Sex Roles

, Volume 65, Issue 7–8, pp 506–517 | Cite as

Gender, Self-Objectification and Pubic Hair Removal

Original Article

Abstract

Pubic hair removal is common in college age men and women in the United States and Australia. The present research addresses two questions related to this practice: (1) Are objectification and body shape concerns related to pubic hair removal; and (2) Do these relationships differ by gender? U.S. undergraduates, 148 women and 76 men, completed questionnaires about the presence, frequency of, and reasons for pubic hair removal; self-objectification, including self-surveillance and body shame; self-consciousness in sexual situations; and drives for leanness, thinness, and muscularity. While both genders reported similar rates of pubic hair removal, women reported greater frequency and higher normative, sexiness, and cleanliness reasons for pubic hair removal. Normative and sexiness reasons were positively correlated with self-surveillance. The relationships among normative and sexiness reasons and self-objectification were significantly higher for women with women’s body shame and self-surveillance scores more strongly impacted by normative and sexiness reasons. Findings are interpreted within the framework of objectification theory.

Keywords

Body hair removal Body image Objectification theory 

Introduction

During the past decade, research has demonstrated that both women and men engage in pubic hair removal (e.g., Boroughs et al. 2005; Martins et al. 2008; Tiggemann and Hodgson 2008). For women and for at least heterosexual men, this is a fairly recent development. Limited research has investigated the frequency with which various groups (women, heterosexual men, gay men) engage in pubic hair removal as well as the reasons they give for the practice. McCreary et al. (2007) speculated that pubic hair removal is related to other aspects of body image, including perhaps body dysmorphic disorder. As such, it may be an element or indicator of body image disturbance that can be easily identified. This makes it of potential interest to researchers and clinicians in a variety of cultures where body image issues are of concern. However, researchers have not examined the relationships between pubic hair removal and other body image concerns. The present research uses objectification theory (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997; McKinley and Hyde 1996) to assess correlations among pubic hair removal, reasons for pubic hair removal, self-surveillance, and body image including drive for thinness, drive for leanness, drive for muscularity, and body shame in an U.S. undergraduate sample. These relationships are evaluated separately for men and women because of gender differences in body image, such as men’s greater investment in muscularity and women’s in thinness (e.g., McCreary et al. 2007; Smolak and Murnen 2008).

A majority of American and Australian college men and women surveyed reported removing their pubic hair. For example, Boroughs et al. (2005) reported that nearly 75% of the American men surveyed removed groin hair while Martins et al. (2008) found that about 82% of gay and 66% of heterosexual men had removed their pubic hair at least once in their Australian sample. Among the women in Tiggemann and Hodgson’s (2008) Australian sample, 60% removed at least some of their pubic hair. Unlike leg hair removal by women or facial hair removal by men, pubic hair removal is not done for public appearance, but rather for self-presentation in more intimate settings. Women who remove pubic hair explain the behavior in terms of social norms, sex appeal, or femininity (Tiggemann and Hodgson 2008). Similarly, men report that sex appeal is one reason that they remove pubic hair (Boroughs et al. 2005). Although both college women and men in Australia and the US do report that pubic hair removal makes them feel “cleaner”, they do not routinely claim health as a primary rationale. Indeed, pubic hair removal is not healthy; it increases the risk of local skin irritation as well as of external and internal infections (Porche 2007; Trager 2006).

The idea that body hair removal reflects a cultural norm is crucial. Body hair removal is practiced primarily for the purpose of meeting a societal definition of attractiveness. This is true of removal of hair from men’s faces and women’s legs and underarms, for example. The desired look is “sleek” and “smooth.” But it is also frequently child-like. Indeed, much of the preferred appearance of women in the US and Australia is pre-pubescent with little or no body fat, narrow hips, and unusually long legs. In cultures that endorse this image of adult women, body hair removal may reflect yet another way (in addition, e.g., to dieting and plastic surgery) of disciplining the female body and keeping women focused on achieving a particular ideal. Like an unnaturally thin body, hair removal will require monitoring and surveillance since the body hair will constantly try to grow back.

While the majority of Americans remove some body hair, pubic hair removal shows enough individual variability to permit the investigation of characteristics associated with the practice. Specifically, the relationship of measures of self-objectification and body image to pubic hair removal were examined in the present study. Objectification is clearly a gendered phenomenon (e.g., Fredrickson et al. 1998; McKinley 2006). According to objectification theory (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997; McKinley and Hyde 1996), girls and women consistently experience the sexualizing gaze of others, particularly men. Because there is cultural support for the sexual objectification of women and the rewards associated with meeting this social norm (Murnen and Smolak in press), American women endorse the importance of meeting the ideal. For example, American college women expect that compliance with the sexualized ideal is associated with greater social, romantic, and occupational success (Engeln-Maddox 2006). This may lead to self-objectification, i.e., treating oneself as object to be manipulated or shaped into something that is sexually attractive to men. Self-objectification leads to self-surveillance of how well one meets cultural standards and to body shame (McKinley and Hyde 1996). Since women’s body hair removal appears to be part of a social appearance norm, it seems likely that women who engage in self-objectification and hence self-surveillance are more likely to remove pubic hair.

