Bianca Cali has two tips for a better, less painful Brazilian wax.
1. For a wider spread, hang one leg over the side of the waxing table. This makes it easier to access your crevices.
2. When the wax comes off, cough as loudly as you can. This will distract you and force you to exhale.
She shares these tricks with me while my body settles into the waxing table. The butcher paper underneath me crackles. I rest my head on a pink children’s pillow decorated with the felted ears and tail of a piglet.
Bianca produces a bottle of baby powder and shakes a bit onto the relevant area. I’m told this will create a protective layer between the hot wax and the skin so that when the wax is pulled off, it will only bring hair with it, and not stray pieces of epidermis. Between the pig pillow, the baby powder, and my positioning (pantless, belly-up), I can’t help but feel like a giant infant on a changing table.
My wax today will be longer and a bit more uncomfortable than it would be for a returning client, she explains. I have arrived with “four phases of hair”— in other words, an unkempt bush. Bianca will need to work slowly, in small sections. She promises that she’ll also give me a break between strips. “They never do that at the wax centers,” she boasts.
Bianca shuffles between the waxing table and a cart to its right where she stores her equipment. She keeps the wax in a metal warmer that plugs into the wall. The wax is a dazzling royal blue that gleams like hard candy. When she dips her wooden stick into the pot, the wax coils in perfect ribbons around the instrument.
A design flaw of the human body is that you can’t really see your own crotch when you’re lying down. But when I can no longer see Bianca’s wand-wielding hand, I start to feel it. Hot. She spreads a layer of wax, stickier and thicker than honey. The viscous glue hardens on my skin, plaster-like.
“We’re gonna apply all the preeeessure. We’re gonna do the bikini line fiiiiirst. We’re gonna create that liiiiip,” Bianca talk-sings, narrating her process.
The “liiiiiip” (lip), the raised rim on the border of a strip of hard wax, allows Bianca to grip and tear away the wax when it dries (which takes 3 three minutes, give or take). She flicks the edge of the strip, upturning the lip, and grabs onto it for traction. Then, in one rapid yank, she pulls the wax off, uprooting a garden of tiny hairs. Per Bianca’s guidance, I cough as hard as I can, making a guttural, throat-clearing noise.
Bianca peers down at me.
“Not so bad with the cough, right?” she asks.
I blink tears out of my eyes and respond: “Totally!”
Over the course of the next twenty-ish minutes, I undergo this same process maybe eighteen times. Wax is applied. Wax dries. Bianca flicks. I cough. Bianca yanks. We both take a break.
Because this is a Brazilian wax, every hair must go, front and back. She coaches me into different positions. Legs up. Legs down. Open wider. I even lie on my side for a second so she can access a hard-to-reach spot. (This is something, she tells me, she only ever makes Jews and Italians do.)
It’s not my first time getting a Brazilian wax, but it is my first time getting a Brazilian wax from someone I’ve gotten to know, someone who’s told me about her past lovers and her broken washing machine. The strangeness of this dawns on me, opportunely, as Bianca is probing her wooden stick into my butt crack. I almost laugh out loud.
Bianca is a girl’s girl. She’s apt to start a text with “Hi bubby” or “Hey boo.” She has the mettle to castrate a bull, but she’d never cut a bitch. She’s an indiscriminate hugger, a serial compliment-giver, and a tried and true friend to her friends, her friends’ friends, and her friends’ friends’ friends.
She speaks in a high-pitched, syrupy East Coast fry. Her pale, heart-shaped face is dominated by big eyes and even bigger glasses that could easily accoutre a “slutty nerd” Halloween costume. She has narrow, groomed eyebrows and dark hair. At 32 years old, she’s not as thin as she used to be. Recently diagnosed with the hormonal disorder polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), she has gained an estimated 30 pounds in the past few years. This, she maintains, has only made her hotter.
When she’s waxing, she wears leggings and tank tops. And at Stella Blues, the jazz club where she sings in a monthly variety show, she sports lace tights, a black A-line mini dress, and a metal headband with cat ears. The ears are a nod to vaginas, so often made to sound feline. On social media she promotes her waxing business under the name “Cali the Kitty Waxer.”
