When I walk into the salon, my esthetician, Sara, is waiting for me. She’s tall and thin with an oval face and dark brown hair pulled back loosely in a low ponytail. I can’t help thinking she’d make a great model, and also feeling intensely self-conscious about my messy appearance. The salon’s website suggested wearing loose-fitting clothes, so I threw on track pants and a sweatshirt.
Sara greets me and I follow her back to a small room resembling a masseuse’s office. There’s a tall, padded table in the center, with small steps placed on one side, presumably for short girls like me. Along one wall stands a narrow side table with cloth strips, tongue depressors, and a tiny crockpot of sorts. In the corner, a small table with a speaker emanating soft, folksy music. A chair against the wall opposite the crockpot table completes the ensemble.
“Is this your first time?”
“Yeah. Is it noticeable?”
“I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Sara smiles reassuringly and then tells me the obvious, that I’ll need to undress from the waist down. She gestures to a blue hand towel on the big table, saying “That’s to cover yourself with whenever we’re not working.” Then, she leaves the room, closing the door gently on her way out.
I quickly slip out of my track pants and pink “cheeky” hipsters. I head for the table but pause to go back and roll my panties up inside the pants. (For some reason, I always feel weird about strangers seeing my underwear, even if, like Sara, they’re about to see a whole lot more.) The panties safely stowed, I climb the little wooden steps and lie down on the table. Just as I’m unfolding the hand towel, I hear a knock on the door. I quickly put the towel in place.
“Are you ready for me?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
I lie on the table nervously while Sara explains that she’ll be working quickly and that it’ll hurt sometimes, but it won’t be as bad as my face tells her I’m thinking it’ll be. What I’m actually thinking of is the first time I had sex. A lot of online reviews compare getting Brazilian waxes to sex. They say the first time is awful, but it gets better after that.
I was eighteen when I lost my virginity. We’d been together for three months. It was the first time I truly understood what it meant to “shake like a leaf.” I fluttered in an invisible breeze the whole time. We were both virgins, so there was a lot of fumbling and asking, “Are you okay?” He was nervous and came quickly, which was a relief to me because it felt like I was being ripped apart.
Sex did eventually become bearable for me, but it was never fun. It would be years before I found out I had vulvodynia, a fuzzy sort of catch-all diagnosis for chronic issues down there that aren’t related to an infection. A constant burning sensation that began when I was 22 and lasted over 18 months drove me to see gynecologist after gynecologist in search of a cure. But without time or money to travel to one of the few clinics that specialize in the condition, I eventually accepted that vaginal sex was no longer possible for me. The burning sensation went away on its own when I was 24, but penetration never became tolerable again.
For a long time, I felt robbed of my sexuality. It was like part of me had died, and I spent a long time grieving that loss. I still do grieve sometimes, but most days, I can forgive my body for the choices it’s made for me. I’ve found other ways to feel pleasure and to reclaim my identity as a sexual being.
My late twenties has brought me to a (belated) period of sexual exploration. Last year I finally got up the courage to enter the underground world of BDSM, something I’ve always known I was into. Going to my first kink event as a single young-ish woman was terrifying, but so incredibly worth it. In kink, I found I had options. I could be intimate with people without vaginal sex being necessary, or even on the radar. It took time, but I found partners who accepted my terms and were happy to share in some of my fantasies. In my new world, bruises are admired, screams in the background are normal, and clothing is optional.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m going to apply the wax now. Are you ready? Take a deep breath.”
“Now let it out.”
I hear a ripping sound and immediately feel a sharp, stinging pain on the edge of my bikini line. I yelp loudly. Sara seems surprised by my response.
“Usually it’s not quite that bad. But everyone’s different. Do you want to try another strip?”
I feel the warm wax on my bikini line, this time on the opposite side. She presses the strip down.
“Take a deep breath.”
“Now let it out.”
Rrrripp! The strip comes off. It hurts just as much as before, but this time I manage to restrain myself to a quiet whimper. I don’t want to startle her with my clearly abnormal response again. Seeing that I seem to be tolerating it better, she continues working. Wax. Press. Rip. Wax. Press. Rip. Each time it’s all I can do to keep from screaming. Pain tolerance is funny that way. I can handle being beaten black and blue with a leather strap, and yet this process is becoming unendurable. My heart starts to beat faster.
The past few days haven’t been great. I’m feeling overwhelmed by the approaching Christmas holiday, terrified about my master’s defense in January, and to top it all off, it’s the first day of my period. I’m stressed, bloated, cramping, and currently being tortured by a Katherine Hepburn look-alike. A wave of heat rushes to my face, and lump aches in my throat.
I choke out, “I’m sorry, but we need to stop.” It’s so humiliating. I’ll be 30 in less than six months and here I am about to cry in front of a stranger. Sara’s very kind about it. She tells me not to feel bad, just to get dressed and she’ll see me out front. As soon as she’s gone, I sit up and climb down the cute little steps to the floor. I don’t waste any time stepping back into my panties and track pants. My pubic area is on fire. I can’t even bear to look at it.
