By Leona Nikolić
“You should do something about your mustache,” my aunt says to me with a smile the night before my grandfather’s fucking funeral. My mother chimes in too. I wouldn’t want to be an embarrassment to the family. I wouldn’t want to humiliate them with my natural state of being at the gathering for their dead father. How dare I. I am 22 years old.
Another time. My pubes are showing. My bathing suit cannot contain them. I have to do something about it before someone else notices and remembers that women are not naturally hairless. My mother’s gaze lingers between my thighs for the rest of our time at the beach. Later in the shower I make sure to shave enough of my dark curls so they won’t show again. Tomorrow my skin is razor-burnt, red, and rough. This is okay. I am 13. I am 16. I am 20 years old.
And again. My leg hair has begun to grow back. It is prickly and visible. I should know better than to wear shorts. It is summer and very hot outside but I can only wear comfortable clothing if I appear as a WomanTM. I spend forty minutes a day in the shower for the next four years during high school. That’s how long it takes to shave my legs. My hair begins to push through my skin within 24 hours each time. I am 14 years old.
I remember watching my mother wax her legs. It is a series of recurring memories from my early childhood. She would always do it in the living room. I guess because there was a lot of space. In my memories she sits on an old bed sheet spread out on the floor. She wears a big t-shirt that is old. There is a pot of warm wax beside her. She doesn’t flinch when she rips her hair out of her skin. I protest every time. I tell her I like her better with hairy legs. She tells me one day I will change my mind.
Later, I am in the first grade and I bend down to tie my shoes before recess. This is when I note for the first time that I am prominently hirsute. My arms and legs are unusually bushy compared to the other girls and boys my age. I develop a theory that I am related to the woolly mammoth and brag about this to my mother for the next few years. I believe I am a descendant of the great prehistoric beast and this makes me very happy. My mother laughs and tells me that I will not always like being hairy. I tell her she is a liar. I tell her she should be very proud to come from such prestigious lineage.
I shave my legs for the first time when I am 12 years old. I am at Kim’s house and we are getting ready for the school dance that evening. Kim is my cool new friend. She does my hair and make-up like only cool girls know how. She shows me her smooth legs and asks me if I have ever shaved before. I say no. We sit on the edge of her bathtub and she teaches me how to run a sharp blade along my skin without cutting myself. I cut myself. When I come home that night my mother notices immediately. She is angry that I have shaved my legs at such a young age and now I was going to be stuck shaving them forever. I tell her I like it. She tells me it will become a burden.
One day I travel with my mother to another city. It is far away enough that it is special, but we do not cross any borders. We go to dinner with one of her old friends from university. They laugh over stories about old professors and colleagues and things that once happened. My mother’s friend gets a little serious and tells my mother how much she envied her confidence in those days. She describes how my mother always showed her densely-haired legs. People would stare and she would laugh at them for being bothered. She envied my mother’s hairy legs. She wanted to show her hairy legs too. I ask my mother why she lost confidence in her body hair. She tells me it was different when she was younger. She tells me it is already difficult enough as an immigrant to be accepted here.
My mother has never been particularly feminine. She is rugged and tomboyish. She never encouraged me to be girly, even though I wanted to be. I am not surprised by the story her friend tells, but I am sad. I am sad because she didn’t care and now she does. I am sad that I care. I am sad that anyone cares.
I shave my legs for six years from the time I first begin. Shaving is not good for me and I develop rashes and irritations and cuts and ingrown hairs. I try getting my legs waxed at a salon but it is expensive. I try chemical depilatory creams but they are ineffective on my dark thick growths. My mother buys me an electric epilator. It is very effective and very painful. I wax off all of my pubic hair. I do this once during high school and I hate the feeling. I do it again a few years later and I still hate it. I don’t do it again. In eighth grade the boys make fun of my mustache and unibrow. I start waxing my facial hair. I pluck hairs from my chin too. I meet a girl at camp who waxes her arms and I think this is strange and unnecessary. I wonder why it is okay to have arm hair but not leg hair. I wonder if it’s normal that I have hair on my nipples and butt and toes and in a line down my stomach. A male doctor suggests I take birth control pills to decrease my body hair growth in the same tone he uses to prescribe me antibiotics for strep throat.
It is winter and I haven’t shaved my armpits for months. This is the first time I have ever let my armpit hair grow since it first appeared. I don’t know why I decided to. I think I was curious about what it would look like. It is thick and dark and I think it looks sexy. I am proud of it and show it off to my friends and they love it too. I am at a hotel with my mother and my cousin during winter vacation. We go swimming in the hotel pool and I flaunt my hairy armpits at them. They think I am being silly and eccentric. We are the only ones in the pool. They don’t tell me to shave it.
I discover I am a feminist. I read feminist theory. I read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and he tells me that “Hair is associated with sexual power, with passion. The woman’s sexual power needs to be minimised so that the [man] may feel that he has the monopoly of such passion. Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.” Body hair is only for men because only men are allowed to be powerful. Women are not allowed to be powerful or to be sexual so they are reduced to hairless prepubescent versions of themselves. I wonder why adult men desire to have sex with women whose bodies are styled to look like that of a 9 year old girl’s. Later I have sex with boys that don’t care about my hairy legs and vulva.
My aunt is a smart woman and she is well-educated. She understands the logic of my feminist argument for doing what I want when I want with my facial hair. But she doesn’t get it. For her these are nice theories to discuss but they do not apply to women in the real world. She suggests again that I deal with my mustache before tomorrow’s funeral. She “means well” in the sense that she wants to protect me from the comments and the stares. My mother also doesn’t get it. She tells me that she doesn’t care if I am hairy, but that other people do. She tells me I can be hairy on my own time.
In the evening I cry in my mother’s arms because I feel the weight of a thousand burning witches and of thousands of years of oppression and I want her to feel it too. She feels it and she tells me she is sorry. I tell her that it is more than enough that I am constantly oppressed by images and advertisements and cultural expectations that I do not need my own mother acting as an oppressive force too. I tell her that I do not want to be objectified and sexualised by my own mother. I tell her that I do not want to be encouraged to satisfy the male gaze by my own mother. She feels the weight and she is sorry.
I like some of my hair and I don’t like some of my hair. I like my thick bushy eyebrows but there are two of them and they are shaped. I don’t like my mustache or my chin hairs so I remove them regularly. Sometimes I am lazy about this and I let them grow back and it doesn’t bother me much. I like my armpit hair but I worry about what people will think. I haven’t shaved it for over a year. I don’t like my tiny little chest hairs or my nipple hairs or the line on my stomach. I remove these but only when I think someone will be looking. I like my pubic hair but usually trim the edges in the summer so it does not show through my bathing suit. Maybe this summer I will let it show. I don’t like my leg hair so I remove it sometimes. I don’t like my leg hair but I desperately want to.