could not perform, and the marriage was later annulled.

Even today, when we presumably are more conversant with reality, female hair-removal is still a major industry. Cosmetology students must take courses in all the manners of bleaching, plucking, shaving, waxing, and zapping hair that is considered to be out of place. Blanche would speculate that the amount spent on such procedures in the US each year must exceed the gross national product of many third-world countries!

Pubic hair, since it is nearly always covered by clothing, is an exception to the ban on female body hair. It is often considered disgusting for women to have hairy armpits or legs, but pubic hair doesn't (yet) fall within the public ban.

Returning to the puzzle raised at the beginning of the column, it seems that female pubic hair is different from male pubic hair in terms of social attitudes. As the only acceptable form of body hair for women, it stands out on a naked woman in a way that it does not on a naked man. So what is socially exceptional is also linguistically exceptional, and gets a special name.

Yet Blanche wonders about the future of our attitudes towards body hair. Men are increasingly engaging in the same shaving/waxing/plucking/zapping of body hair that used to be a female domain. Are we moving toward a culture where no visible body hair is acceptable for either sex? If so, maybe English slang a few centuries from now will reflect the cultural shift with an equivalent growth in the slang terminology for men. Anyone for man-muff or boy-beaver?

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