American college men, too, indicate that they remove pubic hair for sex appeal (Boroughs et al. 2005). Furthermore, some research has indicated that young adult men from the US who are high on self-objectification also score higher on drive for muscularity, muscle dysmorphia, and eating disorder symptoms (Grieve and Helmick 2008; Wiseman and Moradi 2010). Thus, as with women, it is possible that men’s pubic hair removal is related to self-objectification. However, not all research has supported a relationship between measures of self-objectification and American men’s drive for muscularity (Daniel and Bridges 2010) suggesting that the relationship between self-objectification and body image may only occur for certain groups of men (e.g., sexual minority men) or under certain circumstances. Furthermore, women engage in self-objectification to a greater extent than men do while men and women remove pubic hair at similar rates. Therefore, it is hypothesized that the self-objectification-pubic hair relationship will be stronger for women than men.

Self-objectification is also associated with body shame. Both men and women from Australia endorse cleanliness and appearance concerns as reasons for pubic hair removal (Martins et al. 2008; Tiggemann and Hodgson 2008). This suggests that both genders are at least unhappy with and perhaps ashamed of their pubic hair. Several theorists have argued that removal of body hair reflects society’s discomfort with the adult female body (e.g., Hope 1982; Toerien and Wilkinson 2004). Indeed, Tiggemann and Lewis (2004) reported a positive correlation between negative attitudes towards women’s body hair and disgust sensitivity in both Australian men and women. On the other hand, Dixon et al. (2003) found that US women did not prefer little or no body hair on men. While the Dixon et al. study did not include men’s attitudes towards their own bodies, it does raise the possibility that body hair on men is not as culturally unacceptable as body hair on women is. This difference in social acceptability of body hair, including pubic hair, may result in less body shame for men. Thus, while we expected body shame to be related to pubic hair removal among women and men, we expected that the relationship would be stronger among the former.

In a similar vein, self-objectification is hypothesized to be related to body image problems (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997), a relationship supported by considerable data with women (Moradi and Huang 2008). Furthermore, Brumberg (1997) suggested that, in the US, female bodies were “projects” to be improved. Perhaps, then, women who are dissatisfied with one aspect of their bodies are also dissatisfied with other components. A link between pubic hair removal and thinness seems particularly likely since both are related to attractiveness and sex appeal. Among men, drive for muscularity, rather than drive for thinness, may similarly be related to enhancing sex appeal via pubic hair removal. Indeed, McCreary and colleagues (2007) have suggested that pubic hair removal and drive for muscularity may be part of the same appearance-oriented package for men. Drive for leanness, which does not clearly show gender differences (Smolak and Murnen 2008), is expected to be related to pubic hair removal equally for women and men. This would again reflect a general appearance-oriented approach for both men and women.

Finally, objectification theory suggests, and empirical evidence indicates, that self-surveillance is related to discomfort in sexual situations in women (Calogero and Thompson 2009; Fredrickson and Roberts 1997). This reduces women’s enjoyment of sex. If pubic hair removal reflects concerns about appearance and self-surveillance to ensure compliance with social attractiveness and sexiness norms, then pubic hair removal should be related to self-consciousness during sexual experiences. Men also believe that pubic hair removal enhances sexiness. However, some men also note that they remove pubic hair in order to make their genitals appear larger (Martins et al. 2008). While this may reflect concerns about penis size (Pope et al. 2000), it is also possible that pubic hair removal enhances men’s confidence in sexual situations. Thus, it was hypothesized that men’s pubic hair removal would show an inverse relationship to self-consciousness during sexual experiences.

In addition to assessing relationships involving pubic hair removal, the present research investigated reasons for pubic hair removal. Again, the overarching question is whether some reasons for pubic hair removal are particularly related to self-objectification and, specifically, its outcomes of self-surveillance and body shame. Gender differences were also investigated in order to advance understanding of the meaning of both self-objectification and reasons for body hair removal. Tiggemann and Hodgson (2008) derived three factors capturing Australian women’s reasons for pubic hair removal: normativeness, sexiness, and femininity. In the present study, the normativeness and sexiness factors were calculated for both men and women. In addition, other research (Boroughs et al. 2005; Martins et al. 2008) has indicated that men remove pubic hair not only for appearance concerns and sex appeal but also for cleanliness and to make their genitals look larger. Cleanliness as a reason for pubic hair removal was investigated in both men and women while enhancing the perceived size of genitals was a potential reason for men only. Thus, four possible reasons for pubic hair removal were considered: normative reasons, sexiness, cleanliness, and, for men only, making the genitals appear larger.

Objectification theorists argue that self-objectification is common among women (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997; McKinley and Hyde 1996). Self-objectification implies that the woman has adopted societal norms for what is sexy and what is a “normal” female appearance. Therefore, we hypothesized that women who remove pubic hair in order to follow norms or in order to be sexy would be high on self-surveillance and body shame. Similarly, women who removed body hair in order to be “clean” might be adopting the normative value that women’s body hair is disgusting (Tiggemann and Lewis 2004). Therefore, they might want to monitor themselves to be certain that they do not invoke such disgust. Thus, women who remove pubic hair in order to be clean were also expected to score higher on self-surveillance and body shame. Similarly, normative and sexiness reasons for pubic hair removal were expected to be related to self-surveillance and body shame among men. However, it was expected that normative and sexiness reasons would be less strongly related to self-surveillance and body shame among men than among women. Indeed, because research has indicated that women prefer some body hair on men (Dixon et al. 2003), it was expected that cleanliness as a reason for removal would not be related to men’s self-surveillance and body shame. As with the hypotheses concerning pubic hair removal per se, these proposed differences reflect the less extensive nature of self-objectification in men (e.g., McKinley 2006).

