I’m hairy. I don’t mean my luscious long locks – though I have those in abundance – nor my perfectly natural pubes. I mean it in the sense that every now and again, and indeed, rather too frequently for my liking, I catch sight of myself in a mirror and think it’s really time again that I plucked my upper lip hair.
That makes me sound a little vain, but I can assure you that’s not the case. J K Rowling recently raised some tempers when she described a female Sikh character as “mustachioed, yet large-mammaried”; I, however, saw a painful reflection in her words. I first started getting ridiculed for my ‘moustache’ when I started secondary school. I hadn’t really been aware that my facial hair was excessive or unusual before then, but the bullying quickly reached a fever pitch. In response to this, my parents decided that it shouldn’t continue to be a possible incitement for cruel children, and they took me to get waxed.
“Welcome to womanhood!” the beautician congratulated me, as she tore the final painful strip of wax and material from my upper lip. My (extremely feminist) mother thought this very sweet indeed. I wasn’t yet able to express the thought that womanhood really shouldn’t be about disguising our bodily features and making ourselves look more like pre-pubescent children, but I was able to admit to my mother that I missed the hair; I found the fuzziness of it comforting. The painful – and not to mention expensive (insert appropriately angry comment here on how the beauty industry essentially cajoles women into wasting hard-earned money on looking less like themselves and more like somebody else’s ideal) – waxing ritual would take place fortnightly until I left for university. Eyebrows soon got added into the minimising regime. My body became a hirsute battleground.
I spent my teenage years acutely self-conscious of my body and facial hair, hardly improved by such instances as my younger brother once innocently commenting, “You have a lot of arm hair” as we rode on the tube. There was the time I was going swimming with a friend and I decided to shave my legs for the first time. I can only have been about twelve or thirteen. Most of my female friends are happy to admit that they only need to shave to a certain point before they reach a part of their leg where hair is no longer a problem for them. Me? Well, my problem was where to stop. You see, if I shaved to my thigh, I was left with a very visible band of hair, which was ironically now even more obvious than when my whole leg had been hairy. Thinking logically, I put on my swimming suit, jumped in the bath, and made sure that I shaved everything below and external to the suit. My mother (we had a very open door bathroom policy) was furious when she saw; I’d essentially started in on parts of my bum. Can you blame me, when I’d grown used to strangers in the street instructing me to “shave it off” – usually meaning my upper lip or my arms? What on earth might those hairless, bikini-clad droves say at a swimming pool?
Now that I’m in my twenties, however, I’ve become much more relaxed. I even manage to forget about body hair for significant-minority periods of time (cue the sudden realisation that I’m long overdue some plucking) – and whilst that’s an improvement, I’m well aware that it implies it should be, or often is, on my mind. Of course I’m affected by societal beauty standards and hair-free models, by adverts for laser hair surgery and Goddess-inspired razor blades (because the Goddess of Beauty was all about itchy bumps on her bikini line.) Gradually, however, I have begun to feel more in control. I no longer pay to have pain inflicted on me, and I’m comfortable with a certain level of growth. I shave my legs to my knees and no further.
What I am most affected by, though, is the way we talk about body hair amongst ourselves. I’ll be the first one to put my hand up and admit to having offered the obsequious, “Oh, but you’re blonde, you can hardly see it!” when referencing a friend’s leg hair. But try standing amongst a group of female friends, who are hell-bent on comparing their leg hair, how ‘naughty’ they’ve been for not shaving, and how they even (girly gasp!) shave their bottoms for their boyfriends. It hardly seems appropriate to retort, “If I started giving a flying fuck about shaving my bum, my arms, my back, my nape, my everything that grows stuff, I’d probably end up with a near-permanent rash and spend vastly more time with a razor than with my non-existent lover.” Somewhat optimistically, I’d like to be with someone who cares a little more about the quality of our conversations than how hairless my behind is. One can but hope.
So this is my plea, from one hairy chica to the possibility of many hundreds of them. Don’t make too much light of body hair. It shouldn’t be a big deal – it really shouldn’t – and for many silent women, it is. Jokes about your tiny puffs of leg hair make the women who have hair in abundance, and hair in places other than their legs, feel grotesque and abnormal. I was delighted when a friend of mine recently mentioned that her biggest concern about growing old is that someone else will have to pluck her one very fierce chin hair. How brave of her to mention that fear out loud! Then I remembered she’s a comedian and my heart sank again: until hair stops being treated as a funny subject, humorous because repugnant, and stops being loudly vilified as unwanted, there will be women who feel terrified when the, “Damn, I didn’t shave today” conversation starts up. If there’s room for so much anxiety-speak around body hair, there must be room for frank and open conversation.
So let’s start talking about that one fierce chin hair without shame or comedy. We’re women, monobrows and moustaches and inch-long leg hair included. And I for one have learnt to be happy with the hairy package that I came in.