I jam my feet into my sneakers, grab my coat and purse, say “get it together” under my breath a few times and walk out the door. Sara’s waiting for me next to the reception desk. She says there’ll be no charge since I didn’t finish the procedure, but that I’m welcome to schedule another appointment anytime in the next few days if I want to try again. I muster enough composure to thank her and leave quickly.
My only stop on the way back to my car is the hipster coffee place two doors down from the salon. I want nothing more than to be alone. Except for caffeine. I order a large, take my best guess as to which of the fancy fair trade options is a medium roast, stir in cream and sugar with an “environmentally friendly” linguini noodle, and head for the parking deck.
Once in the safety of my Corolla, I sit with my head on the steering wheel and sob for 15 minutes, pausing only to sip my coffee, which gets quite snotty in the process. Like most good cries, it has almost nothing to do with what just happened. I’m still in pain down there, but that’s only the catalyst. The real reasons tears are soaking my lap are my fears of messing up my thesis defense, not finding a job after graduation, going broke, the usual concerns of someone about to receive a master’s degree in Fine Arts.
After blowing my nose and wiping off my coffee the best I can with the single Raising Cane’s napkin I find in the glove box, I drive home in what’s becoming a mix of rain and sleet. Once there, I walk straight to the bathroom. I urgently need to pee. Once I’ve taken care of that, I assess the damage.
The skin on my pubic mound is red, puffy, and speckled with dried blood. Sara didn’t get any further than that, so there’s an awkwardly placed line at the top of my labia dividing the waxed and un-waxed areas. I shaved three weeks ago, so I don’t have a full bush, but it’s still obvious where the hair begins. I was going for porn star, and instead, I look like a botched test subject for hair removal cream.
I try to put the waxing debacle out of my mind. My work for the day is editing my thesis manuscript, so there’s no reason to leave the house if I don’t feel like it. After the morning I’ve had, I don’t feel like it. The burning turns into a steady throb. It’s annoying, but not intolerable. What keeps bugging me is that I quit. I wasn’t able to stick it out and finish the wax. I know I had good reasons for not being able to handle it, and I’m usually willing to forgive myself for the occasional weak moment, but I’m having trouble letting it go.
I like to think of myself as a tough cookie. I don’t give up on things easily, even when it seems like something isn’t worth the effort or that success is unlikely. I often resolve that not only will I not quit something other people have quit, I will try harder than they did. Because of this mindset, I’m chronically over-committed, always working on at least five projects (usually for other people), and forever feel like I’m getting nothing done and need to be more dedicated. Whatever I’m doing, it needs to be more. Never less.
I try to channel some of my relentlessness into BDSM, but there’s a lot left over. I often subject myself to pointless misery just so I can say I didn’t give up. As I type and re-type sections of my thesis manuscript, I have to ask myself, why is this so important to me? I’m single. None of my BDSM partners have ever pressured me to be nude for our scenes. Literally no one will ever see my hairless lady parts except me. Besides that, a year ago I was completely natural. I didn’t shave my legs or pubic hair for 18 months because I wanted to know what the hair really looked like. I actually enjoyed my leg hair. After a couple months without shaving, it turned soft. My skin stayed moisturized way better, and it added some warmth in the winter. The pubic hair got to be a bit much at full length, so I trimmed it once a month.
So, what’s prompted this complete 180? Am I trying to conform to society’s image of the ideal woman? Am I trying to objectify myself? Am I hoping the new look will make me comfortable enough to take everything off at BDSM parties like some of my friends do? In the end, I decide I’m just curious. I know what it’s like to be the “typical” American woman who shaves her legs, armpits, and bikini line. I know what it’s like to be all natural. Now, I want to know what it’s like to be a woman who gets Brazilians. I guess reclaiming one’s sexuality involves a bit of experimentation.
I keep the salon’s scheduling site open on my laptop all evening, looking at it every 10 minutes or so. Sara has one open appointment tomorrow. I weigh my curiosity against the certainty of extreme pain, the scale tipping back and forth all evening. Finally, at 1 am, exhausted from nearly 12 hours of editing, I click “Schedule it!” On the next screen, there’s an option to leave a note. I try to explain my mental process to Sara, but find it impossible to do in 200 characters. Still, I feel I owe her an explanation. After much thought, I simply type in “Round 2.”
Ellie White holds an MFA from Old Dominion University. She writes poetry and nonfiction, and is the creator of the online comic strip “Uterus & Ellie.” Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harpur Palate, Tincture, Up the Staircase Quarterly and several other journals. Ellie’s chapbook, Requiem for a Doll, was released by ELJ Publications in June 2015. She is a nonfiction and poetry editor at Four Ties Literary Review, and the Social Media Editor for Muzzle Magazine. She currently lives near some big rocks and trees outside Charlottesville, Virginia.