Growing up I was never ahead of the curve. I almost never set a trend, and it generally felt like I was always the last to know when it was time to grow up. As a precocious only child, I had no problem speaking candidly with adults, but I rarely had the desire to become one. The young girls around me started dating, kissing boys, dying their hair, and getting belly button rings, and to be honest, it kind of horrified me. I was in no hurry to imitate the adult behavior I saw around me. I guess that’s probably why it took me so long to discover that my unibrow, my unshaven legs, armpits, the little hairs on my fingers, and eventually my bikini line, were all completely gross.
I was 13 sitting on the toilet seat of my bathroom, in a formal strapless dress, as my mother carefully used a pink disposable razor to help me shave under my arms for the first time. How could I have missed this? How was it that I only now had realized how disgusting I had been, walking around with hair growing from under my arms? As a kid I had been able to “get away” with my leg and arm hair, due to half of my genetics being white and turning it blond in the sun, but by the time puberty hit, the other half, the Indian half, seemed to be asserting its dominance. It was everywhere, and as soon as it became clear to me; how disgusting my hair was that is; there was no going back.
It didn’t matter how it happened, I had to get rid of it. Razors, Veet, Nair, waxing, threading, tweezing, I would try them all. I had watched my mother wax for years, and it scared me, I was not a fan of pain. I would sometimes itch from the irritating feeling of the Veet, and I didn’t like the way the hair grew back from the other hair removal creams I tried. My mother wouldn’t allow me to shave them, so I eventually moved onto waxing my arms. My skin burned, and my arms went red like I had hives, but they eventually calmed down, and I was left with silky smooth brown skin, that would grow my hair back gradually, and softly. There is an Indian culture of hair removal; our hair is thicker, longer, darker, and more persistent, and Western culture demands we rip it out. Indian women have been very successful in doing this for generations. For a young Indian girl, waxing for the first time is practically a right of passage, and we learn how to from our sisters, our mothers, and our community. The Indian waxing lady from my mosque who I saw for years, commented I was “lucky” in comparison to all the other “full Indian” girls she saw, with much thicker hair from much younger ages. Under the bright light, I would inspect her work, careful to catch any spot she might have missed.
I still continued to shave my legs, often taking chunks of skin out of my shins and kneecaps. After I got my first manicure and noticed the gorilla-like hairs that grew from my fingers, I started shaving those too. Oh god, and who forget, my attempts at bleaching my mustache, before I discovered the little drug store waxing strips. I’d pat them on, and pull my skin, and rip small patches of hair at a time, often making my skin red and raw with the repetition of each rip and pull. I moved on from just waxing the sides of my bikini line, to taking it all off from front to back, leaving nothing but my exposed self. My quest for some version of hairlessness was worth it though, right? At least my thick eyebrows, my brown skin, and the barely visible treasure trail that formed on my stomach had been tamed.
The years went on, and each month I would shell out more money towards removing my body hair, but then a weird thing started to happen. I would go a few weeks without shaving my legs, and then I’d go 2 months without getting a bikini wax, and I even sometimes waited too long to get my eyebrows threaded. I prioritized other purchases, and even though I’d lament how hairy my legs would get, or sometimes rush to the waxing salon after months of letting my arm hair grow out, I slowly stopped hating the sight of my hair growing in. It’s not that I necessarily liked it, I just stopped hating myself for having hair in places that I had learned to be bad places for hair. I started remembering my mother’s hesitation to letting me shave my legs, pluck my eyebrows, or wax other parts of my body. At the time, I just assumed it was a clichéd mother’s attempt to stop me from growing up. I guess in a way it was, but it was not for her benefit, it was for mine. My mother is a beautiful and elegant woman. Her fingernails don’t grow crooked and wonky the way mine do; they’re long, thin, and ladylike. Even her feet aren’t wide and flat the way mine are, they’re narrow and slight, everything about her is softer and more feminine. She has always maintained her female grooming in a way that I mistook to come with ease. She knew that once I learned all the things we learn in Western culture about female bodies, I could never un-know them, and I would be faced with a lifetime of being told how to feel about my period, my body hair, my hormones, my sexuality, and any other thing that colored outside the lines of thin, white, hairless bodies. She did everything she could to keep me from hating those parts of my body. She literally wanted to throw me a party when I got my period, which I found funny only after I stopped crying from embarrassment. My mother did everything she could to stop me from shaming myself, because she knew the kind of burden it could be.
I’ve only now stopped waxing my arms, and finally just accepted the light brown hair that grows from them. It’s more out of necessity, as every time I wax them, I breakout for as long as it takes for the hair to grow back. I ultimately chose hair, over rash. Whenever I can afford it, I get laser done, so I’m definitely not becoming the hairy feminist I’m sure my mother might fear. I am glad to see more women in the mainstream media owning their right to their body hair, but I don’t envision myself sporting tufts of brown hair from under my arms at a formal event anytime soon. I still prefer to wear pants if it’s been a month since my legs have seen a razor, but I’m finally in a place where it feels like it’s more my decision, and less about being disgusted with the body I have. My body hair doesn’t have to be a political statement, I just don’t want to hate myself for having it, or conversely, for removing it. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t I guess. I spent enough years shaming myself for the body hair I naturally grew, I won’t spend the next part of my life feeling bad about choosing to remove it, especially if it feels like it’s on my own terms. You could argue that my decision to get laser, or to sometimes prefer my legs smooth and shaven, is just a reflection of Western influence, and female oppression, but society and the media shames my body enough, I don’t need to do that to myself anymore. I’m not going to start telling you I suddenly love my body hair, but at least now it’s not gross, bad or ugly, it’s finally just inconsequential to how I feel about myself. My eyebrows are sometimes bushy, my legs are sometimes soft and smooth, but whatever they are, tamed, or ignored for long stretches of time, I won’t feel bad about either decision.