A REPORT ON A TOPIC OF CONCERN TO ALL AMERICANS: You may not believe this, but in the years between 1960 and 1980 and even for some years afterwards, pubic hair was everywhere you looked here in this our Great Republic. One could scarcely open a magazine in that halcyon and very hirsute era without seeing pubic hair in such profusion that the confused reader had to check the magazine’s cover to make sure he was looking at the most recent issue of Playboy and not some religious tract featuring a gaggle of elderly rabbis debating some arcane point of Talmudic lore. The movies of the time were no better in this regard. A moviegoer in those years could hardly sit down with his bag of popcorn and start to eat it before the screen bombarded him with bush so thick that he half-expected to see images of grim machete-wielding conquistadors chopping their way through the foliage as they searched for the seven lost cities of gold. The television news covered story after story of the bush wars in Africa, especially those in Angola and Rhodesia, and John and Yoko appeared bush-visible on the cover of their album, Unfinished Music 1. Popular music proclaimed the glories of hair, Broadway presented Hair, the musical, with pubic hair front and center for all to see and emulate, and merkin manufacturers did a booming business in providing the pubiclly unendowed with a shaggy cover for their inadequacies.
Now, a little more than a generation later, all of this has changed, changed utterly. Merkin manufacturers who looked forward to a furry future of ever-expanding market share have gone out of business or have gone into the life insurance business. Pubic hair, which once stood on the commanding heights of American life and culture, is now so out of fashion that many people under the age of twenty-five have never even heard of it. Those who have would no sooner display a trace of pubic hair in public than they would throw away their cellphones. It was not always thus. How pubic hair rose from a despised place in the American psyche to the heights of fame and fortune and then fell again as it lost the imagination of a generation is one of the tragic tales of the American experience.
Before the turn of the late and utterly unlamented twentieth century, very few people in the United States had ever heard of pubic hair, and if they did it was certainly not a subject they would have brought up in public. Most people who had heard of it simply assumed that pubic hair was yet another example of European decadence that no decent American would ever be interested in, much less discuss with his wife. No, we had left that sort of thing behind us when the Pilgrims got on the Mayflower and headed west across the Atlantic to Massachusetts to found their shining city on the hill. In that shining city on the hill there was no room for, and certainly no toleration of, Papists, priests, freethinkers, or pubic hair, and after a few generations of official suppression pubic hair had slipped out of the Puritan consciousness in much the same way that the idea that Native Americans had a right to their land had.
The Puritan suppression was so complete that more than a century and a half after the landing on Plymouth Rock, at the very founding of this our Great Republic, not one of the Founding Fathers brought the matter up in any way. Thomas Jefferson did not mention pubic hair in the Declaration of Independence, James Madison and Gouveneur Morris did not include the regulation of pubic hair among the enumerated powers of Congress in the Constitution, and Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton never mention the words at all in The Federalist Papers. Even among the voluminous literary and scientific works of Benjamin Franklin, works written over the better part of sixty years, there is no mention of pubic hair, not in the Silence Dogood letters, not in Poor Richard’s Almanac, nor in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin either. Franklin’s Polly Baker says nothing at all about pubic hair, although the careful reader may suspect that she knows more about the subject than she is letting on, and even as distinguished a tome as Fart Proudly does not make so much as a passing reference to pubic hair. By the beginning of the 19th century, the memory of pubic hair had disappeared in the United States entirely.
This began to change slightly in the mid-19th century in the great wave of immigration caused by the potato famine of 1845-1849. As the coffin ships disgorged more and more of Ireland’s wretched refuse on America’s shiny new floors, rumors swept through the nation that not only were the Irish lazy, dirty, vile, and Papist, but that they might think nothing of bringing filthy European notions like clericalism, socialism, and pubic hair here to the United States. The very idea shocked many good Protestants to the quick, and more than a few of these good citizens joined the anti-Catholic, anti-foreign, anti-pubic hair Know Nothing Party in order to protect their country and their families from what they saw as a gross indecency. These people need not have worried; in the end, pubic hair did not show its face in public, despite the testimonials of a few artists and other bohemians who’d spent some time in Europe and picked up strange ideas while they were there. For the average American, pubic hair was what it had always been: a subject so taboo, so redolent of Papism and European depravity that no decent person would ever bring the subject up and only the most hardened member of the demimonde would allow a customer to discuss in her presence.
The veil of silence surrounding the subject began to fray slightly during the First World War. The war sent millions of healthy young America boys to France, and there were few places in France more popular with those boys than the Pigalle district of Paris, the notorious Pig Alley, as the doughboys called the area. Pigalle was Paris’s red light district, and in that district many a decent young American boy learned more than he’d ever known about a lot of things, including the French proclivity for cultivating pubic hair. By the time many of these young soldiers had returned to the United States, not only were they familiar with the idea of pubic hair, they could readily identify the most popular French styles such as the Imperiale, the Balbo, and the queue de singe. Despite this exposure, however, the returning doughboys could not interest their wives and sweethearts in pubic hair or the newest Parisian styles of bas-coiffure, and any interest there might have been was lost in the prolonged boom of the 1920’s. Pubic hair was too subtle a pleasure for that money crazed boom time, a time when the heart that did not break would turn to papier-mâché.
