If you know me in real life and would feel uncomfortable thinking about my genitals LOOK AWAY NOW
They call it the “Chemo Brazilian”.
Everyone knows your hair falls out when you have chemo, but no one really thinks about the fact it affects all your hair follicles. There’s a therapy that can help prevent hair loss on the head but there’s nothing to protect the rest of it. Underarm hair, leg hair, arms, eyebrows. Pubes.
I remember my first pube, the shock of looking down in the showers after swimming practice and seeing one long, feral dark hair curling out of my naked pudenda. I bent over for a better look. It was long and coarse. With a queasy twinge of pride and shame, I pulled it out, violently. I was 10 years old.
I have never been particularly in tune with / aware of my body, and I don’t remember paying my burgeoning body hair too much attention until I was about 13 when Mum said it would be okay to defoliate. Clearly my new foliage was apparent to others by then. She thought I should skip shaving, and go straight to waxing, so one day I sat on the bench in her bathroom, hands in the air like a hostage at gunpoint, while she slathered hot wax on my wild, untamed underarm hairs and waited for it to cool.
When she ripped off the first one, I screeched! I thought she had ripped the flesh from my bones. I know now that a judicious trim could have saved some angst but at the time, I just refused to let her anywhere near me, instead awkwardly and stubbornly melting the pad of wax off my other underarm with hot water, hot flannels, the hairdryer and lots of crying and shouting.
Beauty, they say, is pain.
Who are ‘they’ anyway?
So began a decades’ long losing battle against my own body. I’m actually not even that hairy. If I went completely natural I’d have hardly any hair on my legs and arms (although left unchecked my ‘bush’ provides coverage over a vast swathe of my upper thighs). I remember girls at school fretting over whether to shave their arms or not, and feeling grateful that wasn’t me. I do, however, grow hairs in ‘unwomanly’ places: on my chin, around my nipples, in a line from my pubis to my navel. This was a source of shame for me in my teens, so much so that after I had a grand mal seizure on a school trip I was pulling my shirt down over my belly even while I was still unconscious. That’s how much I’d internalised the idea my natural body hair was gross: even unconscious I was ashamed.
Like most women, I have tried everything. Depilatory creams stink and sting your eyes. Those “Epilady” things are just tiny torture devices. Waxing is efficient but expensive done by a pro, and hazardous done alone, plus you have to wait until it’s a certain length before you can repeat. Laser Hair Removal seemed promising but it was expensive and you have to stick to a strict program for it to work. I moved changed jobs mid-program and could no longer get to the clinic (“Can I have time off to have lasers burn my hair follicles, please boss?”). Shaving is quick and convenient but fraught with hazard (who hasn’t shaved an inch of flesh of their shin??) and you’re forced to engage with the special bullshit of razor marketing every time you shop.
And no matter what you do, it all grows back. You’re like King Tut trying to hold back the tide. It never fucking ends.
Until you have chemo. My razor has hung in its place in the shower for months, untouched. Hallelujah!
If there’s anything that highlights the insanity of society’s attitude to hair on women’s bodies, surely the fact that female cancer patients celebrate the loss of their body hair as a ‘bright side’ is it? That women achieve the state desired by society by poisoning our bodies so that cells die?
First, just like with Mum in the bathroom, my underarm hair went. After the surgery to remove the lymph nodes in my arm I wasn’t allowed to use spray deodorant and the friction on the roll on was enough to remove the few hairs that tried to go after I started chemo. The nipple hairs valiantly struggled on for a bit, causing a few ingrown hairs in the healing incision on the breast I had surgery on, but that didn’t last too long.
Next, it was the pubes.
I haven’t lost all my hair (yet). I’m trying really hard not to rub my eyes, so I don’t lose my eyelashes, and my eyebrows are pale shadows of their former selves, and there’s a bald patch on one. My legs have a fine fuzz of thin, pale hairs. I haven’t bothered shaving them since…March or April.
In case anyone is unclear, Brazilian waxing involves the removal of all hair from the pubis and vulva (and the anus, or ‘crack’, if you’re really committed). If this is news to you, you’re probably wincing, and rightly so, there are some tender bits down there. Ripping wax off them hurts. There’s risk of infection if it isn’t done properly. And then they grow back. If you think ingrown hairs are a bitch, wait until you’ve got a crop of them where your lady garden should be. Itch? That ain’t the half of it.
And you pay for this! From $AU35-$AU90 a visit, every 3-6 weeks. And that’s JUST for the Brazilian. Year after year after year.
I tried it though, because everyone was doing it and yes, Mum, I would jump off a cliff if everyone else was doing it.
The finished result looked alien but the novelty was fun and it certainly gave us something new in the mix in bed. But the next day I had a rash ALL OVER which itched insanely—the heat and humidity of Queensland does not help things—AND I discovered that actually that hair ‘down there’ helps with keeping things nice, like directing the flow of pee and catching stray drops. Removing all your pubic hair is not ‘returning to a child-like state’ as some would have it: children HAVE hair covering their genitals.
Personally, I got bored with investing time and money in deforestation and settled on a happy medium that works for me. Now, of course, the choice is out of my hands.
With the Chemo Brazilian, friction is a factor in what goes when. Wiping…moves things along, so half way through my treatment I find myself with naked labia. The hair on my bikini line has gone thanks to knicker elastic, and the hair is especially thin where the crotch of my trousers and jeans rub—but there’s still some hair. To be honest, it’s not a good look. The hair is sparse now, except for a healthy fringe where my little belly overhangs. What is there is thin and straggly, there are no shiny curls. I don’t think it will catch on—but stranger things have happened.
Every so often there’s a new rash of media coverage of the “issue”: should I shave? Can I be a feminist and go Brazilian? A naked dating show in the UK recently had the audience asking what happened to pubes. The story implies this is because ‘46% of men prefer it’.
What young women hear is that they must remove their body hair, that their natural body is gross and unsightly, that to avoid shame and to ‘deserve’ a man, they must attack their body with chemicals, blades and hot wax.
Let me tell you, young ladies, that’s a pile of horse shit.
Yes, you can be a feminist and shave your vaj. Hell, vajazzle your vaj if you want: feminism is about sticking up for rights, not whether you have glitter on your genitals. Don’t do it because you think men will think you are gross if you don’t. The kind of man (or woman) who thinks that has no business being anywhere near it.
The Chemo Brazilian is by no means the worst side effect of chemotherapy for partners to deal with. Taking a bigger share of the load at home, watching your partner in pain, maybe injecting them with drugs, maybe cleaning up their toxic vomit and faeces.
You can primp your pussy all you like for a date. You can maintain a strict grooming regimen for someone else—at great discomfort, expense, inconvenience and opportunity cost to yourself—for an indefinite period, provided you have the money and the time and the stamina. But if you’re in a relationship with someone, you want them to be with the real you, not some façade that you have to work at to maintain some fake standard. Life is not neat and tidy and neither are human bodies and when shit gets real you want to be with someone who gets that.