Ever since I was a child, something I’ve struggled with significantly is the excess body hair that I’ve somehow been gifted with as a part of my genetic package.
As a young girl, I would stare at the hair covering my legs, trying to wish it all away, imagining how smooth my legs would be without it. I would dream of the day when I would be old enough to start waxing or shaving, or do anything that would make my body hair disappear. My eyebrows were thick, I had what people loved to call a mustache (and have now simply started referring to as ‘upper lip hair’ — surprise, surprise, it’s still a mustache), and my hands and legs were just as hairy.
In grade one, I was once asked by a classmate how I have so much body hair. Embarrassed, I said I’d tell her later, hoping she’d forget about it.
I spent years feeling insecure about my body hair because I knew that it was something people noticed. I’d see it in their eyes, and to this day, I still do — I see them do a double-take if they ever glance at my legs, see their eyes widen in confusion and surprise before they turn away and try to mask it. Toddlers would ask me how I have so much hair on my legs, and I’d never know how to reply: all I knew was that they thought it was abnormal because all they ever saw in both Indian and international media were women with smooth, hairless skin. They saw this to the point that the very normal idea of women having body hair had become abnormal in their minds; and hairless, perfect women, setting sky-high expectations for women everywhere, were what they considered normal.
But I wasn’t perfect: I’d always had my body hair, and it wasn’t just a minor annoyance, it was something that I was deeply ashamed of.
It got worse as I grew older. I was fairly popular in school and got along with most people, including my teachers. And yet, I knew that among the students (especially the boys), my body hair was a major point of discussion, even if it was mostly behind my back. I knew that they made fun of me for it, and also thought it was disgusting — which, of course, was what I thought too. Relatives, friends, people I knew — all began to tell me that it was time to start waxing, to look ‘presentable’, that I was old enough now.
I waxed for the first time at age fourteen, right before a week-long leadership camping trip to Goa that I was selected for. Despite being one of only seven people in my city selected for this trip, my concerns were bigger: I didn’t want people, new people that I was going to meet in Goa, to think of me as ‘the girl with a lot of body hair.’ I always thought of it as the first thing people noticed about me, or if not the first, at least the most prominent. It didn’t matter if I was kind or clever or helpful — those qualities would be clouded over by my body hair.
Waxing was not fun. Believe it or not, dipping a knife in hot wax and applying it to your skin, then pulling your body hair off by its roots is a painful process. There was a lot of screaming involved, and by the end, I was sobbing with my face pressed into a pillow.
The smoothness of my legs afterwards almost made it all worth it. Almost. Until I got an allergy.
My skin began to turn red and itchy, and when we went to the doctor, he didn’t just give me my dose of medicine, but also my dose of scolding.
“Young girls these days, all of you want to wax your legs and hands and be beautiful and impress boys,” he told me, rolling his eyes. “You’re too young for all this, of course you’ll get allergies.”
To say that I was upset was an understatement: I was devastated, frustrated and tired of everything. After years of being mocked for simply having body hair, being made to believe that it wasn’t normal and being told to wax; I was now being scolded for doing the same. I wanted to pull my hair out (the hair on my head, I mean) and scream.
Despite all this, I continued to wax. I was tired of how everyone looked at my body hair and couldn’t take it anymore, and if waxing my hair made me ‘normal’, then so be it. Luckily, I didn’t get any more allergies again.
While waxing made me feel ‘normal’, it also made me anxious. On the days that I knew I was going to get waxed, I spent hours dreading it and feeling nervous — for good reason. It hurt just as much every time and I’d almost always end up crying. I couldn’t understand how this was something that other women — my mother, for example — did without flinching once. But more than that, I couldn’t understand how they were okay with it, how over the years, society had conditioned so many women to go through this pain practically every month, and consider it normal. The thought of doing this to myself every month for the rest of my life terrified me.
“With waxing, your hair growth reduces,” everyone told me, but one year of waxing, and I could see no such change.
Disheartened, I continued to wax for a few months more — until I finally, finally reached a better point in my life, one that I never thought I would reach.
In ninth grade, I was suddenly surrounded by a friends circle that made me feel more confident, positive and generally happier. We understood and encouraged each other, pushing each other forward to become better versions of ourselves. As things got better in school, I decided to stop waxing. Finally, I decided that it wasn’t worth it — at least, for now. I knew that the battle still wasn’t over — there would be points in my life where I would struggle, again, with having body hair, and maybe, go back to getting it removed. But for now, I was okay.
