The Custom that dare not speak its name


The custom that dare not speak its name… Not until recently anyway. Now it seems all the rage to study the practice –expose it, as it were. And while I confess to paraphrasing the famous euphemism used in the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, I’m talking about something completely different. I’m talking about… well, grooming, as it’s prosaically termed.

Not grooming, you understand, but grooming…

I suppose ‘they’ (a nice term to offload responsibility) had to come up with a suitably un-nuanced descriptor for something hitherto off limits -although it’s not meant to conjure up images of what you might do to the coat of a horse or the fur of a cat; it’s meant as more of a tidying up process…

Still, even as an older gynaecologist, I have to admit to a little surprise at it being a subject worthy of publication in the prestigious Journal of American Medical Association’s (JAMA) Dermatology: http://archderm.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2529574 -the title of which, I blush to confess, immediately caught my eye: Pubic Hair Grooming Prevalence and Motivation Among Women in the United States. And then, after digging around for a more popular media source from the same time period, I found an article in the Guardian that references it: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jul/11/should-groom-pubic-hair-shaving-trimming?CMP=share_btn_link

The practice of shaving the pubic region is certainly not new. It has been practiced in some cultures for hundreds of years, and early documents have suggested that it was an occasional practice amongst prostitutes in the middle ages, presumably for ease of maintenance as well as any aesthetic benefits. But the custom, at least in North America, seems to ebb and flow in its popularity. The JAMA study suggests that currently, it seems to be most popular in younger women –especially those between 18 and 24- and to some extent, those women with more education. ‘Race was also significantly associated with grooming, with all groups reporting less grooming when compared with white women. No association was found between grooming and income, relationship status, or geographic location.’

Over my many years in women’s health, I can’t say I even notice the grooming status anymore –unless, that is, there is a problem.

I had seen Janice before; in fact, both she and her mother came to see me from time to time, but seldom together –I don’t think they got along very well, to tell you the truth. Each of them were pleasant enough to me, but I suspect that her mother may not have understood her need to develop an independent identity. That’s what Janice told me that day in the office, at any rate.

A very active 19-year-old, she usually arrived in bike gear –helmet, tight lycra shorts, and a flush on her face both in apology for being late, and as the inevitable result of both cycling from her home several kilometers away, and running up four flights of stairs. This time, however, she’d not only been on time, but was also wearing the only dress I’d ever seen her in. And she seemed very uncomfortable as she sat fidgeting in the chair across from my desk.

“Took the bus in today,” she said –in response to my expression, I suppose. “Michael thought I should.”

“Michael?” I asked, and then immediately regretted it –I’m expected to remember these things. But I never can; it’s like trying to remember what colour socks I wore on a patient’s last visit.

“Yes… my guy.” She watched my face for a moment and then capitulated. “I told you about him a few months ago when I saw you for the birth control pill, remember?”

I pretended to remember –unconvincingly, judging by her expression.

“Mom still doesn’t approve of him, though…” She noticed a tiny movement in one of my eyebrows and smiled. “She thinks he’s too controlling,” she explained, but with eyes that told me I should have remembered that as well. “I mean she should talk, eh?”

I could feel another memory accusation coming up, so I decided to smile and change the subject. “Why have you come in to see me today, Janice?” I said.

She seemed relieved that the small talk was over and she could finally talk about it. But then, quite uncharacteristically, she blushed and looked at one of the paintings hanging on the wall as if it had suddenly called to her. “I… Uhmm, I’ve got a problem in my vagina.” She closed her eyes tightly to think more about the location. “No, not really the vagina, more the area around it, I guess.”

I waited for her to continue, but she seemed to have decided that she already told me enough. “And so, what…?”

“Little cuts,” she interrupted, almost as if I should have known right away. “Michael noticed them right away,” she added, to validate her claim.

“When do…?”

Her embarrassment was making her irritated at my repeated questions, I think.

“I’ve had them now for two or three days, and Michael is getting worried about them.” She stared at the picture again. “I told him they’d heal on their own, but I think he’s afraid of catching something…” she whispered to the wall. “I’m sure that’s why he insisted I come in for a check,” she said, turning to me again.

“Well would you like me to examine you?” She’d been sending her eyes out on little excursions while we talked and I got the impression that she only wanted to discuss her problem, so she could tell Michael about it. It was her choice.

She examined me with a puzzled expression on her face, her eyes firmly perched. “Well… I feel a little awkward about them,” she said slowly.  “They’re just cuts, I’m sure.”

I kept my face neutral. “And does Michael have any of these ‘cuts’?” Sometimes sexually transmitted diseases have unusual manifestations.

She kind of cocked her head and stared at me with a wrinkled forehead. I was obviously asking silly questions. “No, of course not! Why would he?”

I was about to answer her when she pre-empted me. “I mean he shaved me,  I didn’t shave him.” Her eyes suddenly twinkled. “I’m gonna suggest it next time, though.”

It dawned on me that George Bernard Shaw was right: ‘It is all that the young can do for the old, to shock them and keep them up to date.’

 

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