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Coiffing the 'do down under

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Dutch company Vonk Schaamtoupetten introduces another way to coif the 'do down under: below-the-belt toupees. (Photo by Josh Gerritsen)

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Dutch company Vonk Schaamtoupetten introduces another way to coif the 'do down under: below-the-belt toupees. (Photo by Josh Gerritsen)

toupee.jpg

Dutch company Vonk Schaamtoupetten introduces another way to coif the 'do down under: below-the-belt toupees. (Photo by Josh Gerritsen)

Melinda Browning opted to go bald three years ago. Sonya Smith likes to keep a low-cut fade. Stephanie Carter leaves her hair au natural, sometimes shaping it for special occasions.

From the bald look to the “Beckham,” women have increasingly been paying attention to their hair below-the-belt, the way they have with hair on their heads. Such attention has been common in big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami for several years, but now styling the bikini line--and talking about it--is losing its taboo even in America's heartland.

“Trends in hairstyles down there are cyclical,” said Karen Risch, who co-authored the e-book “Hot Pink: The Girls' Guide to Primping, Passion, and Pubic Fashion" with a former Playboy Playmate, Deborah Driggs. “Ultimately the styles are about aesthetics, sensitivity and accessibility.”

Through her research for the book, Risch found that styling the bikini line is nothing new. During the 17th century, European courtesans decorated themselves with jewels, ribbons and braids. More recent trends have included the Tiffany Box (square-shaped pubic hair dyed light blue), the inscription of logos such as the Mercedes Benz three-pointed star, a partner's initials and the ever-popular Valentine's Day special of a heart dyed pink. A Dutch company, Vonk Schaamtoupetten, even makes pubic hair toupees.

Risch said she also discovered that women were decorating themselves with Swarovski crystals. And in 2003, Japanese fans of soccer star David Beckham were coiffing their ‘dos to imitate the “faux-hawk” that he sported at the time, according to Shukan Jitsuwa, a Japanese men's magazine, and Risch says that style made its way to the United States for a brief stint.

The trend that has held strong in urban areas since the late 1990s is the Brazilian bikini wax, which is the removal of all the hair on the underside, and, depending on the salon, can mean either leaving a small patch of hair on the top or being completely bare all over. Many credit the “J. Sisters,” a group of Brazilian sisters who operate a New York City salon that caters to celebrities, as having brought the procedure to the East Coast nearly two decades ago. But now the Brazilian is popular throughout the country.

Sabre Doherty, the spa director of Floating Feather Spa in Boise, Idaho, said that the procedure's popularity increased in that area about four years ago.

“Seventy-five to 80 percent of our clients who come in for any type of waxing come to get Brazilians,” she said. And clients aren't just prepping for bikini season. “It's not just for summertime,” said Doherty. "It stays pretty consistent throughout the year.”

The Final Cut Salon and Spa in Irving, Texas, has experienced a similar surge of clients asking for Brazilians over the last two years. Aestheticians there perform an average of 110 Brazilian waxes per week, according to aesthetician and massage therapist France Jameson.

Melinda Browning, 31, said she has been going bare for the past three years, and that she will continue to do so.

“I feel that without the hair, I'm cleaner, and I feel healthier,” said the Kansas native who is now a nurse in Texas. “And my husband loves it.”

And it's not just women flocking to salons. Many aestheticians say that men come in for hair removal almost as much as women. Jameson said that 50 percent of her waxing clientele are men, many of them requesting the male equivalent of the Brazilian to give the illusion of increased penis size.

But some, like 25-year-old SAT tutor Stephanie Carter, aren't ready for the bare bandwagon.

“I can't stand the idea of looking like a pre-pubescent girl,” said Carter, a Boston resident. “But I would like to experiment with a new style.”

Entrepreneur Nancy Jarecki vowed to “bring hair back” in 2006 when she created Betty Beauty, hair dye for down there. The company sold 150,000 kits the first year, with the majority of customers in America's heartland, from Texas to Pennsylvania to Illinois and Kansas. While the product is most popular among the older women, or what Jarecki calls the “Saturday night bridge club,” Betty Beauty is not just selling to customers wishing to cover their grays.

“Our most popular color--by far--is hot pink,” said Jarecki.

Attention to bikini hairstyles comes in part from media images of beauty, said Dr. Ian Kerner, a New York-based sex therapist.

“Many women and a growing number of men feel increasingly forced to compete with cultural imagery,” said Kerner. “More and more celeb starlets are exposing their shaved genitals in the media, in addition to the proliferation of pornography.”

Photos and videos publicizing the privates of celebrities such as Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are among those that have surfaced on the Internet over the last couple of years.

Kerner said that many of his clients are more comfortable talking about what they do and don't like in regards to pubic hair, and even the words “pubic hair” only recently “entered the vocabulary of mainstream America.”

Nance Mitchell, a Beverly Hills aesthetician, said she has been doing bikini waxes for over thirty years.

“Even 15 years ago, nobody talk about bikini lines,” said Mitchell. “There were hemorrhoid and condom commercials, but people couldn't talk about bikini waxing.”

Risch called the mainstreaming of coiffing down under a result of the “'Sex and the City' effect,” saying that talking about such things in public was unheard of before the popular cable show. In fact, when Risch and Driggs proposed the idea for their book to publishers in 2000, they were told that the subject was too risque.

“I can't imagine that happening now,” she said, adding that the duo is thinking about now publishing print copies of their book, which has sold 5,000 e-copies since it came out in 2004.

Though this trend can empower people to take greater pride in creative expression with their bodies, explained Kerner, it could also warp people's understanding of how men's and women's bodies should look.

“Sometimes my younger clients see pubic hair and it's like the vulva becomes some unidentifiable, alien object,” Kerner laughed.

Nearly all of the aestheticians interviewed said that Brazilians are here to stay, but Mitchell warns people not to go to extremes.

“I tell my clients, ‘Whatever you do, don't get all your hair lasered off,’” said Mitchell. “It's just like a regular hairstyle--you want to be able to change it.”

E-mail: sr2575@columbia.edu