Bianca lives in a second-floor walk-up apartment inside a multi-family home on Winchester Avenue in New Haven, Connecticut. Her apartment doubles as her salon, the workspace cordoned off from the living room by a coral and gray paisley tapestry.
Next to the window is a plastic-wrapped pedicure chair with an empty foot basin. A pop-up spray tan tent leans against the back wall, left fallow while her tanning gun awaits repair.
A poster for Ariana Grande’s 2018 pop album Sweetener hangs on the wall.On the original album cover, Grande’s head is upside down, descending phantom-like from above. But in Bianca’s house, the poster has been rotated. The text is flipped, unreadable, and Grande is right-side-up.
One of Bianca’s friends, a graffiti artist known as La Croix Artistry, spray- painted a mural on the walls of the stairway; it includes a mélange of geometric abstractions, a cartoonish portrait of Marilyn Monroe, and a particularly yonic crop of pink, petaled flowers.
If there is a precise border between ‘free spirit’ and ‘hot mess,’ that’s where Bianca lives. A “third shift gal,” she regularly sleeps till noon, starting her workday as her service-industry clients wake up and her Yale student clients get out of class. She is constantly effusing apologies for petty misdeeds—she’s a few minutes late; she missed your call; there’s clutter in the living room; she just woke up from a nap and forgot to put away her bong.
Most of her clients, I think, like this chaos. I certainly do. When the one-time director of my college comedy group referred me to Bianca, it was with the promise of a rollicking time. A wax and a performance, like dinner and a show.
There seems to be an infinity of code words for female pubic hair. Bush. Fuzz. Forest. Muff. Beaver. Landing strip. Happy trail. Carpet. (Does it match the drapes?) Grass on the field. (Is there any? Play ball!) The language is opaque, positing all kinds of bizarre feminine analogues. Woman as garden. Woman as airport runway. Woman as…baseball diamond?
It’s no surprise. Even in a post-pussy hat world, people still hate vaginas—the word “vagina,” images of vaginas. The schoolyard game in which children compete to say “penis” the loudest has no co-ed counterpart. And even for those who can tolerate mention of female genitalia, pubes are a bridge too far.
But most everyone has them.
Pubic hair has a few basic adaptive purposes, including regulating body temperature, retaining pheromones, and protecting against invisible (but apparently very threatening) dirt and bacteria. It’s not great to get rid of it, but it’s not terrible either.
Even in the days of yore, women groomed their nether parts. Egyptian art showcases women with neat triangles of black hair; the edges are ruler-straight. Greek statues have hairless wedges of crotch between their lush marble thighs. These figures speak of undiscussed self-mutilations—razoring with copper blades, singeing with fire.
The earliest intimate waxes in the modern-day U.S. were bikini waxes, which aimed to remove the hairs that poked out the sides of a high-cut swimsuit. This form of waxing emerged in the ‘40s nineteen-forties as beachwear trends skewed skimpier. Navels were exposed, cleavage popped, but pubes were a different, less negotiable manner of private part. The idea was, and still is, to feign ease—to suggest that there was never any hair down there to begin with.
When Hollywood chooses to show waxing scenes on-screen, it opts for the farcical and slapstick. In an episode of Sex and the City credited with popularizing the Brazilian wax among its viewers, the camera trains its gaze on Carrie Bradshaw’s twisted brow. A miscommunication leads to more hair removal than Bradshaw bargained for, and her mouth puckers into sexy shock as her stiletto-clad leg remains impossibly high in the air. (The double punchline: Bradshaw loves her new hairless snatch and returns for repeat treatments.)
Why do we do it? Because it feels…cleaner? Because it looks…younger? These answers seem inescapably misogynistic and perverse.
I’m not sure why I got my first intimate wax. I was in eighth grade, and I was mystified by my own body, always searching desperately for cues from friends and older women to know what was expected. I ambled into my local branch of the popular waxing chain European Wax Center and asked for a clean-up job ahead of a family vacation. It was terribly painful and not very thorough. On my middle school allowance, I couldn’t afford the salon’s proprietary “ingrown hair serum.” The woman at the front desk tried to schedule me for a standing monthly appointment. Balking at this commitment, I didn’t return for years.