Thus this research aimed to investigate two broad questions. First, is pubic hair removal, including reasons for doing it, related to self-objectification, measured here as self-surveillance (McKinley and Hyde 1996) and its negative concomitants of body shame, body image disturbance, and self-consciousness during sexual situations? Second, since self-objectification theory predicts significant gender differences (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997; McKinley and Hyde 1996), are there important gender differences in the relationship of pubic hair removal as well as reasons for pubic hair removal to self-surveillance and body shame? The following specific hypotheses were evaluated:
  1. H1.

    College aged women and men who remove pubic hair were expected to score higher on self-surveillance, body shame, and self-consciousness during sexual experiences. These correlations were expected to be stronger for women than for men.

     
  2. H2.

    Women who remove pubic hair will demonstrate higher levels of drive for thinness. These variables will not be related in men.

     
  3. H3.

    Men who remove pubic hair will demonstrate higher levels of drive for muscularity. This relationship will not be significant for women.

     
  4. H4.

    In both genders, pubic hair removal will be positively related to drive for leanness. These relationships will be similar for both genders.

     
  5. H5.

    In both genders, people who remove pubic hair for normative reasons will score higher on self-surveillance and body shame. The relationships between normative reasons and self-surveillance and body shame will be stronger for women than men.

     
  6. H6.

    In both genders, removing pubic hair to enhance sexiness will be positively related to self-surveillance and body shame. The relationship between self-objectification and sexiness reasons will be stronger for women.

     
  7. H7.

    Removing pubic hair in order to be cleaner is expected to be positively correlated with self-surveillance and body shame among women. Similar relationships are not expected for men since cleanliness is not assumed to reflect disgust with men’s body hair.

     
  8. H8.

    Men’s removal of pubic hair in order to make their genitals appear larger will be associated with positive effects, including lower self-surveillance, body shame, and self-consciousness during sexual experiences. However, this reason will be correlated with higher drives for muscularity and leanness.

     

Method

Participants

The sample consisted of 148 women and 76 men, all of whom were undergraduate students at a Midwestern college. Four other students were excluded from the analyses because they did not indicate their gender appropriately. The sample was predominantly White (80.73%) with 5.5% Asian/Asian-American. All other ethnic groups each constituted less than 5% of the sample. The average age of the sample was 19.41 years, SD = 1.21. Over 90% of the sample identified as either exclusively or predominantly heterosexual. There were no gender differences in terms of ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation. The students received course credit for their participation as long as they were enrolled in an eligible psychology class, had registered on the course credit program, and had not received the maximum research credit permitted in their course. Most students met these criteria.

Measures

All students completed an online questionnaire. Only the measures used in the present analyses are described. The measures were always presented in the order they are described here.

Demographics

Students were asked to self-identify their gender, age, and ethnicity. They were provided a list of sexual orientation choices, ranging from exclusively gay/lesbian to exclusively hetero (with an “other” option) similar to a measure used by Chung and Katayama (1996).

Self-Consciousness During Sexual Experiences

Self-consciousness about one’s body during sexual experiences was assessed using the Self-Consciousness During Sexual Experiences Scale (SCSS; Wiederman 2000). The scale was originally developed and validated for use with women. The 15 items explore anxiety about having a sexual partner see one’s body naked or feel the fat on one’s body. Wiederman (2000) found that scale responses were related to general body dissatisfaction and to sexual anxiety. Each item is rated on a 6-point scale (0 = never; 5 = always) and items were summed, with higher scores indicative of greater body self-consciousness and anxiety.

Four items, focusing on hips, thighs, buttocks, and waist fat, were omitted for the men. Therefore, they completed an 11 item scale that was scored the same as the women’s scale. For comparability in analyses, this 11 item scale total was also calculated for the women. The correlation between the full and the 11-item versions was .98 among the women. A sample item on the scale that both women and men could respond to is, “I (could) only feel comfortable enough to have sex if it were dark so my partner could not clearly see my body”. The alpha coefficient of internal consistency for the women’s responses was quite high at .95, and it was also acceptable for men at .86.

Body Hair Removal

The questionnaires developed by Tiggemann and Hodgson (2008) to assess body hair removal practices and the reasons for body hair removal were used. The Tiggemann and Hodgson sample included only women. The survey questions asked about the frequency and methods of removing leg, underarm, bikini line, and pubic hair. For example, with respect to pubic hair, respondents were asked if they currently remove pubic hair (yes or no), and if they had ever removed pubic hair (yes or no). If they removed pubic hair, they indicated how much they removed from a small amount, to most, to all. In the analyses, “ever” removing pubic hair was one dependent measure. The frequency of pubic hair removal was measured on an eight-point scale, with 1 = never and 8 = daily. Thus, a higher score indicated greater frequency of pubic hair removal. This measure was used as the frequency measure in analyses.

Students were also asked to rate 18 potential reasons for removing body hair from each of the four areas. These were rated on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = not at all important; 5 = extremely important). Only the items that related to reasons for removing pubic hair were examined in this study. A principal components analysis by Tiggemann and Hodgson (2008) indicated that the reasons for hair removal could be summarized into three factors. The first assessed social normative reasons for hair removal (e.g., “It is expected these days”). Items related to sexual attractiveness (e.g., “It makes sexual experience better”) formed the second factor. The third factor consisted of femininity related items (e.g., “It makes me feel feminine”). These subscales were calculated as sums for pubic hair removal in the present study. Higher scores indicate greater concern about social norms, sexual attractiveness, and feminine gender role respectively. Cronbach’s alphas for the three subscales were all adequate with values of .81, .79, and .75, respectively. The same survey questions were used with the men except that leg, underarm, and bikini line sites were replaced with facial, chest, and back hair. Both the women’s and men’s surveys included pubic hair. Minor wording changes (e.g., “feminine” was replaced with “masculine”) were made in the reasons portion of the survey. The same three subscales assessing reasons for pubic hair removal were calculated for men. Cronbach’s alphas for these scores in the present sample were adequate for the social norms, α = .74 and the sexiness reasons, α = .85 but not for the masculinity factor, α = .61. Therefore, the gender role scales were not used in the analyses.