If pubic hair was too subtle for the 1920’s, it was too expensive for anyone during the decade of the Great Depression, except for those malefactors of great wealth who could afford to indulge such proclivities and who were, in fact, the only people anywhere in the world who could. It was a bad decade for pubic hair. Spain and China, always the leading exporters, found their markets drying up first due to the bad economic times, and then by both countries’ descent into civil war and foreign invasion, respectively. France, the other great exporter, should have benefited from Spain and China’s troubles, but did not, because of the vicious internecine political battles between the Right and the Popular Front government of Leon Blum. And there were more troubles ahead.
The troubles that made it next to impossible for these countries to export their pubic hair soon merged into the greatest conflict in world history. With France and most of China under foreign occupation, and Spain’s economy devastated by the civil war, it was impossible for a civilian anywhere, even in such neutral states as Ireland, Turkey, and Switzerland, to purchase pubic hair. In the belligerent nations, such as Great Britain, for example, the supply was so small that the government forbade its private ownership. Even in Germany, which had access to the French market and what was left of the Spanish market, the supply was so small and so precious that entire divisions of the Wehrmacht stood guard over the supply and the RAF constantly bombed the storage facilities in order to deny the Germans access to the material.
After the war, the desire for normality and the beginnings of the Cold War dictated that pubic hair return to its status quo antebellum as one of life’s great unmentionable subjects. American society’s demand for a return to good old-fashioned American values, however, now stood in direct conflict with the lived experience of tens of thousands of young people, many of them veterans. In The Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Dr. Kinsey showed that many men did not regard the cultivation of pubic hair being in any way abnormal. When The Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female came out some years later, Dr. Kinsey’s finding that women felt more or less the same way about pubic hair as men did created a storm of controversy, with pastors denouncing Kinsey from their pulpits from one end of this our Great Republic to the other, and led inexorably to Lenny Bruce’s arrest at the hungry i in Greenwich Village on a charge of public indecency for using the word bush in a joke. The times, though, they were a-changin’.
After two centuries of suppression and repression, pubic hair burst through into the public consciousness in the 1960’s. The happy alignment of the youth movement, the civil rights movement, and the antiwar movement created an atmosphere in which pubic hair was not only tolerated, but actually encouraged, especially by young people who wanted to reject what they saw as the outdated and wrongheaded mores of a corrupt and materialistic society. Fueled by the energy of the youth movement, pubic hair found its way into every area of the country, despite the best and largely Sisyphean efforts of social conservatives and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to suppress it. Pubic hair was everywhere young people were. During San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love, pubic hair was not only acceptable, but also virtually mandatory for any young person who wanted to be taken seriously. Two years later, in July of 1969, pubic hair reached the apotheosis of its acceptance in the United States. First, Neil Armstrong brought pubic hair with him to the moon on Apollo 11 and no one thought that this was in any way strange, and second, pubic hair finally went completely public at Woodstock, largely due to the intense storms that swept the festival site, storms my mother attributed to Neil Armstrong bringing all those rocks back from the moon with him.
By the 1970’s, even such conservative organs as Playboy understood that it was no longer possible to pretend that pubic hair did not exist and began displaying it in prominent places in their magazines. The final arrival of a long delayed acceptance could not, however, hide the social problems that came with the intense cultivation of pubic hair. Many critics pointed out the spike in drug usage among people who also had pubic hair and the sudden explosion in the population of pubic crabs. These crabs, once endangered almost to the point of extinction, became a major nuisance to cultivators and motorists alike as their natural habitat returned to normal. Everyone agreed that something had to be done about the problem, but few ideas proved very practical and very few people wanted to go to the extreme that one small North Dakota town did, where the inhabitants set fire to great swatches of pubic hair and waited with shovels and baseball bats in hand for the crabs to come scurrying out. The ASPCA sued to stop the crab bashing, but the court threw the suit out, citing the town’s right to rid itself of social nuisances like crabs and Communists.
The 1970’s, which began on a positive note for pubic hair, ended badly for it and other Seventies phenomena like disco and leisure suits. Once the thrill of the forbidden was gone, pubic hair became old-fashioned quickly, and then the Brazilians happened. Over the years, through trial and error and many failed experiments on laboratory rats, Brazilian swimwear manufacturers had managed to reduce the amount of cloth in Brazilian bikinis to a level that would not produce a good-sized men’s handkerchief in any other sweatshop in the world. Despite the minimal outlay in costs and materials, Brazilian bikinis became a worldwide sensation, and all around the world it quickly became clear that the wild, untrammeled, Ansel Adams type forest of pubic hair would not do in a world where single strands of twine had become a fashion statement. To accommodate the new style, and in the face of intense opposition by many environmental groups, vast forests of pubic hair came crashing down, either by clear cutting or being dragged out, roots and all. The disaster, from an environmental point of view, was total, and those great forests remain to the green movement a symbol of pristine nature falling to the crassness of human style.
That style is with us yet, and the places where pubic hair once grew in abundance now resemble an endless vista of strip mall parking lots. Pubic hair has vanished from the scene with a completeness that almost defies description. Occasionally, one hears of it in a humorous context, as when a scoutmaster recently fought off a rabid beaver that attacked a den of Boy Scouts on a camping trip. There have been sporadic efforts here and there to revive the pubic hair craze, but they’ve all failed due to a lack of public interest. The devotees of pubic hair need not fear. Eventually, it will be back. Few things are ever really lost; styles come and go, and after a generation or two, they return once again, almost as if they had never gone. There is no new thing under the sun, as the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes; there is only the old returning with a new name. It is ever thus.