The politics of hair removal is a tried and true subject matter in Western third-wave feminism, and a topic that grossly under-represents (or entirely fails to represent) women of color. The feminism of a white woman and a woman of color is wholly different, no doubt – for a woman of color, the barrier of race, her culture, her ethnicity, precedes the barrier of sex, or her race and sex are hand-in-hand a handicap. Though women of color have a growing footing in the West, they are still taken to regard as second class citizens, not a strong enough group to be represented in feminist discussions, particularly when the discussion is of the policing of the female body.
I have never had an open discussion with women about body hair and their own body hair. Much has been said about this amongst white women, and yet I cannot relate to them, their hair often so light, so white, in thickness and in color, barely visible, and a visibly stark contrast to my own thick, coarse and dark body hair. A few years ago, while working at a shoe store, I assisted a woman, a black woman, stylishly dressed and stunning. When I knelt down to unwrap a shoebox, I caught a glimpse of her toned legs, dark brown and soft with hair, hair that appeared to have never had met the sharp edge of a razor blade. She wore the leg on her hair like a most natural circumstance, not with shame nor with pride, but as it were the most ordinary thing. I wondered about her courage, and wanted to know what it is like for women much like myself, and so I spoke to them, three women of color, and we talked about how they struggle and embrace this supposed anti-thesis to femininity
Medha is currently a student studying Global Health with a focus on Women’s Health and South Asia.
Dani has a square corporate job and is a writer.
Alex is a journalist. She writes about education, race, and culture. She has hairy arms and it hurts (a lot) when rubber bands get anywhere near them.
1) I started removing my body hair when I was 12. I used my mother’s hair removal cream and went straight for my legs, and then took her razor to rid myself of my unibrow. When did you start removing your body hair?
Medha: Tasnim, I did basically the same thing. I was sitting in gym class one day and became incredibly aware of how hairy my legs were in my relatively short shorts compared to the other 12 year old girls. On my ride home from school that day, a few boys behind me were snickering and it took me a second to realize they were laughing at me. One of them slid up next to me and had the audacity to ask, “You want some beef or are you one of those cow worshippers?” I thought this recognition of me as an Indian Hindu was due to how hairy I was and immediately dashed for my mother’s razor once I got home. A young idiot, I used the razor to shave my legs, armpits, and eyebrows. I managed to shave off half of my eyebrows in the process and experienced one of the worst scoldings of my life from my mother afterwards. My punishment was to parade my half-brows around school for the next several months, for my mother refused to let me fill them in with eyeliner, and constantly see my alien-like reflection in mirrors.
Dani: I started shaving my legs when I was 12 – my school uniform was had a skirt and knee socks and all the other girls had started shaving, I felt like I’d missed the memo and shaved with one of my mom’s razors. I had also tried shaving off my unibrow but ended up cutting myself and I was too embarrassed to get it done professionally. I was SIXTEEN when I did anything about my facial hair (full-on Frida unibrow + upper lip) by which time the damage to my self-esteem was severe. My mother never seemed to think I should do it. I got all my thick hair from my dad’s side and it wasn’t something she herself had to deal with; she’s always been very low maintenance so I had to figure out a lot of beauty things on my own. I actually have fairly hairy arms but I’ve never removed that hair – I have enough shit to be self-conscious about, plus I’ve kind of grown to like it lately!
Alex: My mother is the most low maintenance woman I’ve ever met. Except for on her head, she is virtually hairless – a genetic blessing I somehow missed out on. My arms are very hairy (more so than even my Dad’s) and my legs were pretty hairy as well. When I was in 6th grade, a white boy in my neighborhood started teasing me about my body hair (arms, legs, and on my back). I asked that year for permissin to start shaving. My mom brushed me off. That Christmas, I came up with this really elaborate song (set to the tune of ‘all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth’…I know) where I explained why my body hair was absolutely ruining my life. After that, I went digging in my Mom’s bathroom, found a razor, and went to town. I started with my lower back which, as you might imagine, was the worst thing I ever did. Ever. I started shaving my legs and underarms regularly in about the eighth grade, when I became a cheerleader. Naturally. By then, it was basically required.
2) Removing my body hair, particularly shaving the joint between my eyebrows was extremely impactful; it’s effect was almost immediate. Overnight I had gone from being the meek wallflower to the meek wallflower who had “emerged”. I caught the eye of a tweenage dream of a boy, and after school we talked about Johnny Bravo and Good Charlotte. He asked me if I was new to the school. I had been attending this school since I was 7. Was there a recognizable shift in the way your immediate community (peers, friends) interacted with you after your first hair removal experience?
