on the page magazine

issue no. 5, autumn 2001


The Geography of Waxing

by Kate Haug


The bikini wax not only reveals the most intimate details, the most definitive tastes of the waxee, it bespeaks the subtext of a city. I'm the proprietor of a big bush with monkey hair crawling down the backs of my legs and have had the good fortune to experience waxing across the United States. The wax, usually corresponding with a period of travel and leisure, is a time-consuming process—up to two hours for a full leg and bikini. Yet it enables skirt wearing and that carefree joie de vivre that makes feminine life so peppy and clean. Nothing beats hopping into fresh hotel room sheets hair-free.

The bikini wax not only reveals the most intimate details, the most definitive tastes of the waxee, it bespeaks the subtext of a city.

In fashion-conscious, urban centers such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, waxing can be found on every corner. With pink walls and gold-framed prints, these establishments are not exclusive spas providing luxurious respite from the work-a-day world. These are the Walmarts of beauty. Assembly lines of hair disposal offering "moustache" instead of "upper lip" waxes. Gone are the flattering lights, sweet smells, and sanitized appearances of posh salons. In their place are beauty specials and the lurking presence of health violations. The wax is thick, melting away in an old crock pot. You hope the tools for the manicure/pedicure two-for-one deal have been sterilized. In affordable beauty, the owners and employees are usually Asian immigrants: Cambodian, Vietnamese, Korean, an occasional Chinese. The unofficial uniform consists of a slide sandal and a thin-legged pant. Customer service is dependent on the foreign language skills of both parties. I'm grateful to these salons de beauté; they have kept me looking pre-pubescent all the way into my thirties.

I had my first wax at a very exclusive place with lots of subdued lighting and plush, thick towels. The full leg and bikini wax was performed by a young Irish woman who told me it would get better later on, and that some of her clients drank a bit of whisky and popped Ibuprofen. I endured the intense pain of having hair ripped from my shins, my upper leg, and my most tender of tender inner thigh. When it was done, I jumped from the table in an ecstasy never before experienced. I twirled around the streets like Mary Tyler Moore with the wind gently whipping up against my baby-smooth bottom.

In the New York wax, the bikini line is clearly defined. The typical line is for a standard J. Crew bikini bottom; you are definitely removing the hair from the inner folds of the bikini area and possibly a bit from the pubic bone.

On a breezy spring day, I ascend the stairs of a typical East Village waxing establishment. I enter the place through a corner deli—past the cash register/gum display up the stairs. The connection between the two businesses is never explained. The salon portion of the deli is a bit of a wreck. The room is divided by half-painted drywall that falls eight inches too short of the ceiling. The dividers are more like screens than walls. Hair dryers line the windows. The portable manicure/pedicure stations are randomly scattered around the room. Old magazines sit on top of plastic cubes. The plants are dying and a fine layer of dust covers everything. I see a middle-aged Chinese woman and say I want a half-leg and bikini.

The woman leads me behind the wall partition. I take my pants off and jump onto the table. I stare at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling which cast an ominous green glow down on the pink walls. I'm enjoying this saccharin, gothic glow when she starts laying into me with the wax. She is giddy with joy. My legs are really hairy and she proudly shows me the cloth strips. Holding them up to my face like a newborn baby to its mother, she says "See.... SEE."

I've always been fascinated with these pieces of cloth. My imbedded hairs streak down the runway of wax. They appear friendly, like cute furry animals. She is very excited and is tearing the hair off without any signs of remorse or acknowledgment that I have nerve endings. I let out a tiny scream and she smiles at me, "Does it hurt?" I see the gleam in her eye. "A little."

I start to empathize with the hair. The small strands are fighting for their lives.

She gets working on the bikini line saying, "Yeah, yeah. Your boyfriend going to like this. Your boyfriend going to like this. Hah, hah, hah." She has my underwear tied up into a thin line covering only my clitoris. At this point, I'm a bit nervous and start looking for video cameras. I'm sure this place is connected to a live porno channel. I'm the unsuspecting waxing customer and she is the sadistic, profiteering porno producer.

I get nervous and call my friend in from the waiting area. I ask her to take some pictures of my legs—before and after shots—for my own annals of hairiness. I'm also hoping she'll be able to calm the dungeon master into a less severe session. The woman keeps saying, "Her boyfriend going to like this. Her boyfriend going to like this. Hah, hah, hah." After she's done stripping my bikini line of any large clumps, she goes after the stray curlicues with a vengeance. I start to empathize with the hair. The small strands are fighting for their lives.