Then, at 17, the arrival of my first serious boyfriend brought the topic back to the fore. Thorough research on the now-defunct website Yahoo Answers indicated that all men found women’s pubes disgusting. I discovered that a lot of my friends had gotten laser hair removal, undergoing serial, painful procedures throughout high school to weaken their follicles. It felt like the task of managing my grooming was a test for which I hadn’t studied.
I think, optimistically, that the factors driving women to the waxing table are subtler and more varied than mere bikinis and boyfriends—a matted tangle of our wishes for ourselves, our anxieties about how our partners will see us, our impressions of what kind of women we are, some basic sensory preferences. These negotiations are usually private and often subconscious.
Yet, no matter how personal and intimate our waxing practices are, the choice feels inescapably supervised.
After doing her own brows for years, Bianca started waxing other women in 2008, when she enrolled at Central Connecticut State University. Just eyebrows at first. She declined formal pay in favor of free drinks at the school bar. She loved it. If not for her mother’s admonition, Bianca would have simply dropped out and pursued beauty school. Grudgingly, she finished her degree in fine art, then entered esthetics training the same year. This was where her waxing repertoire grew to include bikini waxes and Brazilians.
The first few professional waxing jobs brought frustration. At a men’s barber shop, she was stuck in a back room and gossiped-about in “really dialect Italian” by the otherwise male staff. She eventually realized she was working for a mafia front, and quit.
Even worse than working for the mob was her job at the European Wax Center branch in Greenwich, Connecticut. There, she waxed rich soccer moms for poor pay. “You’d have to wax six vaginas an hour to make more than $15,” she estimates.
When she tells me that she supplemented this meager income by working at a go-go bar in Yonkers, New York, I note that this sounds retro and not like something they have in Yonkers. Quickly, she corrects herself. “It was a topless strip club,” she admits.
The managers of City Lights Strip Club originally gave Bianca a position as a shot girl—defined on Urban Dictionary as a “beautiful woman at the club that is too hot to strip, too stupid to bartend.” Bianca made good tips but feared she was a thorn in the side of the harder-working strippers. To really earn her keep, she needed to become a dancer herself.
The more experienced strippers at the club taught her how to twerk, took her to the Bronx to buy her first pair of Pleasers (a type of stripper heel favored for its grip), and introduced her to a woman named Miss Jamaica who sewed luxury brand logos onto wholesale leotards. This delighted Bianca, who’d aspired in her youth to be a burlesque dancer, and in her even earlier youth to be Liza Minelli.
As a stripper, she learned to grift like never before, traversing the club circuit with a dancer from Russia who posed as her twin sister: Lana and Natasha, they called themselves. “She taught me,” says Bianca, “that there is always a way to make money.”
Bianca also quickly realized that nobody needed consistent hair removal more than strippers. She carved out a niche for herself, waxing the dancers at her own club and the surrounding ones. By the summer of 2015, Bianca had something of a monopoly on East Coast stripper pubes. Her domain stretched from New York to Rhode Island. She drove to different cities, rented hotel rooms, and waxed the dancers en masse.
To this day, Bianca maintains that strippers are the best clients. They’re friendly and appreciative. They tip well. They get it. She also believes that being a stripper made her a better waxer, someone impervious to the garishness of naked bodies. She grew comfortable enough in her own skin to set others at ease in theirs.
Bianca returned to the comparatively dull world of Connecticut salons emboldened by the enterprising spirit of her stripper days. She started a new racket. She took jobs at established chains, among them Tommy’s Salon and Bluemercury, then poached clients and began to build her home salon between gigs.
Other than one occasion when she was giving a “Manzillian” and accidentally tore off a piece of a client’s testicle, Bianca has had remarkably few waxing disasters. This is because she is a very good waxer. Good enough that she could do it in her sleep, she tells me. Good enough that she’s done it while drunk, she also tells me.
The best evidence of how good she is, however, is that she’s earned the right to have fun while she works. She sings, and gabs, and monologues, bitching about the ex-boyfriend she keeps sleeping with. She’s found that being in an exclusive relationship with him makes him “protective, and, like, annoying.” She still walks his dog.
A man, to Bianca, is a lot like a dog that needs to be walked, or at best, a big tipper at the strip club. Her focus is on women. She has seen the vaginas of moms and mommies, strippers and shot girls and sorority sisters. She calls everyone a “girl,” to their faces and behind their backs, whether they are 18 or 80, old friends or new acquaintances.