Two individual questions were also used to assess reasons for pubic hair removal. The first one indexed cleanliness and was “It makes me feel cleaner.” The second question, used with men only, was “It makes my genitals look larger”. Both questions were scored on a 1 (not at all important) to 5 (extremely important) scale.

Drive for Leanness

The Drive for Leanness Scale (DLS; Smolak and Murnen 2008) was used to assess drive for leanness. The scale consists of six items focusing on the individual’s preference for a well-toned, lean body. The items are rated on a 6-point scale, ranging from 1 (never) to 6 (always) and are summed to create a total score. A higher score indicates greater investment in leanness. One item on the scale is “I think the best bodies are well-toned.”

The DLS is designed for use with both men and women and in a validation study showed no gender differences (Smolak and Murnen 2008). The scale was moderately correlated with drive for thinness and drive for muscularity and added significant new variance in regressions using these measures, indicating discriminant validity. Adequate stability and internal validity were also demonstrated. In the present sample the alpha coefficient of internal consistency for the women’s responses was .84 and for the men’s responses it was also .84.

Drive for Thinness

Drive for thinness was measured using the Drive for Thinness subscale of the Eating Disorder Inventory (EDI-DT; Garner 2004). This is a well-validated, frequently used scale, currently in its third edition. Its seven items focus on the desire to be thin and the fear of even small (1 lb) weight gains. “I am preoccupied with a desire to be thinner” is one of the items on the scale. In this study, we scored the scale using the entire six item response scale (never to always) in order to maximize variability and calculated a summed total score (i.e., scores could range from 7 to 42). A higher score indicates a greater level of drive for thinness. The alpha coefficients of internal consistency were .94 for women and .88 for men.

Drive for Muscularity

Drive for muscularity was measured using the Drive for Muscularity Scale (DMS; McCreary and Sasse 2000; McCreary et al. 2004). The DMS represents one’s perception that he/she is not muscular enough, and therefore must add muscle mass to the body. Items tap both attitudes and behaviors associated with muscularity. For example, one item is, “I think that my legs are not muscular enough.” The scale is a 15 question self-report scale designed for both men and women. Respondents indicate the frequency of each response on a scale where 1 = never and 6 = always. It is possible to divide the scale into attitudinal and behavioral subscales. However, these subscales are only valid with men and it is appropriate to use one combined score (McCreary et al. 2004). We used the total score, calculated as an average response to the questions, in the present study. The DMS has been shown to have good internal consistency, face validity, convergent validity, discriminant validity, and test–retest stability with high school boys and adult men (Cafri and Thompson 2004; McCreary and Sasse 2000, 2002). The score reported here is the mean item response (possible range of 1–6) with a higher score indicating higher drive for muscularity. For the women the alpha among the scale items was .82, and it was .85 for men.

Objectified Body Consciousness

The Objectified Body Consciousness Scale (OBC; McKinley and Hyde 1996) contains three subscales measuring aspects of the internalization of objectification: The Surveillance subscale contains eight items that measure the tendency to think about one’s body as an outside observer. For example, “During the day I think about how I look many times” is one of the items. The Body Shame subscale contains eight items such as, “I feel like a bad person when I don’t look as good as I could.” A third subscale, Control, was not used in the present study. McKinley and Hyde (1996) tested a number of samples to show evidence of internal consistency, test–retest reliability, and construct validity of the three subscales. Items were rated on a 7-point Likert scale from 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree, and scores were coded such that a higher summed score indicated more of the construct. For women the reliability coefficient alpha was .86 for Surveillance and .84 for Body Shame, and these values were .81 and .73 for men.

Procedure

The project was approved by the department and college IRBs. SurveyMonkey was used to create separate online questionnaires for men and for women. Students were notified via email of the availability of the survey about “body hair removal practices.” The email addresses were part of class distribution lists provided by the college to all members of the college. There was no pre-screening of participants and no special email lists were assembled. After completing a consent form that was in a separate online file, participants were able to access the survey. All surveys were completed individually at the participant’s convenience. Participants were encouraged to fill out the survey in an anonymous setting, if possible, and were reminded to take steps to guarantee their privacy. They were provided with the names and email addresses of the investigators as well as of college IRB members in case they had questions about the survey or the ethics of the survey. Data were downloaded into Excel spreadsheets and then transferred to Stata for analysis.

Results

Preliminary Analyses

Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations for each scale. Because gender differences were a focus of this study, the information is provided separately for men and for women. Individual t-tests are used rather than a Hotelling’s T in order to minimize participant loss and maximize power.
Table 1

Descriptive statistics for major variables by gender

Variable

Women’s Mean (SD)

Men’s Mean (SD)

t-test

Frequency of pubic hair removala

4.14 (2.13)

3.04 (1.69)

t (201) = 3.77***

η2 = .07

Self consciousness during sexual experiences

29.14 (11.69)

21.76 (7.42)

t (205) = 4.83****

η2 = .10

Surveillance

38.51 (8.40)

34.87 (8.65)

t (207) = 2.94**

η2 = .04

Body shame

27.48 (9.45)

22.25 (7.58)

t (209) = 4.07****

η2 = .07

Drive for muscularity

1.83 (.53)

