I used to have very long, luxurious hair. It grew unabatedly, in elegant waves and curls, golden-red and deep brown. Little wispy angel wings grew around my forehead. I could pile the mass of it on top of my head like a soft nest. Strangers would stop me in the grocery store to pet my hair. Women everywhere would readily share their feelings of envy. Long, thick, flowing hair is widely regarded as a treasure of femininity.
How unfortunate that hair growing on other parts of the body, often an accompaniment to a woman’s full head of hair, is perceived as the very opposite of femininity.
I have a tangled history of hair. I have early remembrances of hair awareness: asking my mom about pubic hair after a trip to our family’s favorite hot springs in late elementary school. My friend Ali sharing with me when she started growing armpit hair. When I first started shaving my legs in our bath tub, asking my friends if they used just water or soap or shaving cream or what? Boys in middle school making fun of my mustache. Prompt subsequent tweezing of my mustache. Boyfriend after boyfriend encouraging me to spend more time shaving or waxing or tweezing. Being praised when I followed through. Being criticized when I didn’t want to, didn’t have time, or was tired of irritated, razor-burned skin.
I’m sure many women share similar experiences. I’ve spent years experimenting with what level of hair removal felt best to me. By my own perceptions, I grow a remarkable amount of body hair for a woman. I have dark, thick hair on my knuckles, my upper lip and chin, my nipples, my stomach, my toes, and my butt, not to mention the usual suspects. All of this hair regrows in seemingly record time following removal. I can easily grow a legitimate unibrow in a couple of weeks. I’ve dated several men with less arm hair than myself. I keep razor companies in business. Frida Kahlo is a heroine of mine. If I choose not to shave my legs or wax my upper lip, you will definitely notice. From across the room. Laser hair removal produces no permanent effect. Lasers!
I have wanted to write about this for a while. It’s embarrassing to write about. I want to pretend like no one notices my hair. I also want to be accepted for my hair. I also want to feel that I can remove any of my hair without shame, the shame that obsessive hair removal is a bowing down to society’s pressure to squish women into a narrow beauty hallway.
Normally when I write it is very stream-of-consciousness and personal. However, I diligently focused long enough on a well-quoted feminist essay from 1988 by Sandra Bartky, titled “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” to share these quotes:
In contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: they stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment. Woman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other.
To have a body felt to be “feminine” – a body socially constructed through the appropriate process – is in most cases crucial to a women’s sense of herself as female, and, since persons currently can be only as male or female, to her sense of self as an existing individual.
Both of these passages really struck me. They are concepts, elegantly yet starkly presented, that I have pondered for endless hours over many years.
I feel lost when I try to come up with an elegant solution to the dilemma of how much hair removal I want to participate in. I do feel like a strong, independent woman, happy in her singlehood and proud to let my naturalness shine out to the world. I also feel less stressed and self-conscious when I spend time grooming myself, presenting a generally socially-accepted feminine form and face out to the world. The latter cannot be denied. I don’t want to feel stressed. Yet I don’t want to feel subjected to the patriarchal Other.
Pressure for a woman to regularly remove non-eyebrow, -eyelash, and -head hair.
Pressure for a woman to accept herself as the evolved, strong, modern woman she is.
When I’m faced with challenging dilemmas, I sometimes remember to return to one of the most important concepts I learned through my Vipassana meditations: it is not the action, it is the volition that matters. The example given is one of a young child in two different situations. One: the child acting out so that the parent roughly grabs the child by its arm, causing the child to cry. Two: the child running towards a poisonous snake so that the parent roughly grabs the child by the arm, causing the child to cry. Same action, different volition. A volition of anger, a volition of protection.
The action does not matter! It is all in the volition. It is here I can find peaceful ground. I can empower myself to make whatever decision I want in how I groom my body. If I choose for the volition of my actions to be out of peaceful personal preference rather than a frightened deference to society’s standards, the decision becomes easy. I can remove all the hair off my body if I want. I can spend an hour every day maintaining my appearance if I want. I can go a year without shaving my armpits but can shave my legs every day if I want. And it’s in the I want that this woman finds her power.