Once, as I lay on the waxing table, she incanted: “The girls are back. We’re all together.” It was just the two of us in the room, and I was confused by the plurality, girls, and I didn’t know where we were back from. Still, I liked the ring of it:
The girls are back. We’re all together.
Bianca gives the best wax I’ve ever had. She’s the fastest and the thorough-est, and the most adept at loosening the grip of my self-consciousness. “Naked is naked,” she says of the presumed awkwardness of her job. “Fluid is fluid.” She’s seen it all, and it’s all more alike than different.
At 21 years old, I’ve now had more Brazilian waxes than I can count. But I still feel a childlike ineptitude every time I get waxed. My hastily-folded underwear, dropped on some chair beside the waxing table, looks incongruous, ratty, juvenile. My legs are hideous on the table—wide and veiny and gray, with their own crop of suddenly-obvious stubble. I wonder: Is my body the worst, weirdest body that this waxer has ever seen?
I am fearful from the first strip to the last, not because I’m scared it will hurt—hell, I know it will hurt—but because, even though all I have to do is lie there, I feel like I’m doing it wrong.
On a few occasions, I try to bait Bianca into confessing that she sees what’s problematic in the whole ordeal. I expect she might say that she knows waxing is a patriarchal con, but she’s learned to profit from it like a sleazy girlboss.
I say, “I wish they’d invent an easier way of doing this.”
She says, “This is pretty easy.”
I tell her that some of my friends from college are “rockin’ full bush.”
“We gotta tell them,” she says, as she begins to scheme for a punch-card system.
I ask her why she thinks people get waxed.
“I feel like it takes half your life to shave your body.”
Eventually, I stop trying to force this concession. I know that forking over $80 to get all my pubic hair painfully pulled off is a transaction in a rigged economy whose two currencies are money and hotness. I know it’s something men don’t have to do, something I shouldn’t—and really don’t—have to do.
But the body is wracked with problems, and there is a comfort in Bianca’s determination that at least some of those problems can be solved.
PCOS, the hormonal condition from which Bianca suffers, brings a host of frustrating and intractable metabolic and fertility problems. But its telltale symptom is the growth of an above-average amount of face and body hair. Because of this, Bianca’s own grooming routine includes not only frequent self-waxing, but also perpetual plucking and even facial lasering—a multi-front effort to keep her body hair at bay.
Knowing how PCOS works, I can understand why Bianca might feel that hair is a manifest badness to be excised. A thick strand protruding from the skin is a weed in a garden—pesky, unwanted, and always growing back. This is a feeling I can relate to. Hand me a pair of tweezers and I will wage war on a lone chin hair. It can feel heroic to purge oneself of the brittle, wiry enemy.
Yes, hair is “natural,” but if you think every natural bodily function is perfect and good, you probably don’t have a period, or thighs that touch. Some parts of the female body are bad, not because the patriarchy said so, but because they hurt, or itch, or feel weird.
Waxing might be a trap, but so is the body. So what if I want to be smooth as a seal? ***
On one rainy day, when it is already dark outside, I step into Bianca’s apartment, and she greets me with a hug.
The air is musty with stale weed and incense. The bottom hems of my pants are wet. Bianca’s cat, Boxer, sleeps with heaving breath. On the TV, there is an animation she sets up for ambiance: a table, set al-fresco with coffee mugs, doodled lines of steam trailing upward. In the corner, a black sandwich board bears the inscription “CAFE VIBES.”
When I get on the table, Bianca tries, as always, to give me a good wax, quick and painless. She complains about the same dude as always, who borrowed her car and ran the gas down to zero and didn’t refill it.
When she’s finished, she goes back in with tweezers for any rogue hairs she’s missed. It’s a series of rapid pricks, and each one hurts a different way, a different amount. The surprise is the worst part.
In a few weeks, each hair will return, poking to the surface as if to say: think again, bitch.
She smears a last blue strip on my lower abdomen. This part I can see—my own hip bones rising, my muscles seizing. My body never gets used to the shock of the heat, the fury of the pull. She rips it off with abandon.
“That last one,” she says, “is because I love you.”
-Abigail Sylvor Greenberg is a junior in Pierson College.