Monday, October 25, 2010

A surprisingly delicate subject*

Lately I've been spending more shifts in the surgical suite, where I check on patients' wellbeing after their abortions, sterilize instruments, or play some role in the procedure itself. Often that means serving as a "patient advocate" (attending to a woman's emotional and physical experience of the procedure, similar to the role of abortion doulas) or as an interpreter. But I'm also spending more shifts assisting the doctor providing the abortion, and that means seeing lots of vaginas.

Vulvas, to be more exact, of which the vagina is really only a small part. And here's one thing I keep incidentally noticing when I'm on this side of the sheet and stirrups: many women's vulvas are shaved! Not merely trimmed, but all the way de-pubed (whether bald or stubbly).

I don't want to be overly crass. And I'm certainly not judging -- over the years I've gone through many "hairstyles" myself. It's just that I started wondering why it's so common. I came up with a couple of possibilities:

1) That's just a lot of people's preferred habit, and the appointment day is just a day like any other.

2) You've heard that before a surgery, you're supposed to shave the area to be operated on. You figure that might be true of a "surgical" abortion even though you've been told there's no cutting involved. (You can't automatically know that a sterile speculum will be used to hold your vagina open, so that the sterile dilators and cannula don't touch your vulva on their way to your uterus, which is much more sensitive to germs than your vagina or vulva.)

3) A stranger is going to see your vulva, and that makes you anxious about being hairy. So you shave before going for pap smears, and this gyno visit is no different in that respect. You've seen "Knocked Up," and that woman's vulva -- in the middle of giving birth -- was, well, strikingly bald. Actually, how did she pull that off with her theatrically giant belly in the way? If Katherine Heigl's body double (vagina double?) had to be shaved for a delivery scene, it must mean real-life women ought to be trimmed to that aesthetic at a moment's notice, because what if you have to go to the doctor? A shaved vulva is basically the new clean-pair-of-underpants, amirite?

In contemplating these, I found myself really hoping that #3 is not at play, because I'd hate for an appointment that's likely staffed with strangers and already stressful to generate that unnecessary layer of extra anxiety. Note to potential patients: Don't worry! No one here will have a problem with your hair. At least at your abortion, of all places, of all times, I hope you can rest easy with your vulva the way it is.

Unfortunately, I also found myself thinking that my least favorite hypothesis seems like the most plausible.

And with that, we conclude the shoddiest descriptive study ever.

*The hesitation I felt when writing this post did take me by surprise. I blog about abortion, for chrissake! What could be a more delicate subject than that? But take an important personal decision, mix in the "violation of privacy" feeling that many of us get from any brush with the old stirrups and duck-lips, and then bring up pubic hair, which at a minimum probably calls up most people's anxious memories of being twelve years old and wondering if you've got too much, too little, too bushy, too wiry, omfg...And suddenly adult-you can't figure out if this feels weird because you're violating HIPAA (you're not), because you're talking about something dirty (you're not), or because you're acknowledging you saw people's vulvas (well, duh). (Otherwise you'd be doing abortions blindfolded, right?) (PPS, a nurse friend recently told me that standard nursing textbooks instruct to "note hair distribution" during a vaginal exam!)

Anyway -- I promise I wasn't staring; I promise I didn't take mental note of how much you, as an individual patient, grow/trim; and I promise that whatever you personally do with your personal hair is no biggie to me. We'll offer you safe, friendly care no matter what's underneath the sheet. Even if for some reason you've got it
painstakingly waxed into an Italian status symbol.


  1. I think its a lot of people's preferred habit-- it seems its almost a "trend" of the younger generation. Sometimes I think maybe its a cleanliness thing (as in, no visible STDs) but I think its also just seen as more attractive now. I wonder how such a trend would get started?

  2. Re: #3, some (most?) OBs actually shave you before delivery, for no real medical reason. Maybe it's preemptive in case you'll need an episiotomy, I dunno. But I remember my mom and aunt discussing this once, about their preference for midwives because docs require shaving.

    I think there is an overall increase in hair shaving/waxing, mostly from anectodal evidence and from upsurges in waxing facilities, products, styles, and methods. I think it's mostly a male-centered preference, likely influenced by excessive porn.

  3. I used to get waxed regularly when I was single because I liked it better. My bf now happens to prefer it, but I actually only went and got waxed after we'd been together for a month. I told him I didn't mind getting waxed but as I student, I didn't have the funds for it. So he pays. I can't complain. He doesn't have BC costs, so he can have maintenance costs!

  4. I'd guess more on number one, because personally it feels less messy and more comfortable to have either nothing or just short hair. I can't imagine letting it grow back again now that I'm used to it this way, and definitely not for a doctor's appointment.

    Although I probably wouldn't shave the day before an appointment where I'd have to expose myself either. Contrary to what you say on number three, I think I'd be more self-conscious going completely bare.

  5. I would like to say I love every thing about this post. I have thought about people's shaving or not shaving only because I'm curiouse why some are so clean shaven. Someone I know who has worked in OBGYN care for 40 years swears more white women shave. Personally I don't shave but I'm all about personal preference.Also it is a surprisingly delicate subject because I have my preferences but each person has a different opinion or feeling about hair and hair removel and most importantly it is such a personal subject..again this post was so aweosme!

  6. After some unpleasant period + pubes= tangles= ow incidents, I would certainly get rid of it all before an abortion.

  7. anti-anti, I didn't know that, about OBs usually doing a shave. With all the rushing-to-the-hospital and general stress and physical inconvenience that labor & delivery seem to involve, that makes me wonder WHEN exactly the shaving takes place. Between contractions, with your fingers crossed that they don't start up again unexpectedly and cause you a kick to the face?

  8. Also, since several of you were generous enough to share you hairstories, I'll reiterate that I've traveled the spectrum, from full-bush to brazilian-waxed, back and forth many times, and could easily make a case for or against any of it. There's something to be said for finding you feel "cleaner" or "less painful" or "more sensitive" with your hair altered or removed. Then again, we go through a good deal of pain or inconvenience to get that way, and those benefits do seem suspiciously useful in justifying what you might consider a patriarchal expectation, or something that's on its way to being an expectation. (How often do you see full pubic bush in mainstream anything? Basically the vibe I get is "It's not the 70s anymore.") Obviously our thoughts and comments about this, including ones about personal preference, are tapping into a whole cultural conversation!

  9. Ms. Sandwich, I'm glad I'm not the only one who has noticed the shaving trend. (During days I've assisted the MD, a handful of patients have actually APOLOGIZED to me for not having shaved!) Like you, I've been hairy and bare and everything in between, and I think that porn has set the standard for what is considering aesthetically pleasing. (I had no idea women were "supposed" to shave ALL of their pubic hair until my freshman year of college when I saw a centerfold posted in some frat house.) Unfortunately, male partners' preferences have unduly influenced my decisions. (I think it is not insignificant that the more progressive the partner, the less likely he was to give a damn whether or not I spent my time and money on shaving.)

    ps It's my understanding, based on nothing more than a faithful following of "Mad Men", that nurses would shave women pre-delivery in the OB ward. Why, I have no idea. (Now that I think about it, someone could probably write an entire series of Abortioneers posts about themes of pregnancy, abortion, birth control, adoption, etc. in that show ...)


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