In my grandmother’s house, no one has a Brazilian wax. In fact, no one’s ever even considered the possibility of such a thing. Other forms of lady-oppression: confinement to home, Catholic wifehood, no problem. But the systematic removal of one’s pubic and anal hairs, over and over, at the expensive hands of strangers? Try to be serious.
In my grandmother’s house there was a small, dark room on the third floor, where servant women lived. Shall we say servicewomen? I like the sound of that better. I can remember two: Tita, a beautiful, sturdy Spanish woman, whose fiancé had been killed by Franco, and who came to devote herself to my mother’s family over decades, first raising my mother her brother (the youngest of five children), and then the children of Toty, my oldest aunt. Tita could look magnificently stern, enough to corral a half-dozen excited little cousins into their pyjamas, but we all knew she was kind, and we respected her. I was too young by far to know the word duende, but I had a felt sense of it, and I knew Tita carried deep roots of sadness in her, and of love. Because I did not feel entirely at ease in my family, I think I respected her strangerhood among us, the graceful way she had of taking care, making soup, pinning laundry to the line beyond the lavender rock garden, and still being a citizen of her own world.
Tita eventually retired to Spain, to rejoin her larger family, and my cousin Mathilde, whom I considered a pest, got to spend parts of her summers with her. I envied her those excursions to the land of Tita’s citizenship, but I knew Tita had loved her in some sense back to life – this premature, tetchy baby she’d tended in lieu of the children she might have borne herself.
I don’t think I ever went into Tita’s room when it was hers. It was private. I had no passport and no claim to that space then, or later, when it became Jeanine’s room.
Jeanine succeeded Tita, and was a very different kind of person – a Jura village girl from Blye, not far from my grandmother’s house. Jeanine had afflictions– epilepsy, maybe Down syndrome, whiskers from her chin, and a clubfoot. It was not easy being Jeanine, and I think maybe this is why my grandparents hired her – to get her out of her poor village, to let her rest in simple paid work, to remove bullying or abuse from her life.
I could not forgive Jeanine for not being Tita, for not being glamorous, for being pathetic. So that’s one idea. But I also remember being in the narrow kitchen in the south of France together. Both of us, and my grandmother, wrapped in aprons stirring and peeling and chopping. Little, I was doing few of these things. Instead, I was playing with the worn brass weights of the old market scale, or looking at the row of magnificent objects resting on the shelf above the radiator behind the kitchen door. An iron kilo weight. A woven rush trivet. Jeanine, too, had a citizenship that set her apart. Unlike Tita’s, it wasn’t one I wanted, but it did serve to remind me of a world outside my family’s insistence that theirs was the only one.
Jeanine left my grandparents’ house and went back to her village. Then, I remember going to her wedding in the church in Blye – an old thick-walled chapel whose Rococo nonsense-angels had recently been restored. The whole thing – ugly pink, green, and turquoise heaven on sober walls; awkward bride and groom; heat and stillness of a late August day – fed into the angst-engine I stoked so faithfully in those days. Today, I might have noticed the good faith of the assembled, the acknowledgment of Jeanine’s determination to be happy, the efforts that had been brought to this mostly-unused, remote building, keeping it from ruin for another set of decades.
After my grandmother died, I flew to Switzerland to be with my parents, and to help my mother with some of the house-clearing. The small room on the third floor that had been Tita’s and Jeanine’s, and long before them, Nannane’s, had, in the intervening years, been turned into a kind of storeroom for objects acquired in various family deaths and rearrangements. The radiator wore a Persian carpet and a fox skin. It was the shaman presiding over the framed grid of pinned insects on the bed, the cloudy-mirrored washstand, the tall armoire jostling for space. The whole room had the intelligence of a material hive-mind. It was humming with plans, none of which included humans. Alive, alien, coherent in its juxtapositions and its confidence that furniture has many other things to do besides: be sat on, be walked on, reflect back morning whiskers.
I suppose each era has its own ration of suffering, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that here and now, 62% of American women are apparently choosing to have their genitals “groomed.” By and large, the visible signs of oppression are subtler than they’ve been, so we turn to intimate violence. We turn to taming our bodies, making them “clean,” and “healthy.” We become the rats in overcrowded cages who chew their fur, or one another’s fur, forgetting in that denatured space that we are all part of a great and radiant intelligence, whose design most certainly encompasses our furs, and all the furs of others.
We go from bikini wax to Brazilian wax to Hollywood wax, meaning apparently, Everything Must Go. Who says? Pubic hair growing back itches like Satan in your pants. And pubic hair being pulled out hurts in a distinctly unhealthy way. I personally opt for the Wu Wei wax, which means leave everything be. Wear swim trunks to just above the knee, within which all kinds of exuberance can unfold un-fucked-with. I declare my lady parts to be, among other things, like the room on the third floor in my grandmother’s house. They are off-limits to the pornification of this culture. They have a citizenship all their own, which is the citizenship of the body on its own terms, not to be used, but to hum with knowledge.
I think about these things, feeling into my own body aging, and seeing the bodies of my friends, going decade into decade. There is a hawk inside me, circling, watching coldly for signs of weakness. That hawk is a hawk many of us fear, and she is not born of the body’s own logic. She’s born of the culture’s shaming and suggesting, knowing archly that surely THAT won’t do. So, okay: I cut the cord to TV and media and magazines, and the poison takes awhile to purge.
Inside me, there’s also a growing awareness of the body on her own terms – the body that knows – of course! – how to sit and how to rest, how far to walk, and how to let music come coursing through every joint, and dance. To this knowing, the meanness of adolescence is mosquitoes, gnats, thorns – annoying, but then, what do you expect? To walk this world of gentle breezes and avocado salads is also to walk this world of cruelty and condescension. I am still at home.
Really, my grandmother’s house is the temple of this imagination, declaring from the third floor sewing room, Dieu Seul. There is only God. God in the addictions that bring us to harm, and God in the courage or simple groundedness that brings us out of addiction. God in those whose callousness brings us to see our own, and to dismantle it.
At the end of meditation group yesterday, someone says, “did you see the pubic hair dress?” as if that were thing on the order of Lady Liberty, which perhaps it is, after all. Gathering together what’s been rejected, excised, ripped out. I still think the body knows best where her own parts should live, and how they should grow, but perhaps a gown of pubic rosettes is the homeopathic first step.
In my grandmother’s house, everything finds its place, and loses it, and settles into its own gravity to find home again. The fox fur drapes furrily over the mouse-nibbled carpet, and in their commingling, something new will emerge from resting and rotting rooms.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now