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Why has body-hair removal shifted from a choice to a necessity for women?

Lady Gaga has Grover pits – and this is good. Her costume at a recent Toronto awards show included pit-wigs and a merkin as flowing as Barbie hair and as blue as your favourite Sesame Street puppet. These synthetic thatches were revealed at the end of a romping rendition of Born This Way. Of course, Gaga probably wasn't born exactly that way, but I tip my hat to this reminder that, yes, women have body hair.

That biological fact has been quietly entombed in the decade since waxing moved from an occasional indulgence to a beauty norm. In 1999, Gwyneth Paltrow endorsed the Brazilian. A year later, Sex and the City did a Brazilian-overkill storyline and, along with our hair, we were off. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians spent $4.5-billion on personal-care services, including aesthetics, in 2009, a 1.4-per-cent increase over 2008.

Men, too, are no longer immune to hair terror (hairror?). When disgraced former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner sent nude pictures into the electronic ether, his problem wasn't just that his pecs and genitals were unclothed (though, really, that's the first issue). The next question: What to make of the waxing? The exhibitionist perversion was one thing, but the preening vanity is another, the latter being the precise flaw that would make him think he could get away with such extramarital shenanigans.

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But Weiner's no anomaly: Furry Burt Reynolds would never become a heartthrob in the age of lacquered Ryan Reynolds. Toronto's guys-only Men's PowerSpa recently celebrated its fifth anniversary and offered father-son Father's Day treatments. Nothing says "male bonding" like a date for testicle waxing, which, by the way, sounds agonizing and just wrong: Would you handle a robin's egg with a flaming blowtorch?

Some anthropologists believe that we crave the erasure of any sign of our former animal selves, including mysterious, not-quite-useful pubic hair. Women who bemoan the decline of chest hair may take pleasure in the marked differences between men and women, revelling in the pelt of the man's man. But this door swings both ways, as female hairlessness is an exaggeration of the fact that women usually have less body hair.

Whether it's simple narcissism or a fun sex thing – a kind of HD upgrading of visual stimulus – the most relaxed attitude toward waxing is that it's about freedom of choice, as innocuous a style decision as one's shoe colour: I like it. You don't. To each his or her own.

But for women, waxing seems to have shifted from choice to routine necessity, less pedicure than tooth brushing. Recently, England's Daily Mail newspaper sent a writer out to experience the "showgirl," a full-body wax that vanquishes knuckle hairs, downy cheeks, even nose hairs – every piece drenched in hot wax and torn from the follicle for an "egg-like" perfection costing a mere £175 ($275). (Oh, the armies of journalists sent off to get waxed since the late nineties, trading their Mencken-Amanpour aspirations for the beloved stunt piece! Such crackerjack reporting is usually assigned to an underpaid junior female writer, though male journalists can heed its siren call: Even Christopher Hitchens wrote – hilariously – in Vanity Fair about surviving a reduction of the "back, sack and crack.")

What are we setting ourselves up for with the ubiquity of body-hair warfare? Let's ask 19th-century essayist John Ruskin. On his wedding night in 1848, Ruskin, apparently for the first time, encountered the naked body of his muse and inspiration, Effie Gray. As the contentious story goes, she disrobed and Ruskin did a Victorian spit take. One theory is that he could not stand the sight of her pubic hair, which failed to match the smooth ideal of his beloved Greek statues. (A less lofty explanation goes: He liked 'em young.) The relationship was never consummated and the marriage eventually annulled. Wrote Gray to her family: "… he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and … the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening."

"He had imagined women were quite different" – this is it. The problem arises when the fantasy eclipses the reality and the reality comes to seem revolting and deviant. If waxing is just one page in the sex playbook, then okay. But when a beauty treatment goes from playful to imperative, when the real, hairy body no longer has a place in the masculine (or feminine, if we're headed that way) imagination, when pain and money become the standard – then sexy is dead. The salons and spas become part of what psychoanalyst Susie Orbach calls "the merchants of beauty hatred," peddling an endless bodily discontent. So here's, once again, to Lady Gaga, whose loud and proud blue pubic hair calls for a new imagining of primal sexiness.

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