I knew something was in the air when the local hair salon started calling itself a day spa. Now all the blue-haired old ladies in town are going to be able to get a Brazilian wax.
When I was growing up, my mother used to go twice a month to the beauty parlor. That was what it was called then — not the hair stylist or even the hair salon, all latter-day terms. She would have her hair cut, colored, or coiffed, and sometimes she would get a manicure. But hair and nails were the extent of it. The body that lay in between was off limits. Caring for that — whatever it might entail — happened in the privacy of the home.
Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, that once-private expanse of the body opened itself to professionals. An array of services sprouted to this end: facials not just for the face, but for the hands, the neck, and the back (yes, there are “back facials”); massages and corollary treatments with stones, mud, and exotic substances; and waxing for every nook and cranny you can imagine — and some you can’t unless you have a very rich imagination.
When I initially began to think about this trend, it seemed to reflect an increased comfort with the body. After all, to let professionals touch you in the way required for a Brazilian wax is not to be a prude. It also seemed to me that bodies without clothing were everywhere. Not just on TV and the Internet, but in the world at large. My female students, for example, displayed an astonishing amount of décolletage, as did the 70-year-old ladies I bumped into in the supermarket. This suggested an exceptional level of comfort with this portion of the anatomy among a very wide age range.
But a friend pointed out that the exposed body nowadays is a far cry from the exposed body of the 1960s. That was the era of hairy underarms and legs, frizzy unkempt hair, and bra-less breasts that sagged under macramé T-shirts. Compare this to the perfect orbs that protrude like hothouse melons from the tank tops of 70-year-olds. “Let it all hang out” has been replaced by “let it all be nicely exhibited.” Walt Whitman (and his hippie successors) sang the “body electric;” we sing the “body electrolysis” — also, siliconed and liposuctioned.
When one thinks on it more closely, our era shares more with the Victorian sense of the body than with the au naturel body of the 1960s. In the Victorian period, the body was hidden under crinolines and bustles, high necks, and long sleeves — even chair legs had to have little skirts to make them decorous. What the Victorians were afraid of was not just sex, but the messiness and unpredictability associated with sex. The exposed body was akin to the sensuous self; it mocked the norms which society imposed.
But with technologically innovative products and techniques, the body can now be displayed because it can be made normative: plucked, waxed, lipo-ed, “done.” The airbrushed body, in short, has moved from the pages of Playboy out into the world, and everyone, given a certain amount of disposable income (or a sob story capable of getting them on Extreme Makeover), can have one.
It should be noted in support of my comparison with the Victorians that today’s depilitated woman evokes that era’s ideal of the girl-woman. Think of Lewis Carroll’s photos of nude pre-adolescent girls and John Ruskin’s alleged terror at the sight of his wife’s public hair. Indeed, this hairless ideal has extended from women to men. Young men wax away their hair, too, and if they can’t stand the pain or afford the procedure, they shave. They want the body featured on an Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bag (see last column). If you’ve never heard of a 17-year-old boy shaving his chest, go into any high school and ask around. You’ll find that half these kids wield Lady Bic razors as easily as baseball bats or at least Frisbees.
I’m not objecting to body service, mind you. If you’ve never had a massage you don’t know the pleasure of having someone knead you for an hour as though you were a piece of clay destined to become the next Venus de Milo. It’s also true that waxing is an extremely benign and efficacious way to get rid of unwanted hair — no prickly stubble, no nicks or gashes, just some short-lived pain, nowhere near as bad as childbirth. But the cost of body service is considerable, as is the time required for it. Moreover, as with everything that involves the self, it is potentially addictive. Tending the esthetic needs of the body can become a full-time occupation, growing more elaborate and extensive as the body ages, since it takes more effort and ingenuity to resist time’s sickle. It’s easy to spend $300 for about three hours worth of service, which then has to be repeated in 10 days’ time. And that’s not counting the nooks and crannies. • 22 April 2008