The best bikini wax story I’ve ever heard involved the photographer Helmut Newton. Helmut asked a well-known American model to come to Monaco for a shoot. As he did with all his female subjects, he matter-of-factly asked her to go to the dressing room and strip. When she returned “in her birthday suit, and with no icing on her cake,” as my friend Kasper tells it, Helmut hit the ceiling. “I hate these shaved pussies,” he fumed. “I hate women who look like 12-year-old girls.” In a fit, Helmut called in his hairstylist and had him glue in pubic hairs all day long until the model was sufficiently tufted for the camera. “It was the Brazilian bikini wax that went too far,” says Kasper.

To wax or not to wax? And how much to take off? That is the question. Some men, like Helmut, are diehard bush men (“The hairier, the better,” says a male Queen’s University professor friend of mine). Others prefer tundra. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin is an extreme example of the latter. As the story goes, Ruskin was so horrified by the hirsuteness of his bride Effie’s tender parts that he ran away on his wedding night and never consummated their marriage. Before Effie’s, the only pudenda Ruskin had ever seen belonged to smooth Greek statues. Poor old Effie; maybe she should have done a little weeding before the wedding.

In the battle of sex, pubic hair is a private virtue for some and a public menace to others. Which is why we began with a little timid pruning around the edges just to clean up the bikini line for summer. But what started out as a demure trim on the outskirts has spread inward and become a cultural obsession. Thanks to the seven Brazilian J. Sisters — Jocely, Jonice, Joyce, Janea, Jussara, Juracy and Judseia Padilha — who brought the thong-friendly Brazilian wax to New York in 1987, women through the ’90s have been subjecting themselves to a late 20th-century torture technique that would not be out of place at a sleepover with the Marquis de Sade.

For the uninitiated, a Brazilian wax strips the short and curlies off front and back, leaving a tiny rectangular strip in front that is called the “landing strip” in America, or the “ticket de metro” in France. The landing strip naturally led to the bare-all sphinx, otherwise known as a baby or a playboy, and it was about then that Helmut Newton got into his Cadillac and drove himself into a wall at the Chateau Marmont hotel.Now that we have gone as far as the tabula rasa, can a case be made for the return of the unpruned pube? Is the bush administration making a comeback? “I do not think the thatch is back,” says nurse Katherine Mooney of Vancouver’s Pine Free Clinic. A specialist in birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy counselling for 25 years, she has confronted many a mound. “It is now all or nothing. In years gone by, a semishaved woman was commonplace, but now it’s full growth or clear-cut.” Laurence Sabbah, on the other hand, who owns the trendy Parisian beauty salon Cocooning, avows that the eternal triangle is back. “We don’t do the ticket metro much anymore because it has become quite vulgar,” says Sabbah. “Most of the time they want the triangle. They don’t like the rectangular strip because it’s unnatural. We’ve gone back to the triangle because that’s what nature gave us.”

While French women have gone back to a neater version of the way God made us, New Yorkers are still holding out for pubic artifice. Christine Chin’s eponymous Manhattan spa is filled with A-list clients. “Usually they want a regular Brazilian, which is the teeny, teeny diamond-some like it diamond-shaped, some like a strip half an inch wide and one and a half inches long and otherwise totally clean from front to back,” she says. “I think the Brazilian is the most popular. Women just want to feel clean. Their boyfriends like the clean feeling. But I do have 20 to 30 percent of my clientele who like baby. And when you do baby, you never go back to hair.”

Perhaps even more extreme than the eradicated muff, though, is the growing trend in novelty pubes-pubic hairstyling options that include dyeing, stencilled waxes, beading and sequined stickers for down there. London’s Pout beauty boutique carries DIY pube-styling kits. Chin says that she does a lot of heart-shaped pubes around Valentine’s Day, and once did an M for a client. And, of course, there is the famous Gucci ad with the G-shaped lawn. “Somebody once asked me to do an Eiffel Tower, but I don’t think I did a very good job,” says Sabbah. “I had to sketch it out first before I did the wax and it was hard to balance it out. I had to trim it afterwards with a pair of scissors.”

It’s safe to say, though, that novelty pubes remain a radical fringe movement, with most opting for a tasteful diamond, triangle or rectangle. But whatever the shape, no one is just letting it run wild down there anymore. Nobody except the cotton-briefs clientele. “They don’t like the pain,” says Chin. “They’re a little conservative, a little old school. You can tell by the panties they’re wearing — they look like shorts. The clients who want Brazilians are always in G-strings. And the ones who want a baby don’t wear anything. Artistic people you can never predict, but I’m never surprised.”