On the night of Nov. 4, Aleks Weir stumbled off the Line 20 bus onto East Burnside Street—and into the middle of a cultural trend.
"I realized I'd gotten off at the wrong stop," the 21-year-old Portland man says, "and all of a sudden I saw this giant beaver coming towards me. It was reaching out for my hand, and it pulled me through the door into this place."
"This place" is Wax On (734 E Burnside St., 595-4974), a waxing spa holding its grand-opening party the night Weir was beckoned inside by the man in the beaver suit. Champagne and vodka flowed freely, techno pulsed over the sound system, and pretty young things glided past billowing fabric partitions, en route to free waxing demonstrations. The festive atmosphere, designed to whet Portlanders' appetites for the agonies and ecstasies of radical hair removal, worked its magic on Weir. Within 10 minutes, he was on his back, shirtless, getting the hair yanked out of his underarms.
"My favorite WWF [pro-wrestling] characters don't have hair on their armpits," he explained afterwards, "and I've always had this sadomasochistic urge to try it. But there was hardly any pain at all—compared to getting your nipples pierced."
Weir and the other 50-plus people at the party found themselves in the grip of a national hair-removal craze, in which otherwise reasonable human beings decide to hot-wax, laser-zap and electrocute not only their underarms, but, increasingly, their most intimate below-the-belt spots.
"I am definitely a Brazilian girl," says Portland corporate headhunter Erica Rothman, referring to the Brazilian wax, wherein hair is completely removed from the pubic thatch and backside. "It's a topic that girls and guys talk about openly nowadays, more than ever. Like, 'Do you wax or shave? Why or why not? Does it hurt?'"
According to the American Association of Plastic Surgery, 1.4 million Americans had laser hair removal last year, more than double the amount for 2003. While the practice of depilation goes back thousands of years (the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans did it with sticky, sugar-based syrups), it has time-warped into American culture with a vengeance. Even Oregon—the Beaver State, with its hippie-haven past and naturophilic present—has joined our lockstep cultural march toward Depilation Nation.
And yet there are pockets of resistance. On the historic home turf of pioneers and loggers, Merry Pranksters and eco-feminists, many are crunching to their own drummers, as a walk down Southeast Hawthorne or Northeast Alberta will bear out—as will a cyber-visit to the homegrown website HippieGoddess.com. The site features local hippie chicks cavorting in the altogether along mossy trails, their body hair as lush as old-growth forests.
Clearly, there is a battle abrew between the Brazilian and the Beaver, and Portland is in the crosshairs. Who could have guessed that the fight for Oregon's heart and soul would take place beneath our underpants?
At Wax On's grand-opening party, not only were people getting their pubic hair yanked out, they were doing it in front of complete strangers. One waxee, 26, admitted that a few beers helped him work up the nerve to shimmy out of his jeans and boxers, get on all fours, and have his first-ever waxing, with 25 people looking on.
"Portlanders seem to be much more comfortable getting waxed publicly than people in Seattle," says Wax On owner Anne Uhlir, 34, who owns two waxing salons in Seattle in addition to the Burnside location. "People are less inhibited down here."
As for the waxee himself, he claimed he's not an exhibitionist and remarked, after the deed was done, that the experience "was a little invasive."
The Brazilian wax was brought to the United States in 1987 by seven Brazilian-born cosmetologist sisters: Jocely, Jonice, Joyce, Janea, Jussara, Juracy and Judseia Padilha, known collectively as "The J Sisters." The women opened up a midtown Manhattan salon that soon attracted such clients as Vanessa Williams and Gwyneth Paltrow. The sisters' specialty: a complete deforestation of the female labia (or male scrotum), the perineum (that stretch between the genitals and anus known as the "taint"), and the inside of the butt cleft. In other words, the whole enchilada.
Self-professed former hippie chick Tiffany Olson, 32, is creative director of a company in Northwest Portland. Recently she took the Brazilian plunge. "I just thought, 'What an adventure, what the hell!'" Her reaction to the experience: "The further south they go, the worse the pain gets, especially once they start getting into your inners and outers."
Upon inspecting Olson's freshly cleared underbrush, her boyfriend, Justin Mason, 34, complained, "It was a little severe. I would have liked at least a landing strip. And pedophilically, it was a little weird."
Wax On owner Uhlir reports that her business has increased tenfold over the past six years, with male Brazilians up 70 percent and each of her three salons performing an average of 36 waxings per day. While the salons do wax underarms, backs, legs and facial hair, Uhlir maintains the real growth business is getting rid of "hair down there." Why? "Waxing is great for women, because no man wants a pubic hair in his mouth. And it's great for men to get waxed, because it makes their equipment look bigger."