She reaches over and hands me a mirror. "Look," she orders. I'm not quite sure what to do. I've never been told to view my own pussy during a wax. I'm sure the cameras are going now. I'm hesitant, holding the mirror away. She grabs it and says, "Look. See. So pretty." I see my bikini wax and a bit more of my genitalia than usual. "Yes," I say. "It looks nice." "Oh, so pretty, so pretty. Your boyfriend going to like this," she continues. I wonder if she's going to dive into me right there. My gynecologists never react this enthusiastically about my pubic mound.

As she continues with a delighted gaze, the phone rings. She starts speaking in Chinese and laughing. I imagine she is telling her friend that she's about to wrap up the case of Sasquatch and release me back into the wild. She keeps talking. Suddenly I feel ignored. The wax is over. After so much intense build-up and the shared intimacy, it's a let down. I thought we had a connection. What about my pretty bikini line? But I'm just another customer in her house of wax.

In the Mid-West, waxing is considered a superfluous part of adult life. It's an exclusive service. There are no cheap deals for the discount crowd. The bikini line is less severe than its coastal counterparts. Hair will be removed from the inner thigh, but the pubic bone is not usually touched. The line tends more toward the brief than the thong.

The "day spa" is in a corporate neighborhood. I enter and am greeted by a smiling staff with bobbed hair. There is an upstairs and a downstairs. Mirrors with vanity lights are in front of each manicure station. People receive manicures, pedicures, and other salon services. A woman strolls by with her hair wrapped in clear cellophane—a blond in progress. Phones are ringing. The place is busy. I wait, watching mothers greet their teenage daughters in the lobby. They wear tennis whites and look at me suspiciously. I peruse the Aveda products.

My name is called, I go upstairs. A Ukrainian woman introduces herself, hands me a robe, and smiles. She leads me into a private room. Putting my clothes on hangers, I take a long sideways glance at the padded table. I examine the situation. My legs are running wild with old growth. I wonder how she's going to handle it. I'm sure none of the other customers are this unkempt. Classical music plays on the speakers. The lights are low. I feel guilty I've let it go this long.

This subtle conflict defines the Missouri wax. Work done on the body must appear necessary and regulated. Yet, spa labor is that of privilege aimed to satisfy the customer's ego, possibly even their id.

The woman knocks gently on the door. I open it. She pauses before entering. She's wearing a lab coat. Her clinical appearance is offset by black suede pumps. In my mind, there is a telling contrast between the coat and the shoes. These are two distinct outfits. One hinting at a sanitized, medical experience, the other suggesting something more organic and sensual. This subtle conflict defines the Missouri wax. Work done on the body must appear necessary and regulated. Yet, spa labor is that of privilege aimed to satisfy the customer's ego, possibly even their id. This is accomplished by an aesthetic that is both clean and sexy. I ask her if her feet hurt. She says, "Sometimes."

The wax begins. The pain is normal. She keeps asking if it hurts. I drift off into the string music. I think about weddings, funerals, and other large group gatherings. I look around at all the equipment: facial steamers, small lights, metal containers, plastic bottles, glass jars, silver tools for zit extraction. The room imitates a doctor's office. I could get some outpatient surgery in here. The woman tells me that she immigrated two years ago. I ask if she waxed in the Ukraine. She answers, "No." She likes St. Louis but hasn't gotten to travel much in the United States. She has a husband and a child in school. When she starts on my upper legs, she mentions that there is a big Ukrainian population in the city. I talk about the large Russian community in New York City. I remember a woman I went to in Manhattan. She was Russian and told me about her neighborhood by the sea. It sounded oddly desolate: open beaches, huge skyscrapers, and wind. She used a special, green wax.

It's time for the bikini. She asks me directly, "Bikini wax?" just to make sure. I bend one leg to provide an easy in. The Missouri Ukrainian is extremely cautious. She doesn't tie up my underwear or even move it to the side. I want to show her the trick of cinching the underwear with a Kleenex, but I'm afraid of offending her. It's awkward suggesting a deeper line. A series of rhetorical questions run through my mind: Why would I need a higher line? Am I going to be wearing a thong bikini? What in my life would demand a slice of pubic hair instead of a full patch? At this point, I can only associate the bikini line with illicit activity. I remain silent. I don't want to destroy the Puritanical effect. Her license might get revoked. She follows the elastic rim religiously. She will not cross that line.

Waxing in Los Angeles outdoes any other city in the United States. The bikini line is very high—if you decide to keep any pubic hair at all. I'm sure that just as many houses have been built on hair removal money as plastic surgery. Just like large, nubile breasts, hairlessness is a must for the L.A. Woman.