2.68 (.76)

t (201) = −9.29****

η2 = .30

Drive for thinness

22.72 (6.75)

16.98 (5.41)

t (210) = 6.20****

η2 = .15

Drive for leanness

22.65 (4.76)

24.51 (4.93)

t (211) = −2.66**

η2 = .03

Pubic hair removal: Normative reasons

9.44 (4.09)

6.2 (2.86)

t (158) = 5.07****

η2 = .14

Pubic hair removal: Sexiness

13.35 (3.88)

11.4 (4.04)

t (123) = 2.66*

η2 = .05

Pubic hair removal: Cleanliness

3.63 (1.25)

3.00 (1.35)

t (177) = 3.07*

η2 = .05

aHigher score indicates higher frequency. Scale score ranges are: Frequency of Pubic Hair Removal 1–8; Self-consciousness during Sexual Experiences 0–66; Surveillance 8–56; Body Shame 8–56; Drive for Muscularity 1–6; Drive for Thinness 7–42; Drive for Leanness 6–36; Normative reasons 5–20; Sexiness reasons 5–20; Cleanliness reasons 1–5.

**p ≤ .01, *** p ≤ .001, ****p ≤ .0001

Women scored higher than men on the OBC-Surveillance and Body Shame subscales, as well as on the EDI-Drive for Thinness and Self-Consciousness during Sexual Experiences (SCSS) scales. Women in this sample had lower scores than the men on the DMS. Women engaged in pubic hair removal more frequently than men. They were also more likely than men to report engaging in pubic hair removal for normative, sexiness, and cleanliness reasons (see Table 1). However, there were no gender differences in whether participants engaged in pubic hair removal with 63% of the men and 65% of the women reporting they removed pubic hair, χ2 (1, N = 215) = 0.07, ns.

Table 2 shows the Pearson correlations among the variables. Again, these are provided separately for men and for women. To correct for the number of correlations generated without endangering power, a p level of .01 is considered statistically significant. Contrary to hypotheses, frequency of pubic hair removal was not related to self-surveillance or self-consciousness during sexual experiences. Frequency of pubic hair removal was also not related to body shame, drive for thinness, drive for leanness, or drive for muscularity. However, among the women, normative and sexiness reasons for pubic hair removal were related to self-surveillance, body shame, self-consciousness during sexual experiences, and drive for thinness measures. Among the men, the normative reasons for pubic hair depilation were related to the drive for leanness while sexiness reasons were related to the drives for leanness and muscularity.
Table 2

Correlations among major variables

Variable

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

1 Freq

−.12

.03

−.02

−.08

.04

.09

−.11

.32**

.32***

2 SSE

−.20

.29***

.38****

.26**

.32***

.33****

.27***

.26***

.11

3 Surveil

.25

.20

.50****

.08

.49****

.17

.49****

.57****

.10

4 Shame

.00

.23

.50****

.33****

.63****

.35****

.36****

.33**

.08

5 DMS

.12

.19

.40***

.29

.39****

.51****

.10

.16

.13

6 DT

.09

.38**

.38**

.63****

.18

.48****

.21

.34**

.17

7 DLS

.19

.00

.46****

.31**

.57****

.21

.28

.24

.12

8 Norms

.27

.01

.16

.11

.25

−.01

.47**

.45****

.02

9 Sexy

.29

.15

.31

.24

.39**

.07

.41**

.61****

.28

10. Clen

.39**

−.03

−.04

.08

.02

−.04

.20

.21

.31

11. Larg

.34

−.01

.17

.27

.21

.13

.23

.53***

.50**

.01

Women’s correlations are above the diagonal; men’s are below

Freq frequency of pubic hair removal; SSE Self-consciousness during Sexual Experiences; Surveil Surveillance subscale; Shame Body Shame subscale; DMS Drive for Muscularity Scale; DT Drive for Thinness; DLS Drive for Leanness Scale; Norms Normative Reasons for Pubic Hair Removal; Sexy Sexiness Reasons for Pubic Hair Removal; Clen Cleanliness as a reason for pubic hair removal; Larg Make genitals appear larger as a reason for pubic hair removal (men only)

**p < .01

***p < .001

****p < .0001

Hypotheses 1–4: Pubic Hair Removal

Hypothesis 1

Hypothesis 1 predicted that practicing pubic hair removal would be related to higher levels of self-surveillance, body shame, and self-consciousness during sexual experiences. Furthermore, these relationships were expected to be more pronounced in women than in men. Thus, significant interaction effects were expected in gender X pubic hair removal ANOVAs as were main effects for pubic hair removal.

Three factorial ANOVAs were performed to address these hypotheses. In all three, grouping variables were gender and whether or not the participant currently engaged in pubic hair removal. Dependent variables were self-surveillance, body shame, and self-consciousness during sexual experiences. Again, separate ANOVAs were performed rather than a MANOVA to minimize participant loss and maximize power. Because the main effects of gender in these analyses are identical to the t-tests reported in Table 1, only the main effect of pubic hair removal group and the interaction effect are reported here.

For self-surveillance, the main effect of pubic hair removal was marginally significant, with those who removed pubic hair reporting higher levels of self-surveillance (M = 37.64) than those who did not (M = 35.14), F (1, 204) = 3.75, p = .054. Contrary to the hypothesis, the interaction effect was not significant, F (1, 204) = 2.40, p > .12, indicating that there was not a gender difference in the association between pubic hair removal and self-surveillance.