These advantages do not come cheaply. At Kalista Salon & Spa (137 SE 28th Ave., 230-8952), the price range is $70 to $90, "depending on the length and coarseness of hair," according to co-owner Ernest Stephens, who points out that "our name for the Brazilian is 'The Bohemian.'" The nickname for a men's Bohemian? "Mr. Clean."
Nationally, there are even more colorful variations. Beverly Hills aesthetician Nance Mitchell, who counts Christina Aguilera among her clients, sculpts topiary-style patterns into pubic bush, including Louis Vuitton initials and the Mercedes-Benz symbol, which will run you up to $1,200. For a mere $105, a Madison Avenue spa offers a number called "Completely Bare with a Flair," in which Swarovski rhinestones are glued to a freshly waxed mound.
Waxing is far from the only way to get rid of hair down there. Laser hair removal involves damaging the hair follicle so acutely that it eventually doesn't grow back at all. (Waxers, by contrast, have to repeat the procedure every five weeks or so.) In Portland, Spa Sassé is one of many boutiques offering the service. "We've had phenomenal growth in the popularity of laser hair removal," says owner Sara Sassé. "It's very competitive now. The price has dropped so much for the consumer that even though we're treating more people, the profit margin is not what it used to be." Typically, seven to 12 laser treatments are needed for permanent hair removal, with treatments beginning at around $100 locally but averaging $500 nationwide. The 2005 Yellow Pages lists a total of 67 businesses dedicated to hair removal, not including spas and cosmetic surgeons. Clearly, business is booming.
Laser procedures have eaten into the revenues of a more traditional hair-removal process, electrolysis. Whereas laser technicians blast large numbers of hairs in a single pass, electrologists insert a tiny, electrified needle into each follicle, killing hairs at the root, one by one. For the past 28 years, Sheila Ahern has run the Electrolysis Clinic of Portland (610 SW Alder St., Suite 920, 227-6050). She reluctantly concedes that laser procedures have leeched customers away but claims the economic hit is leveling off as public awareness increases of hair-removal methods, including electrolysis. Ahern, who charges $48 per half-hour session, also holds that people with darker pigmentation are better served by electrolysis because of lasers' difficulty in differentiating between dark hair and dark skin. And she disputes the widely held notion that electrolysis is painful, pointing to recent advances in technology that enable a technician to more comfortably blend the alternating and direct currents that zap hairs.
Cultural critics trace the recent depilation craze to trends in erotica and fashion. Strippers have been going Kojak for the better part of two decades, while the influence of male bodybuilders, with their smooth chests and underarms, has filtered into gay and straight porn, and thereby into the mainstream. Also, the head-shaving trend among men, which started with NBA players then turned ubiquitous, has acclimated men to the notion of more intimate "manscaping." Among women, fashionable low-rise jeans and thong bikinis have shown more and more skin in recent years, leading to a perceived need to eradicate "happy trails" and perianal peach fuzz.
But fashions come and go, and what is out today—the "Seventies snatch" of yore—may be in next season. This mutability raises the question of whether irreversibly lasered clearcutters have committed a future fashion fur-pas. Sniffs local fashion blogger Ashkan: "The Brazilian is so four years ago! Personally, I'd never shave anything other than my face." Indeed, a New York dermatologist told the New York Times that if luxuriant pubic jungles someday come back into vogue, over-depilated women will probably be lining up for "hair transplants to the pubic area."
If there is a backlash to the depilation movement, its leaders may be David Levine and Emma Soji, a married Portland couple who founded the website HippieGoddess.com. The site's mission: to showcase "natural, hairy, dreadlocked, hemp-wearing, barefoot, earth-loving goddesses." Boasting 25,000 digital photos and more than a dozen digital videos, the site shows local women in various states of undress, frolicking spritelike and blissfully ignudo along forest trails and waterfall-fed streams. It's a virtual time warp, a granola antipode to that more famous Portland-birthed website, SuicideGirls.com. In the cultural trenches dividing these two camps of cybervixen, one can almost see the earth mothers and the slick, L.A.-bound Suicide Girls mud-wrestling for the Oregonian soul: history vs. progress, nature vs. artifice; folk vs. punk; '60s-style communal values vs. postmodern "Pimp My Ride" materialism.
There is no question which side HippieGoddess co-founder Levine is on. "We got the idea for the site," he recalls, "one night while Emma and I were dancing at a Grateful Dead show. All of a sudden, this girl near us with blond dreadlocks ripped her shirt off as she was twirling around, and in that moment, which I'll never forget, you could smell the sweat, the patchouli, the pot, all intermingling. I thought to myself, 'If I could only capture that energy, that spirit, on film!'" Levine sees HippieGoddess as an alternative to "so much of what we see in mainstream erotic imagery, which is just a collection of Barbie Doll body parts. I proselytize against the idea of defining beauty as a certain, narrow look: Britney Spears, Paris Hilton...the eroticism is bleached out of those people!"
