“Pubic,” “Bikini Area,” “Ladybits”… The Linguistics of Grooming “Down There”
Linguist and author of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language dissects the language of women’s body hair removal.
This piece was developed in partnership with Gillette Venus.
One of my favorite feminist language stories to tell is the one about the origin of the word “va-jay-jay.”
It starts about 15 years ago on the set of the hit T.V. series Grey’s Anatomy. In an early episode of the show, the word penis appeared in the script 32 times. That’s a lot of penises, but… it was a medical show after all… so nobody blinked an eye. Then, in the same episode, the writers tried to work the word vagina into the script just twice. Again, this was a show about human anatomy. But now, higher-ups at broadcast standards were blinking. The word “vagina,” as it turned out, got the powers-that-be all squirmy.
It was around this time when the show’s legendary creator, Shonda Rimes, heard an assistant on set use the word va-jay-jay and instantly thought it was “the greatest phrase” she’d ever heard. To deal with the whole “vagina” debacle, va-jay-jay was written onto the show, and instantly, America fell in love with it. Soon, va-jay-jay became the pubic area nickname of choice for so many English speakers: gynecologists, suburban moms, even Oprah Winfrey.
But, at the same time, not everyone was totally on board with this adorable new nickname. Linguists who study sex, gender, and language have found that our robust, centuries-old lexicon of English slang terms describing different parts of the vulva at best paints this area of the body as something vague, dainty, and cutesy (“honeypot,” “hoo-hoo,” “girlybits”), but more often portrays it as something graphic and shameful. And yet, our society at large — including media gatekeepers like those at broadcast standards — conditions us to find the more specific, non-slang alternatives, like “pubic” and “labia majora,” even more uncomfortable to say. A recent survey about the language of pubic hair grooming conducted by Gillette Venus found that only 18% of women reported using anatomical terms. The same survey found that 43% of US women find it’s less embarrassing to use slang instead, even though most of these slang terms are misleading, disturbing, or straight-up bizarre (“punani,” “beaver,” “axe wound”… need I continue?).
Ultimately, our uneasy relationship with direct, specific, and objectively uncontroversial terminology like “pubic” and “vagina” reflects a larger discomfort surrounding these body parts themselves. Nicknames like “va-jay-jay” and “lady business” may sound catchy and family-friendly for television and advertising, but ultimately, even innocent-seeming euphemisms for the pubic area can further perpetuate misinformation, confusion, taboo, and shame.
When it was brought to my attention that Venus has decided to scrap the typical roster of “polite” pubic nicknames (like “intimate area” and “bikini area”) from their branding in favor of non-euphemistic language, my interest was piqued. The company just launched a new collection called the “Venus Pubic Hair and Skin Line” (which includes a razor and a few skincare products, including some for those who don’t remove any hair at all down there, but who still want to prevent in-growns and moisturize their pubic skin). Not only is the phrase “pubic hair” intentionally included in Vensus’s product name, but the term “labia majora” is featured in its tagline. I found these linguistic choices to be delightfully subversive, compared to the “women’s grooming” language of years past.
Since American women first began shaving their legs, armpits, and pubic areas about a hundred years ago, almost all body hair removal advertising has used hush-hush verbiage like “bikini area” and “intimate area,” which, in an effort to sound “less controversial,” actually sends a more damaging message. “Ladybits” and “bikini area” suggest not only that vulvas and labia majora inherently belong to “ladies” (and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m a cisgender woman and I don’t even identify as a “lady”), but also that the only reason anyone would shave down there in the first place would be for the benefit of other people, potentially looking at you in a bikini. As a feminist linguist, I decided to team up with Venus to help spread their message that normalizing the use of precise, technical, gender-neutral words to talk about our body parts — as opposed to loaded euphemisms and slang — can empower us to reclaim our bodies themselves.
Of course, just as pubic hair grooming itself is a deeply personal choice, so is the language we use to describe it. And after weighing all the options, if you ultimately decide you do feel represented by words like “lady business” and “intimate area,” then by all means, continue using them in your personal life… I simply don’t think these gendered and euphemistic labels should be the default. After all, when you stop and think about it, isn’t it suspect that we as a culture are more comfortable uttering an illusory phrase like “bikini area” — which sounds like something straight out of Baywatch — than we are using an accurate term like “labia majora?”
When brands put forth the effort to normalize using direct, specific terms like “pubic hair,” it helps assuage some of that squirminess surrounding these body parts, fostering more open conversation, education, safety, and acceptance. If we’re able to cozy up to more anatomically accurate language, then hopefully some of the taboo and misinformation will fade. (Maybe for once I’ll even be able to exchange pubic hair grooming tips with my friends without feeling ridiculously awkward.)
Ultimately, I do think it’s about time we reclaim “pubic,” which may not be the prettiest word in the world phonetically, but hey — perhaps it’s also time we normalize our bodies (and the language we use to talk about them) not needing to be “pretty.”
Now, say it with me: pubic. I don’t know about you, but I could get used to that.