If there’s anything that’s taught me how backwards our views of women’s body hair are, it’s clothing-optional resorts.
At Hedonism II in Jamaica, a man called my full bush a “lobster trap,” and another asked if I smoked weed because it made me look “like a hippy.” At Desire Riviera Maya in Mexico, someone told my boyfriend he “just had to do something” and then gave my pubes a pat. Pubic hair may not be as commonplace as it was in '70s porn, but it’s still fetishized as an exotic commodity because it isn't a mainstream beauty standard (when it’s not being criticized as unhygienic or unladylike, that is).
Before all this, I had no idea sporting pubic hair was that unusual. But when I looked around, I saw I was, in fact, the only woman at these resorts with it. Maybe some would take this newfound knowledge about body hair norms as motivation to conform to them, but I took it as a challenge: Not only would I leave my pubic hair and leg hair alone next time I came to Desire; I’d grow out my armpit hair and stop plucking the hairs that grow in circles around my nipples.
As a rule, I don't shave my legs anyway. As for armpit hair, I’m not opposed to in principle, but I typically shave it for two reasons. One is that the more it grows out, the more I can smell my armpits, and that’s unpleasant for me. The other is the fear of social judgement. Not only do I not want people smelling what I smell; I’m afraid of how they’ll react to seeing bunches of hair under my armpits, since it's more noticeable than my leg hair.
But the nipple hair was probably my biggest source of anxiety. My OB/GYN has reassured me it’s not a problem and the only reason it seems unusual is that other women remove it too, but the thought of having hair on my breasts makes me feel unfeminine. That was a feeling worth challenging, though. I’m not interested in conforming to my society’s ideals of femininity, especially if that means disapproving of how my body naturally looks. I wanted to let go of every last bit of shame around my appearance.
And so, I returned to Desire with all my body hair intact. It wasn’t long before I got my first unsolicited comment. “You’re a very sexy couple,” one man told my boyfriend and I before gesturing to my crotch. “I think that looks great. I don’t see why women feel the need to remove it.”
But surprisingly, none of my hair came up at all after that, which was refreshing but left me curious. So, I decided to ask my boyfriend what he thought of my body hair over lunch. I kind of knew this was a mistake before I opened my mouth.
“I’m fine with it,” he said. “Except I don’t love the nipple hair.” The table became silent.
“I don’t know, it’s just not sexy to me.”
I was crushed. Here I was trying to affirm that every inch of my body in its natural state was beautiful, and the person I’d trusted to love and approve of it didn’t even agree. It saddened me to think about the times during the trip that he’d looked at and touched my nipples. I wondered what had been going through his head. I didn’t know how I’d take my shirt off around him again without those thoughts entering my mind.
Instead of sharing these feelings, I intellectualized my reaction. “I’d encourage you to examine where your ideas about what is and isn’t sexy are coming from,” I said. “Lots of women have hair on their nipples, and it’s only because of unrealistic porn images that they seem abnormal to you.”
“I’m just giving my opinion,” he said. “That’s not fair to ask the question then get mad at me for being honest.”
We finished eating and got up. “Do you want to go to the room and talk about it?” he asked.
“Do you have anything more to say?”
“Just that I like your body and I like your breasts and I think you’re sexy and you should know that.”
“But you don’t like all of my body or my breasts,” I replied. “I think I need some time alone.”
It just so happened that an hour later, I’d scheduled a call with my friend and colleague Marissa Nelson, a marriage and family therapist and sex therapist. “Could I get your advice on something?” I asked before explaining the situation to her.
“I’m going to give you some tough love here,” she said. “These are your issues. He didn’t say he doesn’t like your body. He didn’t say he doesn’t like your breasts. We all have preferences for how our partner looks and things about their bodies we don’t love. If you punish him for being honest, he’s going to start keeping things from you.”
“OK, but what do I do now? I get what you’re saying, but I still feel like crap.”
“You have two options. You can say, ‘The hair on my nipples bothers me - I’m going to remove it so I feel more confident and my partner likes it.’ Or you can say, ‘I like myself this way. It’s OK if that’s not how my partner prefers it - it’s my body.”
“I choose the second option,” I said. “I don’t want to change myself for someone else. That would be giving in to the insecurity.” I’d been concerned about other people’s views of my body, but maybe this was an opportunity to improve how I viewed myself.
After a massage at the spa, I found my partner on the beach. “Want to go swimming?” I said. We got in the water.
“Do you still like me?” he asked, catching me off guard.
“Do you like my nipples?”
“Yes, I never said I didn’t like your nipples.”
“So you like them better one way, but you like them both ways?”
“Yes. And if there’s a preference you have about my body, you can say that, too.”
I hesitated. “OK. I like when you keep your beard exactly this length.” I gestured to the stubble covering his chin.
“I know it looks shitty when I grow it out,” he laughed. “I’m just too lazy to shave sometimes.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this conversation. I’d avoided bringing up his beard in the past for a reason: I don’t believe it’s our business what other people, even our partners, do with their bodies. Then, later that evening, I met a woman in the hot tub who was afraid to remove her bathing suit bottom because she was the only woman she’d seen there with pubic hair. “I feel weird about it,” she said.
“I have it too and I don’t feel weird,” I told her. “The only weird thing is that we’re the only ones.”
“I don’t like how it feels,” she said. “But my husband says he wants me to look like a woman, and real women have hair down there.”
Her story made me wonder where the line was between having a preference with regard to your partner’s body and being controlling. What if my partner hadn’t been asked for his opinion - would it have been OK for him to express it? What if he’d asked me to style the hair the way he liked, as this woman’s partner did. Would that be crossing the line? What if he expressed an opinion about something less easily changeable, like the shape or size of my breasts? Would that be OK?
To get a second opinion, I reached out to psychiatrist Susan Edelman, author of Be Your Own Brand of Sexy: A New Sexual Revolution. She had a different perspective from Nelson.
“We live in a culture which believes you should be able to be completely open with your partner at all times about everything. I don't think that is the key to a healthy relationship,” she said. “There are some subjects that are landmines in your relationship: how many sexual partners you've had, his penis size, whether she could lose a few pounds or her breasts could be more appealing to you. Why go there?”
In my case, I shouldn’t have even asked the question, but Edelman believes a more diplomatic answer would have been, "I love you the way you are." She adds, “I don't see how it helps a relationship to get into body preferences, solicited or unsolicited.”
Both experts I consulted do seem to agree on one thing: What our partners think of our body hair shouldn’t be important to us. It’s understandable to care: We rely on our partners for unconditional love and approval. But ideally, what they think shouldn’t determine what we think. We should feel confident enough in ourselves to approve of our bodies regardless of anyone else’s opinion. Then, not only will our partners’ preferences not bother us; we won’t be asking about them in the first place.
Still, I don’t think I’ll be asking my partner (or anyone) what they think of my body hair ever again.