Levine and Soji are not alone as polemicists for naturalism. Canadian feminist and television commentator Georgie Binks believes that "the whole hair-removal thing is a media/pornography/hair-removal-company conspiracy." As she sees it, the pain women endure and the money they spend—which fuels corporate profits for the likes of Gillette, Epilady and Nair maker Church & Dwight—is fed by women's overzealousness to please boyfriends and husbands who "perceive hair on certain female body parts as unclean or smelly."
Locally, artist and KPSU radio host Eva Lake recently posted a rant on her blog (www.Lovelake.org) that began: "The subject of the pussy shave has been on my mind for awhile...." She proceeded to describe a recent photography show at the Mark Woolley Gallery that featured hairless female nudes by artist Daniel Kaven. Lake felt the images infantilized women, so she took an impromptu poll of the men in attendance and found that they not only disagreed with her but professed to find no wider meaning whatsoever in the models' bare pubes. Lake, 49, took this attitude as tantamount to cultural "indoctrination," although she acknowledged that her take may be more generational than political. As she wrote on her blog, "I'm not of recent vintage."
Fifteen years her junior, Gen-X performance artist Todd Kurtzman staged a performance piece earlier this year at Bossanova called Free Leg Waxes for Straight Dudes Now, in order to connect men with "the ancient, mystical, procreative powers" of women through a "ritualized act of leg waxing!" By the time the performance ended, 36 men from the audience had donned pink coveralls and had their legs waxed smooth as babies' bums. Subsequently, the collected hair of the participants was glued onto an installation art piece.
There is a perverse logic to the link between art and personal grooming. The dominant movement in visual arts today is a graphic design-influenced style that enshrines the 1970s and '80s pop-culture memories of Generations X and Y. (Artist Chandra Bocci is a well-known local exponent, building fantasias around Gummi Bears, Otter Pops and My Little Pony.) Blissfully unburdened by military-draft wars, today's twenty- and thirtysomething artists have not matured in the way previous generations—the Abstract Expressionists after World War II, the Beats and hippies during Vietnam—were forced to. Instead, they've stalled in an endless loop of Schoolhouse Rock, Pac-Man, and Rubik's Cubes, rejecting the complications of adulthood for the security—and bare pubes—of pre-pubescence. Will this be Gen X's and Y's contribution to American Culture: a hip-hop pubic patch laden with rhinestones and trimmed into a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament? Betty Friedan is holding her eyes closed, Joan Baez her ears, Gloria Steinem her mouth. And the rest of us? We're headin' to the waxing party, yo, gettin' ready for the next big thang.... Pubic cornrows, anyone?
WW art critic Richard Speer once colored his carpet hot pink. "The upkeep was crazy," he says, "so I haven't done it since."
Portland's "Queen of the Brazilian" gives us the heads-up on the down-below.
After spending nearly a decade in the marketing industry, Candice Kimberling-Tarr found her calling—ripping hot wax off Portlanders' most private parts. For the past three years, the dark-haired beauty some clients have called Portland's "Queen of the Brazilian" has held court at local salons, performing her full-body waxing most recently at chic spot 77. WW recently cornered Tarr to find out what's really up—down there.
WW: Word is, you're Portland's "Queen of the Brazilian."
Candice Kimberling-Tarr: Well, I do specialize in them, probably do four or five a day. A woman at a salon I used to work at took me under her wing and taught me how to do them.
What's it like, waxing people's backsides every day?
It's so fun! You get to know people on an intimate level. People open up to you when they're getting it done, much more so than they would to a hairdresser. I really try to make it comfortable and fun and not real uptight.
Do guys come in for Brazilians?
Probably 90 percent of my business is women, although I don't turn away men. Honestly, most all the men I've done are gay, which is probably for the best—obviously, there's no sexual tension there. But men need a bit more babying than women. Women are used to plucking and primping in that way, whereas men aren't.
It must be incredibly painful.
Not too bad, and the pain doesn't last long. It only takes about 30 seconds to a minute on the backside. I have women who say, "Oh, gosh, it's not half as painful as doing the labia!" That's the most painful for most people—I mean, most people aren't used to having hot wax pulled from that area.
Do you ever have hygiene issues with clients?
People are generally pretty clean when they come in. I think one time there was a woman who had just started her period and didn't realize it. But really, as long as women have a tampon in, I don't care.
Any misconceptions you want to clear up about waxing?
