Last Tuesday I stripped down to a shirt, wrapped a cotton gown around my waist, and positioned myself spread-eagle at the end of a table. I didn't leave my socks on, because I think that would have been even weirder, and part of me realizes that even having the socks on or off debate with myself is weird enough. My instructor had the rest of my class (there are eight of us total) gather around to watch as she slowly and patiently explained the process of what is commonly known as a “Brazilian.”
I have two liberal arts degrees. In November I decided to go back to school for a trade, because the only jobs my two liberal arts degrees were helping me qualify for involved long hours for little money. (We can talk about the death of the middle class some other time.) Basically, I don't want to work long hours for little money. I don't want to write copy about shit I don't care about. I want to have time for my own projects. I want a whole lot of traveling that I don't have to get HR approval for.
My friends in the salon/spa industry are generally happier with their jobs than mostly anyone else I know, a lot of which is because it's flexible and relatively well-paying, so almost on a whim I decided to check out esthetics programs. To become a licensed esthetician in New York you need to complete 600 hours of training. It's a little less than five months and costs about what a crappier used car would run you. What's funny is that it wasn't until I was enrolled and had been attending class for almost a month when a friend said, “Really, Julie? Beauty school? You're going to, like, what? Be waxing buttholes all day when you're seventy?” that I fully comprehended what I was in for. I had legitimately not put two and two together re: learning waxing. I hadn't realized the women I'd been spending all my daylight hours with, and who I'd grown pretty close with in a relatively short amount of time, would soon be seeing my vagina. And vice-versa. By the way, I hope I'm not waxing buttholes all day when I'm in my seventies, but not because I have a problem with waxing buttholes. I hope I'm not doing anything all day when I'm in my seventies that doesn't involve gambling and/or a cocktail.
I'm an only child and so is my mom. Dad's only sibling, a little brother he tries to pretend doesn't exist, is the best “creepy uncle” a girl could ask for. So we're a solitary family, which isn't to say we aren't social, but none of us are really “joiners” and we all really value our alone time. Personal space is respected in the Vick home. The only group activities I remember any of us doing during my youth involve picket lines, and group activities were confusing for me as a little kid, because little kids are jerks. If I'm no longer confused by group activities it's not because grown people are any better. Isn't that what growing up is? Learning to ignore the hell that is other people? Isn't that why we drink? Even still, I've never been the kind of person who makes close friends with classmates or coworkers. I was a high school dropout at 16, and I never had “the college experience” because I didn't really go back to school until after I'd already lived with a bunch of friends for a couple years, and moving into a dorm full of what I saw as little kids with no life experience would have been way too hard. While working on my graduate degree I spent two years with a group of people I for the most part never saw socially. Grad school was my kind of group activity because it really wasn't a group activity. We pretty much only met up to argue theory and workshop manuscripts. We studied alone. We read alone. We wrote alone.
Beauty school is different from anything I've ever done. We spend eight hours a day in close contact with one another, because there's no way to learn beauty esthetics — a skill that's applied to other people — without involving actual other people. I literally can't learn these skills without interacting almost constantly with at least one of my classmates. For instance, the first week of class we learned a basic cleanse routine. Being cleansed: having a relative stranger wrap me in a sheet, gently tuck my hair into a mesh cap topped off by a terrycloth headband and slowly, repeatedly practice the steps of cleanser application and removal on my face and chest. It didn't affect me any more than it ever does (I've only recently become able to enjoy a massage instead of spending its entirety wondering what the masseuse is thinking about my body and its faults), but it was when I had to touch my classmate's face that I had a flipping breakdown. My hands shook. My eyes watered and my throat burned. I ended up in the handicap bathroom crying on my lunch break. Prior to beauty school the list of individuals I touched consisted of a) my mother, and b) people I was boning.
And we're constantly touching each other. We inflict and receive pain on and from one another. We practice electric modalities on one another. We trust each other with our faces; perhaps even more telling, we trust each other with our genitals. I learned how to exist in this world because of my intellect — books and theory and dark humor saved my life — and while there are many facets of this skill that involve intelligence, the actual procedure, this time spent in a dim room in contact with another person who has come to you for help, is the least intellectual thing I've ever done. It's also intensely satisfying. My first actual client, a man who came in for a facial after a year of serious illness, cried in my chair while I gave him a pressure point massage. He told me I was the first non-medical-professional to touch his skin in months. He thanked me for making him “feel human again.” So, handicap bathroom crying fits are just this thing I do now I guess.