I move to Los Angeles and immediately seek out a local business to get my waxing done. The luck of convenience is upon me. A Korean establishment around the corner offers the services I desire. I go in for my first encounter. I feel comfortable. The prints hang on the walls. The predominant color is pink. With the feminine hygiene aesthetic straight off the douche box, I'm guaranteed an affordable wax. (A note to the budget-conscious: Beware of any Southwestern "healing," trendy geometry, or minimalist clinical design at your waxing establishment. Any of these signs or the slightest hint of blue or green walls could result in a price hike.)

Just like large, nubile breasts, hairlessness is a must for the L.A. Woman.

I start off with an eyebrow wax and am very impressed. The woman creates a beautiful arch and trims the remaining hairs with a small pair of scissors. I am blessed with the promise of a pleasant waxing experience. I'm ready to move on to the more meaty areas. She removes the towel from my lower half and looks at my legs. "Oh, so much hair," she says. "Yes," I reply with pride.

She looks at my underwear. "Can you take off your panties?" I am a bit suspicious. No waxer has ever asked me to remove my underwear. But this is L.A. It feels strange to lie naked at the hands of a stranger with the world standing behind one thin wall. "Full leg and bikini?" she asks. "Yes," I answer. She yells out in Korean and another woman enters. Another person is coming to see my exposed genitals. I'm concerned, but na´vely chalk it up to cultural difference. Social boundaries aren't universal. The other woman comes in and looks at me. "Oh, so much hair." I'm beginning to get worried and start thinking of a question that has often riddled my mind. If Asian women don't have that much body hair, how do they feel waxing the hair-bountiful?

They get to work. I've never had a two-person wax team before. It's not the most comfortable experience. They each have a different technique and it's difficult to process them simultaneously. The second woman likes to cover large areas of leg with the wax and then strip. This is not my preferred method. The first woman has a lighter touch and targets smaller patches. The combined effect is sensory disorientation and my first inkling of an orgy experience. It's easy to lose your personal boundaries with multiple hands at play.

They go in for the bikini line. It is a disaster. The cheap wax doesn't pull up with the usual expediency. This time I'm prepared on pills and a little juice so it doesn't hurt that badly, but I see a bruise coming up in the chicken-skin folds. One woman keeps asking, "Are you okay? Are you okay?" I say, "Yes." She avoids eye contact and I'm left to wonder if she's going to say anything about the bluing flesh. I ask, "Is this just a bruise?" She nods sincerely and says she's sorry. I believe her. I can tell it's not her way to maim.

I'm lying on my stomach, no underwear on, with two Korean women ripping at my most socially exclusive area.
I roll over for the other side. "Oh, so much hair." They are working hard to get rid of my upper thigh hair. I feel okay about the whole thing until they start going in for the butt. Now I usually like when they get the little patches from underneath the cheeks, but this is a full cheek attempt. Not only that, but they're diving into the crack. I'm lying on my stomach, no underwear on, with two Korean women ripping at my most socially exclusive area. This is the wax for body builders and porn stars. In my mind, I repeat the opening monologue for "Star Trek." I'm laughing and clinching my butt cheeks together, but they're prying them open for waxing. It's a strange, unspoken battle of wills. They have been called here for a specific mission. I must submit to their vision. The words well in my mouth, "Uh, I think this, uh, is not necessary," but they never make it out. I'm seduced by the absurdity, the novelty, the reality of the situation. I don't want to escape. Though it's a struggle to keep the flesh in place, they work as a team and accomplish the goal. The hairless ass is realized.

I'm still sitting on the table when a little Korean girl walks in. At this point, I don't care. I'm ready to invite the whole family. She smiles at me, a funny smile. She has vampire teeth. After the warm greeting, the mood changes. Her face clouds over. She stares in between my legs. I can see the whole picture in her eyes. "Oh, so much hair." Even post-wax she is terrified. Her mother catches her staring and pushes her back behind the door.

I pull on my clothes and the first waxer gently addresses me, "You know, Asian women don't have that much hair." I'm left speechless for a moment. My question has been answered. I nod. "I've always wondered about that."

Kate Haug was born in 1969 and hopes to stick around as long as the weather holds out. An experimental filmmaker, her short films PASS and Deep Creep have been screened at international festivals including Croatia's Split Festival of New Film, the Czech Republic's Brno Sixteen, the London Film Festival, and New Directors/New Films in New York. She has also published scholarly essays on film, art, and the representation of women.

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