When body shame was the dependent variable, contrary to the hypotheses, neither the main effect of pubic hair removal, F (1, 206) = 0.17, ns, or the interaction effect, F (1, 206) = 1.40, ns, was significant. Thus, people who removed their pubic hair did not report more body shame, and there was no gender difference in the relationship between pubic hair removal and body shame.

Finally, when self-consciousness during sexual experiences was the dependent variable, the ANOVA indicated that the main effect of pubic hair removal was significant. However, contrary to the hypothesis, those who removed pubic hair (M = 24.1) were less self-conscious than those who did not (M = 27.99), F (1, 200) = 6.49, p < .02. The interaction effect was not significant, F (1, 200) = 3.02, p > .08. Thus, there was no gender difference in the association between pubic hair removal and self-consciousness during sexual experiences.

Hypotheses 2–4

In hypotheses 2, 3, and 4, pubic hair removal was also expected to be related to drive for thinness in women, drive for muscularity in men, and drive for leanness in both genders. ANOVAs were performed to examine all of these relationships. There were no effects of pubic hair removal either as a main effect or in interaction with gender for any of these tests. (Results available from author.) Furthermore, as Table 2 indicates, frequency of pubic hair removal was not related to drive for thinness, leanness, or muscularity among the women or the men.

Hypotheses 5–7: Reasons for Body Hair Removal and Self-Objectification

Hypotheses 5–7 focused on the relationships of reasons for pubic hair removal to self-objectification measures. More specifically, it was hypothesized that the normative (hypothesis 5), sexiness (hypothesis 6), and cleanliness (hypothesis 7) reasons for pubic hair removal would all be positively related to self-surveillance and body shame but that these relationships would be stronger for women. It is likely that not only are women more invested in pubic hair removal as normative and as a way to be sexy, but that these reasons are related to self-objectification, in the form of self-surveillance and body shame, differently. Reasons for pubic hair removal related to gender role are not included here because of the scale’s low alpha in the men’s sample. Cleanliness as a reason for pubic hair removal is not included because it is not significantly related to self-surveillance or body shame in either gender and because r values are small with r2 never exceeding .01 in either gender. Thus, hypothesis 7 was not supported.

First, the differences between Pearson correlation values were evaluated using Fisher’s z-statistics. This approach assesses whether the correlations between pubic hair removal reasons and self-objectification were significantly stronger for women than for men. All correlations are shown in Table 2. Supporting hypothesis 5, the correlation between normative reasons for pubic hair removal and self-surveillance was significantly stronger for women than for men, z = 2.11, p = .034. The correlation between removing pubic hair in order to be sexy and self-surveillance was marginally larger for women than for men, z = 1.70, p = .09, lending limited support to hypothesis 5. The comparisons for the normative reasons—body shame and sexiness reasons—body shame correlations did not approach significance, p = .13 and p = .61 respectively. These findings are not consistent with hypotheses 5 and 6.

The comparisons only evaluate differences in the size of the correlations. Even if correlations are identical, it is possible that the regression coefficients (slopes) describing the relationship between the two variables will differ. A larger slope indicates that the dependent variable is more strongly affected by predictor variable, i.e., that a one-unit change in the predictor variable produces a larger change in the criterion variable. Ideally, these analyses would be conducted in regression analyses that included both genders and a term for the interaction between gender and reasons for pubic hair removal (i.e., either norms or sexiness). However, even though the reasons variables were centered, multicollinearity, indicated by VIF values substantially greater than 5, rendered this type of analysis relatively inefficient. In other words, no additional information would be gained by using this approach because multicollinearity would distort the significance of the predictor variables. Therefore, two separate regressions were conducted for each gender. In each, the predictor variable was reason for pubic hair removal (normative or sexiness) and the criterion variable was self-surveillance. The slopes of the lines were then compared (Johnston 1984) to assess whether the relationship between reasons for pubic hair removal and self-objectification differed by gender.

For women, the relationship between normative reasons for pubic hair removal and self-surveillance was significant, R2 = .24, F (1, 104) = 32.55, p = .0001, b = 1.08. The relationship between pubic hair removal for sexiness and self-surveillance was also significant, R2 = .32, F (1, 77) = 36.72, p = .0001, b = 1.24. For men, the relationship between normative reasons for pubic hair removal and self-surveillance was not significant, R2 = .02, F (1, 47) = 1.26, p = .27, b = .42. However, the sexiness reasons for pubic hair removal were significantly related to self-surveillance, R2 = .09, F (1, 43) = 4.44, p = .041, b = .61. The slope for women is significantly higher than men’s slope in the normative reasons equations, t (151) = 3.93, p = .00006. In the sexiness reasons equations, the women’s slope is again significantly higher than the men’s, t (120) = 3.79, p = .0001.

Similar analyses were performed for the criterion variable body shame. Body shame is also assumed to be an outcome of self-objectification. Results indicated that women who reported normative reasons for pubic hair removal had higher levels of body shame, R2 = .13, F (1, 107) = 15.75, p = .0001, b = .86 as did women who removed pubic hair in order to be sexy, R2 = .11, F (1, 77) = 9.61, p = .0027, b = .79. Neither the normative reasons, R2 = .01, F (1, 48) = .61, p = .4396, b = .28, nor the sexiness reasons, R2 = .06, F (1, 43) = 2.62, p = .1128, b = .39, were significantly related to body shame among men. The slope for women is significantly higher than that for men in the normative reasons equations, t (155) = 3.16, p = .0009. Similarly, the slope in the women’s sexiness equation is significantly higher than men’s, t (120) = 2.19, p = .0149.

