Stripped bare

BERLIN BEAUTY: Germans like to dance the Cuban salsa and Spanish flamenco, to holiday in Tuscany and to act, well, German. But when it comes to their genitals, they love it the Brazilian way!

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Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

It all started with Sybilla Stolberg’s personal misadventure six years ago when the Berlin-based consultant tried her first-ever Brazilian. “It was horrifying,” she recounts. “It hurt like hell!” Because she was pregnant at the time, she couldn’t see what was going on ‘down there’, but the next day the midwife reacted with shock: “Did someone beat you up?” she asked. Stolberg’s vagina was black and blue. The unprofessional waxing had left nasty bruises. ”It was just awful!“ she still recalls today.

Waxing: a lucrative business

Her experience shows what women are willing to go through to clear the genital area of that very last hair – burning-hot wax is applied to the most sensitive of skin as every hair is ripped out ruthlessly by pure force to a tortuous sound . For Stolberg though, it was also her ‘eureka moment’. She decided to bring professional Brazilian waxing to Germany, and with the help of her friend Christine Margreiter, a marketing manager, she founded her own chain of slick waxing studios whose name is a pun on a cult TV show and a chick flick.

Once the first studio opened in Mitte (where else!) in 2005, they quickly expanded to 12 cities across Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In October their new Charlottenburg shop opened for all of Berlin’s Carrie Bradshaws and other girls-about-town.

Stolberg’s business goes through two tonnes of wax each year on some 160,000 customers – 17 percent men – whose hair they remove in small clinically clean boxes sheltered from view by discreet curtains. The waiting room to the front is lit by Italian designer lamps and stylish shelves stock the latest fashion glossies.

Here, most popular is the ‘Brazilian Hollywood Cut’ for €26 (at the top of the price scale in Berlin). This involves the removal of every single hair which dares sprout down there, front and back. A clue to this special look’s origin is in the name – the US of course. American women had long gone bare while there was still pubic hair anarchy in Germany. And so Stolberg’s first store opening was seen as: “The final cut for the hairy Fräulein.”

The Brazilian way

Five years later the trend has caught on and now dozens of other waxing salons offer professional Brazilian waxings across town. This triumphal march from hairy fools’ paradise only illustrates what every German girl apparently wants today: to be bald as a coot. It seems only pop icons like Peaches, Beth Ditto or Juliette Lewis would dare to grow armpit hair, breaking taboos with a political statement for a kind of feminism which says: “I don’t care about all your enforced beauty dictates, society!”

When Viva-presenter Charlotte Roche published her scandalous debut Feuchtgebiete [Wetlands] in 2008, a novel which relentlessly explores a young girl’s relationship with her body fluids, smells and pubic hair, feuilletons went berserk for a whole season. The book was a revelation, albeit without revolution: two summers later there are still no unshaven armpits to be seen anywhere.

Roche’s plea for women to have more natural relations with their bodies – beyond the compulsion of scented pantyliners and juvenile pussies nurtured by commercials and men’s magazines – has proven to be nothing more than a symbolic act. In reality, against age-old foreign prejudices of hairy Teutonic females, Germans work hard on keeping those bodily bushes well-manicured: the younger generation shave, trim and wax as never their mums (and dads) did before.

“I can’t even remember how I’d look with a fully-grown bush,” admits 27-year-old Katharina who has just finished college and hopes to become a German teacher. “Only girls who study stuff like gender studies would let their armpit hair grow.”

These girls appear to be a rare species today: 80 percent of women and 36 percent of men aged 26-30 remove hair from at least one part of their body (beards excluded) on a regular basis, according to a University of Leipzig study. It also recently found that young women (18-25) mostly remove hair from armpits (90 percent), followed by legs (81 percent) and the genital area (68 percent). For similarly-aged men it is mostly armpits (79 percent), genital area (70 percent) and the chest (46 percent).

Hygiene or aesthetics?

Whether to remove hair or not doesn’t seem to be the issue any longer. The question is: how? “So far I just haven’t found the perfect method,” Katharina says. A sophisticated shaver which she just bought “never manages to get every hair”. She doesn’t like the smell of hair removal creams and is afraid of the pain caused by waxing.

And what does she like on men? She smiles shyly. “Well, it looks quite nice when there is no hair below my boyfriend’s belt.” So thought 2,512 men and women polled last year, with the two main reasons cited as ‘aesthetics’ and ‘hygiene’.

“It’s just cleaner,” says Orhan, 26, who works at a coffee shop in Kreuzberg. His beard is carefully cut to 4mm, trimmed at the edges to form a sharp line on his cheeks and his neck. His nose is as hairless as his ears. He wears a beard, he says, because it’s manly, and he keeps the hair on his chest for the same reason. It’s trimmed, of course, with an electric shaving device.

And down south? “Well,” Orhan says, not the least bit embarrassed for being asked for such an intimate detail, “hairless!” His friend Ahmet, a 29-year-old taxi driver, nods beside him. He keeps the hair on his chest – “My chest is a pillow!” – but there is no question all the pubic hair has to go, albeit only from time to time because, as Ahmet adds, the itching after shaving can be quite annoying. The ‘back, crack and sack’ dictum often blamed on the porn industry is both young men’s idea of hygiene. And they expect the same of the girls they date.

It’s a perception which has no scientific basis. On the contrary: pubic hair functions as a barrier protecting genitalia from bacteria. And while these days young people such as Katharina and Orhan consider their clean-shaven genitals more attractive sexually, nature actually considered hair a reservoir for pheromones. (We are in the 21st century of course, and no longer instinct-driven cavemen, but still…)

Men and women have long gotten rid of their hair, from Egypt to Australia’s Aborigines. Greek statues have very little hair chiselled on their ideal bodies. Islam even incorporates hair removal in its directives concerning personal hygiene: Islamic women would traditionally get rid of their pubic hair once a month after menstruation.

Home grooming

Turkish and Arab women however, are hardly to be seen in waxing studios. “They keep to themselves,” says Andrea Zimpel. The 45-year-old is the owner of a small beauty salon in the heart of the Reuterkiez in Neukölln. Her customers are students, real estate managers, doctors or lawyers, mostly in their 20s to mid-40s, but none of the high percentage of Turkish and Arab women who live there. “They do it for each other,” Zimpel assumes. Her 20-year-old apprentice Zoya nods. Half Turkish, she says that hair removal techniques are taught by mothers to their daughters. This includes threading, where the hair is simply ‘spun away’ by twisting the thread in a certain manner. She would always have her eyebrows trimmed by her mum – and vice versa.

While Brazilian waxing is surrounded by a somewhat brutal aura, Zimpel is using a different method: sugaring. “Wax is pure assault,” she charges. Just watching it horrifies her, so she’s never even tried it. Instead she applies a golden shimmering sugar-based paste to her customers’ genital areas. The gel sinks into the pores and uncouples the hair roots. It’s a time consuming procedure but the skin is (mostly) not even red afterwards, she promises.

Although using different methods, both Zimpel and Sybilla Stolberg know one thing is crucial in their field of profession – trust. “You’re exposing the most intimate part of your body to me,” explains Zimpel. Perhaps that’s the most peculiar thing about pubic hairdos: all that time, money and pain is invested in something very few people will ever get to see.