Yes. Most people think that the women who are getting waxed nowadays are in their early 20s, but I would say most of my clients are in their 30s, 40s and 50s. I have women who've been married 15 years and have four kids, and they do it because it spices things up, makes them feel sexier. It's liberating!
Make your appointment to get waxed by Queen Candice at 77, 1100 NW Glisan St., 223-7331.
by ww staff
What do some Portlanders have to say about their own netherworlds? WW asked the question. And many, surprisingly, answered.
• Storm Large, lead chanteuse of Storm Large and the Balls, is undergoing laser treatment on every inch of her nethers except for a below-the-beltline tattoo of a broken heart, which cannot be lasered. So, she only grows hair on her broken heart.
• "I'm totally au naturel. I've experimented in the past and dabbled in the trimming. It was fun, but too much effort, so now I let the hedge grow free. Pure laziness." Matt Petrie, editor-in-chief of Portland State University's student newspaper, The Vanguard
• "Last summer I had my very first bikini wax...and after all that pain and suffering, I couldn't find a bikini that fit." Darcelle XV, Portland's first lady of female impersonation
• "Eew. You mean people have hair below their shoulders?" ... Did you ask Tom [Potter]? ... What did Tom say?" Sam Adams, Portland City Commissioner
• "My waxing status is the way it was when I was born.... Yeah, completely organic. It probably would have been handy when I was a bike racer, but these days I'm just hanging out in the kitchen and enjoying my downy fur." Greg Higgins, chef-owner of Higgins Restaurant
• "I currently have my pubes shaved in the style of Kate Bush in the video to 'The Man with the Child in His Eyes.' I'm an avid razor-blade fan. I'm currently suffering from a bit of razor burn." Amber Martin, House of Cunt founder and local performer
• "I don't know that I'd have very much to say about waxing. Don't do it myself. I prefer to keep things au naturel in the nethers." Colin Meloy, frontman for the Decemberists
• "I'm an absolute baby when it comes to pain. I nearly passed out in my mother's bathroom during an ill-fated self-waxing session. These days, I keep the jungle at bay with a razor. Sometimes." Kelly Clarke, Willamette Week Arts & Culture Editor
• "It's like a faux-hawk: a little bushier toward the top (if you pull your panties down, it's nice to see some bush!), then more trimmed as it gets closer to the goods. I completely trim around the scrotum and down towards the butthole. Mostly I use clippers. Occasionally there's a bit of a razor involved. It depends on my level of commitment to my performance. If I'm drunk for a week, things get a little overgrown." "Splendora" (a.k.a. Lee Kyle) from Sissyboys
• "My parents had definite feelings about me being allowed to shave my armpits or legs when I first started wanting to, which is when I was, I think, 9 or 10. They were au naturel hippies at the time, and we actually didn't have a razor in the house, for years. So I got the tweezers used for splinters and plucked out every single leg and underarm hair over the course of a few days. I remember it as a very perversely delightful, albeit obsessive-compulsive and strange, experience. "A few years later, I tried Nair, vomited, and broke out in a rash. In college, a bunch of girlfriends and I tried Nads waxing stuff, because the name and infomercial were both irresistible, but we weren't impressed. Now I am perversely, delightfully smooth and hairless, underarm/leg/bikini, via Sona Med Spa laser hair-removal treatments. With Eastern European ancestry, I still have, and probably always will have, the random determined straggler follicle...but as an adult, I now have my own tweezers." Daria O'Neill, multimedia powerhouse
• "I like to shave from time to time. It all depends on how I'm feeling, and the season of the year. Even for a man, it's good to have a nicely groomed crotch area. However, for a man, especially in the realm of hip-hop, you should never let the razor or the clipper go too low. A man's crotch area shaven too low in the world of urban music could cause credibility issues. Just my feelings, though." Cool Nutz, hip-hop impresario
• "I let Michele do the back and shoulders. That's where it ends with her. But some of my readers go all the way: http://bojack.org/mt-arc/002575.html."
Blogger Jack Bogdanski, who has his friend Michele wax him.
• "For most of my life, I roamed the streets unshaven but neatly trimmed. One day, I had a man take a picture of my yoni so I could see it without getting into some crazy position and looking with a mirror. The photographer went on and on about the wonders of the shaved kittie. (Now why would you call it a kittie if it was bald?) Most strippers shave, and since I teach a stripper class, I thought, "What the hell!" and took the plunge.
"Dang! Sensations were more vivid, but looking at the raw, vulnerable skin I missed my wild trimmed bush. The woman I was had become a little girl, and I wanted my power back. I recommend shaving at least once. It's empowering to know you have the option. I don't suggest waxing, because it hurts like hell. You wouldn't kick a man in the balls. Why would you wax your vagina?" Isis Leeor, instructor of Portland's Stripper 101 class