Hypothesis 8: Removing Pubic Hair to Enhance Genital Size and Self-Objectification in Men

Removing pubic hair in order to make one’s genitals appear larger was not significantly correlated with either self-surveillance or body shame (see Table 2). Thus, this hypothesis was not supported.

Summary

Hypothesis 1

The hypothesis that those who remove pubic hair would score higher on self-surveillance, body shame, and self-consciousness was not supported. Pubic hair removal was only marginally related to self-surveillance and was not related to body shame. Contrary to the hypothesis, pubic hair removal was related to lower levels of self-consciousness during sexual experiences. The hypothesis further stated that these relationships would be stronger in women than in men. This was not supported; none of the gender X pubic hair removal interactions was significant.

Hypothesis 2

This hypothesized that women who removed pubic hair would have higher drive for thinness while this would not be true for men. The results did not support a relationship between pubic hair removal and drive for thinness in either gender.

Hypothesis 3

This hypothesis stated that men who removed pubic hair would have higher drives for muscularity and that this relationship would not be significant for women. Neither gender demonstrated this relationship.

Hypothesis 4

It was hypothesized that both women and men who removed pubic hair would have higher drive for leanness. This relationship was not found in men or women.

Hypothesis 5

As stated in the hypothesis, women who engaged in pubic hair removal for normative reasons scored higher on self-surveillance. Contrary to the hypothesis, this relationship was not significant for men. However, consistent with the hypothesis, the relationship was significantly stronger (as indicated by a larger Pearson correlation) and women’s self-surveillance levels were affected more than men’s (as indicated by a larger slope). While the correlation between normative reasons for pubic hair removal and body shame was not significantly stronger for women, regression slopes again indicated that women’s body shame was associated with greater changes when women had higher levels of normative reasons.

Hypothesis 6

This hypothesis stated that participants who were higher in sexiness reasons for pubic hair removal would score higher on self-surveillance and body shame. This was the case for women but not for men. Furthermore, contrary to the hypothesis, these correlations were not significantly stronger for women than for men. However, sexiness as a motive for pubic hair removal was associated with higher levels of self-surveillance and body shame in women.

Hypothesis 7

Cleanliness as a reason for pubic hair removal was not related to self-surveillance or body shame in either women or men. Thus, this hypothesis was not supported.

Hypothesis 8

This hypothesis stated that the removal of pubic hair in order to make one’s genitals appear larger would be related to higher self-objectification in men. This hypothesis was not supported.

Discussion

The purpose of this research was to examine the gendered relationships among pubic hair removal, objectification, and body image measures. These relationships were examined in college age men and women, which allowed for gender comparisons. In the present study it was found that similar proportions of men and women reported engaging in the removal of pubic hair, although women reported a higher frequency of the behavior. Previous theorists (e.g., Brumberg 1997; Hope 1982; Toerien and Wilkinson 2003, 2004) suggested that depilation was part of the female gender role and that it signaled cultural and individual dissatisfaction with the adult female body. Although women demonstrated higher levels of self-surveillance, body shame, and self-consciousness during sexual experiences than men did, there was not an interaction between gender and pubic hair removal for any of these variables. Thus, pubic hair removal did not appear to have different implications for men and women. Pubic hair removal was not related to body shame and those participants who removed pubic hair were actually less self-conscious in sexual experiences than those who did not. These findings, particularly the latter one, may underscore the increasingly normative nature of pubic hair removal. Indeed, it may be that pubic hair removal is sexually liberating for some people. Similarly, pubic hair removal was not related to drive for thinness, leanness, or muscularity. It appears, then, that at least in this sample, pubic hair removal is not part of a general “body project,” i.e., it is not integrated with other body concerns.

On the other hand, there were gender differences in the reasons for removing pubic hair. Women were more likely to say they removed pubic hair for normative and sexiness reasons than men, with the effect for normative reasons being greater than that for sexiness reasons. Further, women who removed their pubic hair for normative reasons, i.e., because all of their friends do it and they would feel odd if they did not, had higher self-surveillance and body shame scores. Both self-surveillance and body shame are outcomes of the self-objectification process (McKinley and Hyde 1996). Similarly, women who scored higher on sexiness reasons for pubic hair removal scored higher on both self-surveillance and body shame. These findings suggest that there are some women who remove their pubic hair for reasons related to self-objectification. This issue deserves more research attention since it may help to identify women who are at risk for a variety of body image problems. This argument is bolstered by bivariate correlations indicating that these reasons for pubic hair removal were related to drive for thinness and drive for leanness in the women. It is also of some concern that women who scored higher on the normative and sexiness reasons for pubic hair removal also had higher scores on the self-consciousness during sexual experiences measure.

For men, the sexiness reasons for pubic hair removal were not related to self-surveillance or to body shame, though the lack of significance may reflect the more limited power with the men’s than women’s sample. Normative reasons for pubic hair removal were not related to either self-surveillance or body shame. Indeed, the correlation between normative reasons and self-surveillance was significantly weaker for men than for women. Thus, for men, it appears that there is little link between self-objectification and reasons for pubic hair removal. This is consistent with other findings that objectification theory may not apply to men the same way it does to women (Daniel and Bridges 2010). Although men appear to cite the same reasons for pubic hair removal that women do, it appears that these reasons are not interpreted within similar cultural contexts. Indeed, regression analyses indicated that both self-surveillance and body shame were more affected by normative and sexiness reasons for pubic hair removal among women than among men. Nonetheless, the normative and sexiness reasons were related to the drives for leanness and muscularity in men. This raises the possibility that men’s pubic hair removal is part of a broader body appearance schema. However, it appears that men’s body appearance schema may differ from women’s (e.g., it may be less related to self-objectification). Perhaps focus groups or interviews with men would yield the type of qualitative data that would aid in understanding the nature of men’s body appearance schema.