I didn’t wax for the next two years — until college started. Again, I refused to be seen as the girl with the body hair, and started to put myself through waxing again. Hair removal options like shaving or hair removal creams aren’t as widely used in India, and I had heard so much about how shaving was bad that I never even considered doing it. Waxing seemed to be my best shot.
The first few months of college were tough and dark, my struggle with my body hair being just one of several reasons. But as this time came to an end, with more friends that were just as supportive and bright, I stopped waxing again. This time, I heard more of it. Comments on my Instagram posts, anonymous asks, even private messages from strange, creepy men calling me ugly and hairy and demanding I wax.
My friends and family, meanwhile, were completely okay with it — it was my choice.
A relative of mine, who had told me a few years ago that I must wax, now told me that it was great that I had developed the confidence to do what I wanted to do. It was an unexpected change, but a welcome one.
In 2018, I left for Cancun, Mexico for a ten month-long cultural exchange program. I left with a razor and tubes of hair removal cream, determined to have smooth, hairless skin for all the beaches I would be going to, and all the swimsuits I would be wearing.
In Mexico, a series of things happened:
First, the exchange students, my friends, in Cancun turned out to be just as picture-perfect as the advertisements that I was used to seeing. At first, I tried to keep up and fit in, trying to shave my legs or use hair removal cream to make all my body hair disappear. Eventually, though, as I started getting along with them, I gave up. It was a waste of time and energy, I decided, and stressful. I could be doing other, more useful things in the hours I spent on making my skin hairless. There were questions asked, and remarks made at first, but eventually most people got used to the fact that I had body hair.
Secondly, I reached a point that I’d never before been at: while I was okay with my body hair and stopped removing it, there were rare times when I felt like it, and at such times, I did shave. There were days when I wanted smooth skin, or to be hairless, but it wasn’t constant. I was okay with both: a hairless and a hairy body, depending on my mood.
It was strange, however, to see people getting excited whenever I shaved: a girl once called up my friend to ask her if I’d shaved because of a picture I’d posted on Instagram the previous day. It always threw me off: was it really so important? It didn’t really matter anymore. I only hoped this phase would last.
Here, I met a local friend of one of the exchange students — a popular, clever girl involved in theatre — who also didn’t wax or shave, and had visible body hair. This was the first time I had met another girl who was okay with having body hair, and the effect it had on me was remarkable. Immediately, my confidence shot up and any time I felt bad about my own body hair, I reminded myself that she had it too. I realized that her body hair wasn’t the first, or only thing that I noticed about her, and if that was so, maybe there was a chance for me too.
I’d always heard that representation was important, but I didn’t know how much it mattered until this one person made me feel so much better about myself.
On coming back to India, however, the hair on my body suddenly seemed to be all that anyone ever noticed. During my first two days back, it was one of the first things any family member I met would ask about, and I was exhausted and confused.
I was told multiple times that while they were alright with me keeping my body hair, it still didn’t look good and the sole problem was that ‘it wasn’t presentable and looked untidy.’ I couldn’t see how a natural part of my body made me look unpresentable.
I was told of a new, apparently painless type of waxing: I tried it, and it hurt just as much, and I was sobbing two minutes in, when not even one arm was finished. I did not get my legs waxed after that, and they were still just as hairy as they used to be.
The waxing, though, brought back all the negative feelings that I used to have earlier. I went to my room and sobbed and felt low for the rest of the day: I felt incapable, like I was disappointing everyone around me by having body hair and not being able to wax. I felt frustrated because I had thought that I’d made permanent peace with my body hair, but apparently I hadn’t. I felt trapped — I had no escape from this whole situation, from how I was born.
Other ways of hair removal were shouted at me from every direction: “Use the hair removal cream and then get waxed”, “If you don’t want to wax, why don’t you shave instead?” and of course, the same old “Your body hair growth will reduce if you wax regularly.”
I was asked if I was trying to make a statement by not removing my body hair, but the truth is: I was not. I simply didn’t think it was worth the effort. It had become normal.
But no one else saw that, and it made me realize that to everyone else, a hairy body would always be disgusting, or a political statement of some sort, no matter how hard I tried to make it seem normal.
It was time to go get waxed again.
(Featured Artwork: Kayla Rader, Northwest Vista College)