Medha: Well, I think from my above story it’s pretty obvious my first shaving experience did not go so well physically or mentally. I felt like a fool and looked like one too. But, the next year in eighth grade, my mother allowed me to get my eyebrows threaded and, by that time, I was shaving my armpits and legs regularly. I also started to wear contacts (previously, I had worn glasses since I was 6 years old), and I definitely started to feel prettier. My friends would tell me how a boy had asked them about me and I started to get compliments that had more to do with my physical appearance than my personality. I started to wear eyeliner to bring more attention to my eyes and the well-shaped eyebrows that decorated them. It was a strange experience, I never had really been seen in this light by the opposite sex before, I started to mingle with girls who taught me what a ‘blowjob’ was and how one correctly ‘french-kissed’. I think I mainly was scared by it all – the new knowledge and attention that came from being seen as somewhat sexually attractive.
Dani: A lot of people seemed happy or relieved, which I found unsettling because I hated how much it seemed to matter to them. Even at that age I knew it was unfair that this was what people cared about. I distinctly remember one girl telling me “now you just need to start straightening your hair!” and realizing that no matter what I did to change my appearance it was never going to be good enough. A couple of years later a guy from my school told me I “went up to a 6” after I removed my facial hair (just typing that made me cringe). Like you, I was the meek wallflower but I mostly stayed that way throughout high school. After my hair removal I comfortably flew under the radar and stopped worrying a bit less about what people thought of me.
Alex: I didn’t really notice a shift in how other people perceived me. I was hyper-aware of my body hair, but that I was the only black girl in a sea of white faces meant there were differences (namely my skin and hair) that were easier for people to pinpoint than the hair on my arms and legs. I do remember feeling more attractive internally, like I’d finally been able to fix something. Removal of the hair on my body was something I could control, unlike the shade of my skin or the texture of my hair. It was disappointing, actually, that people didn’t notice. I’d assumed my feelings of invisibility (while my friends were all immersed in the beginning of middle school crushes and romance) might disappear with the hair, but boys were no more interested in Alex with smooth legs than they were in Alex with hairy ones.
3) I began my schooling in London, and from an early age I was hyper-aware of my body hair amongst white girls my age, blonde and brunette and redheads, with light down on their arms, and my mother and cousins had hair so light. My hair was dark and copious, making me noticeably hairier than most boys in my grade; I saw a similarity between my father and myself that I did not want. To me it symbolized a lack of femininity, that I was less of a girl. What caused you to want to remove your body hair, part or all of it?
Medha: I went to a predominantly white public school when I first desired to shave my body hair. I envied how, even though these other girls had plenty of body hair, it was bleach blonde so nobody could really see it unless they came super up-close to it. I definitely felt like I lacked a sense of femininity, my legs seem to resemble the legs of the boys in my class than the girls. Well, actually, I felt they were even more masculine than those of the pre-pubescent boys I was surrounded by making me even more self-conscious about it. This and the fact I was trying to avoid looking more desi than I already did, were the main factors that played into my desire for body hair removal.
Dani: I grew up in Colombia and the majority of my peers were white or lighter than me – I was one of the darkest, and definitely the hairiest, growing up. In Canada I went to a more diverse high school but all the brown girls seemed to have a handle on their hair removal so I still stuck out. By the time I decided to remove my hair I was aware of the way people were judging me and I was extremely self-conscious and uncomfortable in my skin. I would constantly worry about the way people perceived me at any given moment; if I heard anyone laugh in my vicinity I automatically assumed they were laughing at me. I felt ugly and thought removing my facial hair would make me more acceptable in the eyes of my peers and strangers. To this day, I still wish I had done something about it earlier and perhaps been spared some severe insecurities. For a very long time I resented my parents for convincing me that it was a beautiful feature when the rest of the world thought otherwise.
Alex: For most of my life, I attended predominantly white schools in places like Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. My desire to shave was in part an attempt to look like them. I couldn’t have hair like them, I couldn’t avoid the comments about how dark I got during the summer, but I could have smooth legs like them. It was something I could control and I was desperate for control. My discomfort with my body hair was just a symptom of a larger discomfort I had with myself, that I think was a direct result of a childhood that included very little social interaction with other people of color. There’s also a general societal pressure on all girls to be hairless, which is troubling, that begins at such a young age. That pressure, though, is magnified for (hairy) girls of color, who must add body hair onto an already long list of things the world says is wrong with them.