There are several possible explanations for these findings. First, it is possible that researchers need to further examine why men remove pubic hair. Perhaps there are reasons not tapped in the present study that correlate with objectification. Some research has suggested that men might remove pubic hair for cleanliness or to make their genitals look larger (Martins et al. 2008). However, in this sample, these reasons were not related to self-surveillance or body shame. Second, men reported less frequent removal of pubic hair so perhaps their removal is related to concerns with keeping the hair short or sparse but not absent, implying a different pubic hair standard. Martins and colleagues (2008) found that attractiveness concerns were the most important reason for men’s body hair removal, but their data did not allow for a determination of the standard for attractiveness. Finally, although men in this study, as in previous work (e.g., Martins et al. 2008), perceive pubic hair removal as related to appearance (especially sexiness), this form of appearance investment may operate differently in men than it does in women. In other words, men may not integrate various aspects of appearance as fully as women do. This is consistent with Martins et al.’s findings that men’s body hair removal frequency was related to appearance investment but not to the importance of appearance to self-worth. The bivariate correlations between pubic hair removal, reasons for pubic hair removal, self-consciousness during sexual experiences, drive for leanness, and drive for muscularity suggest that there is more to learn about the links between body image issues and men’s pubic hair removal.

All of these issues deserve additional research attention. It is noteworthy, however, that pubic hair removal is not the only behavior that shows no gender difference on surface but does demonstrate gender differences when examined in more complex contexts. For example, sexual harassment and self-silencing show similar patterns of little or no gender difference in frequency or mean scores (e.g., Smolak 2010; Smolak and Murnen 2008). As an ecological model (e.g., Piran 2001) would suggest, the cultural context of gender roles shapes the meaning of motivation, experiences, and interactions. The heterosexual script (Kim et al. 2007) may be an example of a gendered role that shapes the relationship of pubic hair removal to self-objectification because it portrays women in a passive, objectified role while men are in a sexually dominant role. It could be that men’s pubic hair removal is related to beliefs that it will positively affect their sexual performance as the stereotyped initiators of sexual activity, for example. Since pubic hair removal is negatively related to self-consciousness during sexual experiences and reasons for pubic hair removal are not related to self-consciousness during sexual experiences, we might expect that the relationship between pubic hair removal and sexual experiences in men is of an enhancing rather than an anxiety-reducing nature.

Limitations

This study has several important limitations. First, it was a predominantly White college age sample. It is quite likely that different age and ethnic groups would exhibit different frequencies of and reasons for pubic hair removal. What is a norm in one group or culture may be an emerging norm or an unusual behavior in another. There are stereotypes about the sexuality of various ethnic groups (e.g., Baker 2005) which could influence attitudes and behaviors associated with pubic hair removal. Similarly, it is important to further investigate sexual orientation and pubic hair removal. Lesbian women should be less concerned with pubic hair removal than heterosexual women due to less adherence to heterosexist norms. For example, lesbian women have been found to be somewhat less vulnerable to the thin body image ideal than heterosexual women (Morrison et al. 2004). On the other hand, gay men should be more concerned with pubic hair removal than heterosexual men given greater body monitoring and concern with societal body norms. Indeed, it has been found that gay men report a higher frequency of body hair removal than heterosexual men, although the majority of men in each group report hair removal (Martins et al. 2008).

A second limitation is that several of the measures were originally designed for women and were adapted for use with men in this study. Chief among these were the self-consciousness during sexual experiences and the reasons for pubic hair removal scales. In order to compare the genders’ responses statistically it was necessary to use the same scales. Although the internal consistency of the scales was high among men, more research should be conducted to determine the validity of the use of these scales with men. Researchers should seek to develop scales in these areas that can be used with both genders or should present compelling reasons why the genders cannot be compared. Third, the sample of men was considerably smaller than the women’s sample. This means there was less power to detect significance, particularly when alpha was reduced to .01 to avoid Type I error. However, several of the analyses relied on the strength and nature of the relationships involving the pubic hair removal variables (especially reasons for pubic hair removal). These analyses are less affected by the power issue and some of them still indicate gender differences. Fourth, this is a correlational design. There is no implication of causality in any of these findings. Longitudinal data would be helpful in sorting through some of the correlations. Such data seem particularly important in ascertaining whether adopting social norms actually contributes to self-objectification in women or is an outcome of it.

Finally, the study relies on self-report data from a web-based survey. We instructed participants to fill out the questionnaire in a private setting to try to increase their attention, but it would have been helpful to have a “validity check” question on the survey to assess attention level. This problem may have been exacerbated by the lack of counterbalancing of the questionnaires. It is possible that some scales were more affected by inattention than others because of their placement. Self-report data in the area of sexuality are particularly subject to bias (Wiederman 2002), so including a measure of social desirability would have been helpful. The high internal consistency of the scales and the pattern of significant correlations suggest some validity to the current data, however.

Despite the limitations of the study, the present data provide interesting clues about appearance and body image factors other than weight and shape that are gendered. Such findings continue to support the argument that women’s bodies are culturally defined as objects for men’s sexual pleasure to the detriment of women’s own health and well-being. Although feminism per se is not related to the frequency of pubic hair removal (Tiggemann and Kenyon 1998), it is possible that feminist identity would change the meaning of depilation and hence improve women’s body image in this arena as it does in weight and shape (Murnen and Smolak 2009).

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyKenyon CollegeGambierUSA

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