Posted on January 11 2021
AS A WOMAN OF COLOR, THE THICK HAIR THAT DUSTS MY FACE AND BODY WAS PASSED DOWN TO ME FROM MY ANCESTORS, AND MY VERY EXISTENCE IS PROOF THAT HAIRY WOMEN SUCH AS MYSELF ARE CAPABLE OF FINDING MATES.
By Gabrielle Ulubay
This morning, I shaved my legs. It was a luxurious and somewhat unnecessary act, considering no one will be seeing or touching my legs for the foreseeable future (other than me).
Sometimes, while shaving my legs or my armpits or my feet, or while waxing the hair above my top lip, I think about the politics of what I’m doing. In many respects an intellectual product of Second Wave Feminism, I strongly believe that the personal is political, and for that reason have been conflicted over my relationship with my body hair. On one hand, it strikes me as ludicrous that I literally scrape tiny knives across my skin and yank hot wax off my face for the sole purpose of adhering to conventional beauty standards.
“No decent guy cares about that stuff,” a male friend once told me, and his statement has been confirmed by multiple male partners who, when I asked if they cared that I hadn’t shaved, seemed offended that I’d suggest they would be.
“Of course not,” an ex-boyfriend once answered. “I’m not a child.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “The type of man who would be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in.” Similarly, the type of man who would find my body hair off-putting is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in.
As a woman of color, the thick hair that dusts my face and body was passed down to me from my ancestors, and my very existence is proof that hairy women such as myself are capable of finding mates. When I first hit puberty and dark hair started sprouting from my skin, I often compared myself to my hairless white classmates or to the lithe white women who populated so many fashion magazines. And I felt lesser for looking so different from them.
Here, I think of a woman I went to college with—an Indian-American who said, “I used to think I was ugly, but then I realized I’m not ugly. I’m just not white.”
IF SO MANY MEN - THE ALLEGED REASONS FOR ALL THIS HAIR REMOVAL- DON'T CARE ABOUT MY BODY HAIR IN THE FIRST PLACE, WHY DO I STILL WAX AND SHAVE?
Sometimes, when I was growing up, I’d steal my brother’s Maxim magazines and pore over the photos of scantily clad models, studying their bodies and their skin and holding the pictures against a mirror so I could compare them to myself. At night, in the shower, I’d stare down at my naked body and hone in on the features that differentiated me from these photoshopped, airbrushed models, pushing down the stubborn hunch that I was, in fact, beautiful, until I finally convinced myself of the need to conform.
“Are you ever going to wax your girl-mustache?” a female friend once asked me, unprompted, when I was twelve.
“Why?” I asked. “Is it noticeable?”
She squinted and inched closer to my face. “Not to me, really, but if I were a boy I’d probably notice it. You don’t want them looking at that when they’re deciding whether or not to kiss you.”
That same year, a boy sat next to me and rubbed my arm. I smiled because I thought he was flirting, but to my horror he observed, “You’re very hairy.”
I went home and asked my mom to help me wax my upper lip that day and found that once the hair was removed the skin exploded into angry red patches and tiny white blisters.
It should make me feel better to remember that years later, when I was twenty, I would reject this boy who called me hairy. At our town pool, he put his hand on my ass and tried to kiss me, but I squirmed away, noting with quiet smugness I never did shave the purportedly offensive hair on my arms (which has remained my sole point of rebellion).
It should also make me feel better that the standard of beauty, while still wildly problematic, has grown to include armpit hair à la Miley Cyrus and thick eyebrows à la Cara Delevigne. The girls who once shamed me for my thick brows now fill theirs in with dark pencils and lament the over-tweezing that they once bullied brown girls into.
WOMEN HAVE A TERRIBLE HABIT OF POLICING OTHER WOMEN.
Why am I still so conflicted? Why does hair-shame still reverberate against my consciousness? Moreover, if so many men—the alleged reasons for all this hair removal—don’t care about my body hair in the first place, why do I still wax and shave?
For the longest time, I concluded that I was a hypocrite at worst and inconsistent at best: I stick a Frida Kahlo pin on my denim jacket but won’t leave the house without having carefully shaped my eyebrows; I showcase unshaven legs with indignant pride at the gym, but shave them along with my pubic hair twice over—just to make sure—before a date. As much as I admire the women who abandon their razors and wax strips with all the confidence of an early-20th century Suffragette, I simply cannot match their strength.
