Jan. 27, 2014 at 1:54 PM ET
If you've flipped through any celebrity or fashion magazine — or, for a clearer picture, a copy of Playboy — over the past 10 years or so, you've seen the growing (or rather diminishing) trend in hair down there. Bikini areas have gone bald, if you're to draw conclusions from what you can't see on the ladies in the sheer dresses.
But recently celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jenny McCarthy have let on that they prefer a more natural look. Kathie Lee Gifford made her feelings about female grooming uncomfortably clear a while back on TODAY. Add to the celeb praise of the "'70s vibe" the addition of merkins to American Apparel mannequins and the appearance of a character in “Girls" flashing abundant foliage, and it seems like a backlash might be in the works.
Gwen Flamberg, Beauty Director at Us Weekly, says that while the "the hairless style" may still be predominant, "for better or worse" American Apparel has set beauty trends, and "with Cameron Diaz speaking out about going natural, we may see the pendulum swinging in the other direction."
But before we get into the backlash, let's take a look at when and why it all seems to have disappeared. Of course, artwork back to antiquity depicts smooth nether regions, while online chatter credits, or blames, '80s pornographic movies and magazines for the most recent extreme trimming fad.
"There is no real historical data," says Debby Herbenick, a research scientist at Indiana University who has studied trends in hair removal. But her recollection would place the start of the current deforestation movement in the late '90s and early 2,000s — around the time that Gwyneth Paltrow was quoted saying that having a Brazilian changed her life (yes, that same Gwyneth Paltrow). Flamberg says that Brazilian bikini waxes, in which most, but not all, hair is removed came into vogue about 15 years ago, but the "full assault" started between five and 10 years ago. Also placing the loss of even the tiniest landing strip around 10 years ago is Dr. Doris Day, a NYC-based dermatologist who specializes in the laser removal of said hairs, among other treatments.
The experts agree that age is a factor when it comes to hair removal, with young women being much more likely to go bare. "All my friends who are in their 20s have been grooming like that for always," says Flamberg. She thinks that the "Mr. Bigglesworth" look is fostered by celebrity fashion in magazines — bandage dresses, miniskirts, tiny bikinis, and other clothes that are "super-short, super-tight, and show off absolutely everything."
So what's with the pushback? First off, Herbenick's research shows that the completely bare trend was never as widespread as a fashion magazine or pornography might make one think. As for "retro bush" or "hipster bush" (two terms she's heard used), she says, "I certainly think it's something that more and more people are talking about." She cites a recent Playboy centerfold model who refused to go completely bare, as well as a newer genre of pornography that shuns excessive shaving, as signs of a wide range of acceptable grooming practices.
"All of those are positive trends," she adds. "I hope if anything it represents that women can choose to do what they want with their pubic hair."
The reasons for the growback range from practical to philosophical. On the practical front, there's the hassle, discomfort and cost of waxing, shaving, depilatories, and laser treatment — and the more you remove, the greater those physical and financial pains can be. Herbenick says in a declined economy, fewer people spend money on waxing. Plus, she says, as the generation for whom total hair removal became the norm get older and enter committed relationships, they might be easing up on their strict shaving and waxing routines. "How long are you going to do that?" she asks.
There are also some genuine health concerns associated with hair removal, from relatively minor (ingrown hairs and rashes) to more serious, such as a greater risk of certain infections, including herpes and HPV, while the skin is healing, says Day. However, she points out that these risks are "in the short run, right after" hair removal, adding that she doesn't see hair removal as a health — or moral — issue.
Herbenick, concurs, pointing out that those health risks would exist with any amount of hair removal, even just a light shave around the bikini line. "We are not really dealing with health risks — a more important concern is how women feel about their bodies and choosing what they do with their bodies, even if it's just a small thing," she says. Which brings us to the philosophical front: Historically, some feminists have shunned shaving, as have those who consider themselves free spirits. "I think that it does represent being more natural, being more self confident" for some women, says Flamberg.
Beyond the practical and philosophical concerns, there are the simple vagaries of fashion. Day notes that we're in an age when multiple styles and trends coexist — just as skirts can be short, medium, or long, we might be in an era of anything goes when it comes to bikini lines.
"It's a personal preference," says Flamberg, adding that the same rule applies to body hair as to any other beauty or fashion trend: "Wear it with confidence."