There’s generally an agreed-upon name for body parts. It makes life a lot easier — whether describing symptoms to a doctor, informing a loved one they have a spider on them or directing a friendly acquaintance’s touch, specificity is key.
Why, then, is there a part with no agreed-upon name?
The hairy line goes by various names — in the U.K., for instance, it’s commonly referred to as the “snail trail,” although Urban Dictionary defines this very differently (no, we’re not going to link to it, you’ll have to look it up yourself). It’s also variously known as the treasure trail, the trash trail, the happy trail (gross), the garden path, the fuse and the stairway to heaven.
Perhaps the most evocative name, though, is “crab ladder.” It’s both descriptive and somehow cute — surely we can all enjoy the mental picture of some crabs (non-STD variety, of course), maybe even wearing little firefighters’ helmets, scuttling happily on the sweaty rungs of a big tummy. Adorable. Urban Dictionary claims the term can also be used to refer to a lengthy beard, but let’s disregard that.
Graham Dury, editor of long-running humor magazine Viz and its spinoff rude slang dictionary Roger’s Profanisaurus, notes that the crab ladder is also known as the “crab trellis” or the “pubic footpath.” “It’s completely vestigial, like tonsils and appendixes,” Dury says. “We’ll all be born without them in a thousand years time.”
However excellent the name “crab ladder” — and it is extremely excellent — it’s hard to imagine it being used in a clinical setting. It’s difficult to picture a head surgeon instructing a junior doctor to make a lateral incision to the left of the patient’s crab ladder. It would feel wrong, like a proctologist saying they were going to take a look up your behind.
“While there are many technical and scientific terms for the vertical strip under the belly button, in a clinical setting it’s known as the ‘navel line,’” says Shanelle Blake, senior consultant at Pulse Light Clinic, a laser hair removal specialist in London. “We have seen male and female clients who will have this strip of hair from the navel to the pubic hair, and it’s completely normal, although for some clients, the hairs are very prominent. It isn’t the most common or biggest area of concern, but we see around 200 clients a week who may be getting their chest or pubic region lasered and decide to opt for laser hair removal on the navel line area, too.”
In 1961, Speedo-clad men on the beach in Australia were accused of indecent exposure, and the fact that their pubes were covered was what led to the charges being dismissed. Men in the 1960s didn’t tend to shave their tummies, so it seems reasonable to assume there were crab ladders present that were legally deemed to be entirely non-pubic.
Biologically, also no. “Although abdominal and chest hair and pubic hairs aren’t far apart, they can differ for many clients,” explains Blake. “This depends on the client, but with a majority, we find hair in the pubic region is usually thicker, darker and coarse whereas hairs on the abdomen and chest tend to be lighter, thinner and more sparsely spread.”
Our bodies contain three different types of hair. There’s the stuff on our heads, of course. Then there’s vellus hair, the soft stuff that’s pretty much everywhere from childhood. That gets replaced in some areas during puberty by what’s known as terminal hair, generally across larger areas in men than women — the pubic region and armpits in almost everyone, and areas like the face, chest, back and stomach (crab ladder!) in some — where it’s used for thermoregulation and pheromone trapping.
Scientist L.R. Setty of Howard University — a fascinating but underreported figure who spent his career studying everything from dentistry to penguins before focusing on body hair for the last decade and a half of his life — came up with various models in the 1960s to describe chest and abdominal hair distribution. Fifty-seven percent of white men’s chest hair (it was the 1960s and a lot of science was racialized) is in the category pecto-sterno-infraclavicular, for instance. According to Setty’s models, depending on the breadth of one’s crab ladder, a really wide one could be “quadrangular abdominal hair, model C,” or a narrow one could be described simply as “sagittal abdominal hair.”
These might both sound more scientifically legitimate than “crab ladder,” but crabs, or Pthiric pubis, are areas of scientific interest in their own right. Crabs and their close relative head lice (Pediculus humanus) began as the same species before evolving separately three million years ago, at a time when humanity’s ancestors were completely covered in hair. Scientists at University College London (UCL) and the University of Florida have, for some time, been looking at what public lice can tell us about the relationships between early humans and other ape species, as well as how populations spread across the world and, interestingly, why apes don’t have pubic hair but humans do.
“Which came first, nakedness or pubic hair?” writes UCL’s Robin A. Weiss. “I would postulate that the development of pubic hair was a consequence of the visible nakedness elsewhere on the body. Perhaps the acquisition of [crabs] provides the clue to when hominids developed thick pubic hair, rather as the evolution of body lice is thought to be broadly contemporaneous to the development of clothing.”
Plato’s Symposium describes the journey toward true understanding as being a four-step ladder. If crabs hold the key to piecing together human history, and humanity’s journey toward perfection is a ladder, the hell anyone should call it the “navel line” — not when “crab ladder” so gloriously symbolizes the journey we’re all on, the unending quest for knowledge and ascent from beast to God.
Maybe it really is a stairway to heaven.