Part of this inconsistency, I must say, is that women have a terrible habit of policing other women. Once, in graduate school, I got ready for a date while a friend sat on my bed. She asked me if I’d shaved, and I admitted I hadn’t—half because I didn’t have time, and half because I didn’t care enough to make time.
“I doubt he’ll care,” I said, blotting my lipstick in the mirror.
She looked appalled. “Gabby. You don’t want to scare him!”
She felt that I was unprepared for the date—as though I’d gone out for sex but forgotten my vagina at home. In these subtle ways, our bodies and our personal choices are policed—often by other women—and we are implicitly told that to look natural is to look appalling.
But here’s the thing: Her policing did not propel me to sprint to the shower and shave, nor did it make me feel particularly bad. So why is hair removal still important to me? Why did I take the time to shave my legs this morning?
I’ve had a lot of time to think about this over the course of quarantine. While at first, I reveled in the opportunity to stop putting effort into my appearance in March and April, over the last few weeks I’ve made a concerted effort to keep up with my hair removal regimen. In fact, I’ve put more effort into it recently than ever before.
For better or worse, I’ve come to view hair removal the way I view putting on my makeup: Unnecessary for sure, patriarchal for many, and problematic in its origins (i.e., the idea that women don’t look good enough just the way we are), but a process that is now entirely for my own mental health.
Yes, my makeup and shaving routines are based in shame, but they have transformed into something else. When I put on makeup before sitting by myself to work from home, I do so for myself and myself alone. I like seeing my purple-lined lips in the reflection of my laptop and deciding what color eyeshadow to wear in the mornings. I relish watching my sparkly blue fingernails fly across the keys when I type.
Similarly, I’ve grown to love that shaving and waxing allow me to focus on and touch my body in a non-sexual way. I like how my skin feels soft after I shave, like crushed velvet or suede, and that when I slide my pants on they don’t brush against coarse hair. And even though I secretly think the tiny curls between my legs are pretty, I trim them off with equal pride because I like looking in the mirror when I’m getting dressed and admiring myself the way I once admired those half-naked Maxim models.
Most importantly, I look forward to shaving as a form of quality time with my body. The more I concentrate on these curves and skin that once brought me shame, the deeper and more unconditionally I fall in love with them now. And that self-love has become more important during this isolating, anxiety-ridden, sexless quarantine than it ever has been before.
I am aware that not everyone feels this way. Some people feel that body hair should be removed because it is dirty and shameful (which I disagree with) while others feel that women should stop removing their hair altogether because the habit perpetuates the patriarchal control of women’s bodies. While I understand and, on many levels, agree with the latter camp, my point is that there must be a midway point between these diametrically opposed poles.
There are many women who think and behave the way I do, and to deem us hypocrites or dismiss our routines as purely patriarchal is reductive. My conscience once twisted with guilt in reaction to articles about the evils of shaving just as much as my self-esteem once quavered at images of hairless white women.
Body hair removal, like working out or putting on makeup or wearing skirts, is not inherently anti-feminist—so long as we are doing it for ourselves.
When I was in high school and got hooked on feminist literature, I read Eve Ensler’s The Good Body and vowed to stop waxing my lip hair—the bane of my pubescent existence—until I started to finally like the way I looked with the hair.
And sure enough, though women around me gently expressed their secondhand embarrassment, I stopped minding my facial hair. This lesson I learned at seventeen stays with me today, and when it comes time to wax my lip I am in no rush. It is not a priority, and my self-worth does not depend upon it.
Now, at 25, I finally see the hair on my body the same way. I remove that hair with compassion rather than self-hatred, just as I color my lips red because I like that color as well as (rather than instead of) their natural pink. I no longer feel guilty or manhandled by patriarchy as a result of my morning routine, because it is no longer drenched in shame.
And that’s what drew me to feminism—particularly for women of color—in the first place: The conviction that I have the right to do whatever I want and that I deserve love, from myself above all others, regardless of my choice.
Gabrielle Ulubay is a writer and filmmaker currently based in Boston. She has lived in four countries and counting, and much of her work focuses on intersectional feminist issues. You can read her work in The New York Times, Bustle, HuffPost Personal, and more, and you can follow her on Medium, Twitter, and Instagram.