4) A guy once asked me how often I shaved my legs. “Once a week,” I said, which was a lie. The truth is that I shave my legs every other day, sometimes more, but I believed this fact to be a threat to my femininity. He was satisfied with my answer and I wondered how he would have reacted had I told him the truth. I was allowing myself to be seen as a perfect creature, not an aberration. For a woman’s skin to Barbie-smooth is not an anomaly; it is a standard. It is this foundation, however, that my feminist beliefs cannot shake. Women and men should be as equals, I say, but yet I am shaving my legs not for myself, but to maintain the idea of femininity and by way of that, for men. How does the removal of your body hair facilitate your feminism and its relation to the patriarchy?
Medha: I saw a great tweet today that is relevant to this question:
“for white girls hairy legs are liberating coz they remain on a pedestal. for WOC shaving is reducing amount of abuse u already get.” – @bad_dominicana
From seventh grade to the beginning of college, I think the main motivation for shaving my body hair was the same reasoning this tweet articulating, to avoid feeling more marginalized than I already did. But, since entering college, my desire and reasoning for body hair removal has changed. I am a lot more careless with it now, refusing to shave my armpit and leg hair in the wintertime and only shaving it once a week or every other week in the summer. Rarely do I pay enough attention as I am shaving to get every patch of hair on my legs and pits. The only body hair I really still pay attention to is my eyebrows, since you know, they are the windows to my soul. (I’m half-joking) I think this change occurred because I became more confident in myself, which included my femininity, as I entered college. My femininity is more than my physical appearance – it is part of my mentality and my speech. I think it was the realization that femininity can mean so many things and that I look for subtle hints of femininity in everyone, especially in the men I desire, that led me to feel comfortable in my body hair.
Dani: I tell myself hair removal is something I do for myself and in my own terms but I don’t think I’m being entirely honest. Male attention and acceptance are so acutely tied to attractiveness in my mind that I have a hard time separating the two. Sometimes I wonder if my concerns with how I present myself to the world are deep down concerns with how I appear to men. I’m in a long-term committed relationship (and he knows how hairy I am!) but my removal of my body hair has more to do with what strangers/coworkers/etc. think than what my partner thinks. That being said, I don’t think I’m as diligent with my hair removal as I “should” be considering how quickly my hair grows back, and I stopped caring whether people judge me if i have some stray hairs between my eyebrows or if my ‘stache is noticeable right before I wax it off. It’s been liberating and I’m much happier and comfortable when I don’t worry about it.
Alex: With age, my feelings of obligation where shaving is concerned have faded. I shave my legs once or twice per week. If I’m feeling hairy and I don’t feel like shaving, I wear jeans. During the winter, sometimes I go weeks without shaving. I can’t vouch for what’s going on underneath my pants and I often joke about it out loud without shame. But would I invite a man over without shaving? Would I go three weeks without shaving and wear shorts to the park? Never. So, while I’d like to think that my decision to shave or not shave is entirely my own, that idea ignores the very real foundation upon which shaving became a female phenomenon, a standard. The fact is, when I am involved with a man, when I know that I am going to be seen (and judged) in public I’m much more disciplined when it comes to remembering to shave regularly. Does this make me a bad or, at least, confused feminist? Maybe. Probably. But aren’t we all?
5) If I had $20,000 to spare, getting permanent laser hair removal would be one of the first things I’d do. I want permanent hair removal for $20,000; men want hair plugs for $20,000. Isn’t that ironic?
Medha: Yeah, the typical senseless irony of gender norms. I like to think this irony is slowly changing though, but what do I know. Maybe we should start making men’s hair plugs out of women’s pubic hairs and things will change?
Dani: I’d probably sell all my body/facial/half of my head hair for $20,000. Any takers?
Alex: A friend of mine (she’s Okinawan and insists this is the reason she’s so hairy) used a Groupon to get laser hair removal on her underarms a few years ago. That there’s even a Groupon in existence for shit like that is bizarre. But hey, I just bought a Costco jumbo pack of razors so, I lose. I wonder how much money laser hair removal would save me in razors and shaving cream in a lifetime?