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Pathologising pubic hair: the practice of pre-delivery shaving and hygienic hair-modifying behaviours in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain

Laura Cofield
(University of Sussex)

In 2014, a Mintel survey identified that eighty-three per cent of men and women agreed that public hair removal made them feel more hygienic. This is despite a public call to end pubic hair removal by physicians such as Emily Gibson (M.D) who has described the hairless trend as ‘a sadly misconceived war’ (Guardian 2012). Pornography, the fashion industry and celebrity pop culture are accused of coercing both men and women into extensively cultivating their pubic hair. However, the role physicians and the medical establishment have had in perpetuating the desire for hairlessness has been overlooked.

As a case study this paper explores the routinized practice of pre-delivery shaving of women’s pubic hair during childbirth between the 1930s and late 1980s to comprehend how ideas regarding hairlessness, hygiene and health coalesced. The normalization of this custom demonstrates changing clinical behaviour towards the pregnant female body, developments in hair removal technologies and shifting attitudes to cleanliness during the mid-twentieth century. The growth and decline of the practice of pre-delivery shaving, as well as significant moments of resistance against it reveal the extent to which control and surveillance of female bodies came under medical jurisdiction and helps to elucidate how contemporary hair-modifying behaviours have become part of a wider dialogue of personal self-care and physical and emotional well-being in British society.