To clarify: many of my classmates and instructors are some of the smartest people I've ever met. Most of us are between 25 and 35. Most of us have a four year degree. We're all women, as this industry is almost completely female (a fact I think has a lot to do with the eye-rolling it receives from “serious” people, more so than other skilled trades). We learn chemistry and study physiology. There are absolutes: either the skin improves or it doesn't. It's not subjective. Having a skill where friends can ask me questions that I can authoritatively answer is awesome. I didn't expect to love helping people change their skin as much as I do. These are small contributions to a world that at age 14 I pictured grownup me working tirelessly to change, but I like doing something that makes people happier, and 14-year-old me didn't have to constantly struggle to make rent, so she had plenty of time to be revolutionary.
It's a strange thing, having hot wax applied to your genitals and ripped off in front of a crowd of newish acquaintances. I volunteered to be the demo model, mainly because I was less horrified by the concept of everyone staring at my anus than I was by the concept of someone who has never waxed an anus waxing mine. Because I'd never been waxed “down there” before this. I kind of even have feminist reservations with the whole thing. But I also have a pretty high pain threshold, and I figured if all those girls on The Hills could handle it I'd hardly break a sweat. My class nickname is now “The Angry Bear,” you guys.
It took a little over an hour. It tickled. At first the warm wax felt good which made me feel like a total pervert, but the removal process quickly punished me for that. It's a totally Catholic experience, really. To be fair, I didn't realize my period was coming a week early and I think a great deal of the excruciating pain I experienced was due to the fact that we are extra sensitive right before menstruation. A few days later we did underarms, an area many people claim hurts much more than the bikini area, and I barely flinched. But Tuesday I flinched. I kicked. I cursed at my instructor. I moaned and grunted and clamped my legs together and refused to open them without serious coaxing. I curled up in a fetal position and slowly rocked myself.
The conversation that night with my roommate went something like:
Her: No, but wait. They didn't all watch everything, though.
Me: No, they did.
Her: No, but you weren't, like, on your hands and knees or anything, though.
Me: No, yes I was.
Her: No, but what I'm picturing is just too weird, like I'm sure you didn't actually spread your cheeks or anything.
Me: No, yes. That's exactly what I did.
Now every time we hang out with friends she's like, “You guys won't believe what Julie did on Tuesday,” and I pretty much have to have that same conversation a bunch more times.
As far as waxing someone else, it's like a little war against hair. I feel like a general — I take in factors like the coarseness of the hair and the direction of its growth and then plan my attack. It's suprisingly physical — you end up sweating a lot. It's also surprisingly meditative. You zone out. You no longer see parts as a whole. If I were Carrie Bradshaw I'd make a “forest for the bushes” joke here. I told my instructor the other day that I feel like one of those bulldogs learning to skateboard. Like I have a task to perform. As I remove strips of wax I silently chant, “Get it! Get it!” to myself. The most awkward part is moving the application stick around without poking someone in a hole or their clitoris. The second most awkward part is figuring out how to clamp your hand down after removal (this confuses the nerve endings and makes waxing hurt way less) in the least sexual way possible. Some words to live by: flat hands, no fingers, even pressure. But mainly at that point you have to remind yourself that they just want you to get their hair off as quickly and painlessly as you possibly can. And then we hug. I'm just kidding, that would be fucked up.
It feels weird not having any body hair. My arms seem so vulnerable. My stomach goes straight into this chubby little mound. It seems sad. I think I look like a toddler. I hear how nice it feels to have completely smooth skin underneath silky slips, but I don't really own any silky slips. Maybe it's because the cover of Roxy Music's Country Life LP was the first erotic thing I ever noticed and internalized and fantasized about, but pubic hair is part of a woman's sex appeal for me. I realize I'm in the minority these days. Last year I went home with a 21-year-old who, upon discovering my vagina had (shaped, neatly trimmed, and conditioned, FYI) hair asked me, “What's up with that?” to which I responded, “I'm not making a political statement, if that's what you're asking.”
But I think it was a political statement. I hate that we're a culture that continually sexualizes women while simultaneously denouncing their sexuality. I'm not upset that teenagers are having sex, I'm upset that most teenage girls aren't demanding their fair share sexually. I hate that teenage girls are conditioned to give oral sex but never receive it. Women are, generally, pretty disconnected with their vulvas. I probably couldn't pick mine out of a lineup, and I'm pretty obsessed with the thing. The other side of the coin, and it's something I'm just now realizing, is that maybe any time and energy spent is better than none. If having it waxed is what it takes for someone to love their vagina, then so be it. Maybe this is me rationalizing. I guess I'm old enough to be OK with my own hypocrisy to some degree. Still, I fantasize about making my future clientele watch a brief film about why pubic hair isn't somehow unfeminine or gross before I agree to remove theirs for them.
Julie Lauren Vick is a writer and beauty school student living in Brooklyn. She likes to tweet at @lila_engel. She will wax your butthole.
Photo via TheInspirationRoom