I was in ninth grade when I experienced shame because of body hair for the first time. We were preparing for a dramatic recitation of poetry for an inter-school competition. I was an integral part of the group that was all set to perform and winning meant a big deal. While I fully understood that and gave my best in all my rehearsals, one of my teachers said that I couldn’t go for the performance “looking like this”, pointing at my hairy legs. We wore knee-length skirts in school till tenth grade and, clearly, the fact that I had hit puberty by then manifested itself with the sudden eruption and visibility of body hair. My teacher said that we were supposed to wear our school uniforms at the competition and “no way” could I wear my knee-length, navy blue skirt parading my hairy legs while I recite a classical poem. It puzzled me how people would even want to look at my legs and whether or not there was any hair on it when I was actually performing and all the focus should have been on my face, my expressions and the lyrics of the poem.
It was the first time someone, whose opinions I valued, had pointed out something erroneous in me and/or my appearance. Interestingly enough, after this incident I began noticing hair all over my body and categorizing them as “unwanted”. Armpits, facial hair, pubic hair, hair on legs and arms—things that never made me think twice were suddenly all I could think about. I was 15 and lengths of cajoling did not help me get my mother’s permission to use the razor. Ma was worried I’d cut myself and it was reasonable for a mother of a teenaged daughter to be suspicious about my request of having a sharp-edged object.
When I was 17, I begged ma so I could go to the “beauty parlour” to get my “eyebrows done”. These were new phrases I was gradually picking up in school as I increasingly saw my female classmates coming to class with surprisingly perfect shaped eyebrows, leading to much male attention (I studied in a co-ed school). Up until then, I didn’t know what a beauty parlor was. My mother used to go to one (she still does) but I thought that’s a place only adult, married women go to because that is the age when beauty really mattered. Or so I thought. But I guess I was wrong. Beauty mattered a hell lot in school, as a teenager, who had begun feeling disgusted at her own hair everywhere on her body.
My mother tried to delay my foray into “adult womanhood” by claiming that she began her affair with beauty salons only after she got married. And that once I start, I’d never be able to stop. Well, she wasn’t lying! But I had an upcoming occasion to back me up. It was fresher’s in school: an event organised by the 12th graders for 11th graders (as a welcome to high school life) and it was a big social event for a 17-year-old me. Ma finally said yes and I went to my mother’s beauty parlour. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. The thread that was used to remove hair on my upper lip and shape my “hairy eyebrows” made be believe that they were thorns designed to kill me…one step at a time. I cried and wept, while the lady removed my facial hair. She also gave me a complimentary hair cut, just to cheer me up. But it did not. I looked at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t recognize the image of myself. When I came back home, my mother said: “You aren’t the same any more. And you never will be.”
It’s almost been a decade-long affair with beauty salons for me. I still go and, of course, have gotten used to seeing my eyebrows in a certain shape and look. In addition, I occasionally get hair on my arms and legs removed, especially during summers when I just can’t seem to get used to the idea of wearing a sleeveless tee or shorts/skirts without waxing my body hair off. I also feel that the nerves on my body that had feelings once-upon-a-time are now dead from being exposed to consistent and constant pain during hair removal. But what has changed over the years is my own confrontation with changing ideas, definitions and perceptions of beauty and how it gets associated with body hair.
I have grown from being least bothered to being most bothered, from can’t-wait-to-get-these-unwanted-thingies-out to what-is-this-excruciating-pain-somebody-rescue-me, from being embarrassed to strip in front of the salon lady to being proud of exposing the “real” me and from being a parlour regular to becoming my-body-hair-ain’t-that-bad satisfaction. It has taken me a long time to learn to accept my body and its hair, the way it is. It has taken me years to walk down the street wearing a knee-length skirt sporting waxed or unwaxed legs, with the same amount of confidence. It has taken me months to grow used to the idea that my eyebrows—regardless of their shape, size, thickness and girth—do not necessarily define my beauty. And it has certainly taken me a really long time to actually write about it all.