In 2014, my friend Tess and I went to see a comedy called “The Other Woman,” starring Leslie Mann and Cameron Diaz. Its jokes were dumb and obvious, and although the film was written by a woman and purported to be about the power of female friendship, it was insultingly sexist. Its biggest selling point was its apolitical mindlessness; it had no original ideas, and we didn’t want to see anything that might have made us think.
As a bookish, half-Jewish woman—the earnest daughter of a second-wave feminist—I rarely wear makeup and always wear glasses (not to look smart, but because I need them to see). I have worn the same pair of comfy Gap sales-rack jeans for the last four years. The fanciest outfit I wear on a regular basis is a black sweater dress over black leggings. Tess, though, is a glamorous platinum blonde with a multi-colored wardrobe—a real-life shiksa goddess.
We met in a graduate writing program. Most of our classmates were writing about big, sad, serious subjects: rape and murder and mental illness. Aside from a vague ambition to write, I didn’t know what I wanted. At the time, I was mostly writing long, boring, pointless essays about an ex-boyfriend. I was deeply anxious. Tess was sharp, confident, funny, and vibrant, a bracingly irreverent writer with an eye for indelible details.
There was a scene in the movie about waxing. The sad, aging, sexless wife played by Leslie Mann had to be tutored in proper feminine hygiene by the sexually sophisticated Cameron Diaz character. Afterward, I said something about how I could totally relate to the Leslie Mann character. I rarely waxed or shaved or did anything at all to my hair “down there.” I have paid for a bikini wax maybe twice in my life, both times before family trips to Florida.
Tess was stunned. Then she laughed. “Oh my god!” she squealed incredulously. “But you sleep with MEN!” I shrugged. “I’ve never had a complaint,” I said. It was true: I’ve always slept with men who don’t mind pubic hair or would find it too disgustingly patriarchal to tell me if they did. Feminists didn’t do that sort of thing, I thought. And besides, the handful of times I did wax, it felt weird: unnatural and uncomfortable, like I was extra-naked in an upsetting, exposed way, not a sexy, fun one. But I was embarrassed to realize what an out-of-touch weirdo I was. According to Tess, every woman our age (we were around 30 at the time) got bikini waxes.
For a week or so I worried that my OkCupid dates were secretly revolted by my unmodified body. Then I decided that I didn’t care. Maybe some guys were grossed out, or at least surprised, but that didn’t have to be my problem. Who had the money for such nonsense? Who wanted to walk around with an itchy vagina for weeks in between appointments? What was pro-woman about paying an immigrant lady $2 an hour to apply hot wax to your genitals?
Waxing never became a regular part of my life. But sometimes I remember Tess’s reaction to my innocent revelation and smile.
When I was younger I signaled my feminism by opting out of gendered conventions: I resisted shaving my legs (but ultimately caved); I tried not to obsess about my diet or weight. But now I can see that, oppressive grooming habits aside, there are ways in which Tess is the better feminist: where I am weak and afraid (of anything new, of minor changes to my routine, of traveling alone) Tess is bold and adaptable. Alone, she has visited countries where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. She has published one book and is working on the next. She knows how to get what she wants. What you do (or don’t do) to your body hair says something about you, but not everything.
Raina Lipsitz writes about politics and gender for The Nation, The Appeal, and Jewish Currents, among other publications.