Romance your damn self*


Of late, I have been very regular and disciplined about self-care and making sure I allot time for it in my everyday schedule. My calendar pops up with reminders to take care of myself in different ways. Sometimes, it asks me to read a poem. Other days, it asks me to write a letter to someone I love (on particularly positive days, I write letters to myself). But there’s one task in particular that I have been working on even before I understood the critical importance of self-care, self-love and body images, and that’s self-grooming.

Personally, I look at it as an incredible act of self-care, especially in a consumerist world of rising prices and beauty standards. An experimental haircut, trying on a new pair of earrings, a bright lip colour, or even wearing a skirt when your legs aren’t waxed and walking confidently down the street: these are revolutionary acts of self-care and self-love.

society

Source here

Of course, a lot of self-grooming activities that we indulge in are shaped by our class, caste, religion, sexuality, and more. I was once told by a classmate that she was forced to get her eyebrows threaded as early as when she was 15. This was because “well-shaped brows” are the only thing one can see when wearing a burqa. This did not make sense to me then and I concluded that she is definitely ‘a victim of oppression’ until much later, in high school, when she told me she feels beautiful every time she steps out of the parlour. I had bushy, unshaped eyebrows as a 17-year-old and my pity for her oppression suddenly turned into my envy about her perfect brows. It dawned on me how an act can liberate as well as shame a person, almost at the same time.

giphy

Source here

I was in graduate college, I think, when I had a conversation with an acquaintance who used to go to a men’s parlour regularly. He informed me about a nice little place in North Delhi that he used to visit regularly to trim his beard and moustache just the right length, get a chocolate facial at least once every two months, and get his eyebrows threaded. “Don’t get me wrong. I am not gay. I just like looking good,” he had told me. And I was both stumped and confused at the same time. When had looking good become related to one’s sexuality? Self-grooming, along with a million other things, apparently, not only had a gender but also a sexual identity. At that time, I had begun hearing the term ‘metrosexual’, which, frankly, sounded like a desperate attempt to hide one’s homophobia with an intellectual-sounding word. Like you just had to defend that you are straight with a straight face and straight eyebrows. Pun intended.

A man’s grooming needs are as much an aberration as a woman’s non-grooming needs. Every single time I have visited a parlour (irregularly, if I may add), I am lectured on the “abnormal” growth rate of my armpit hair or the white spots/pimples/freckles on my face that make me “ugly”. They tell me that my “tanned look needs to be removed” and I have to “work hard to look less dark”. Like it’s some kind of a communicable disease that needs to be taken care of, lest it spreads everywhere.

I have understood that beauty parlours are spaces where consumerism, capitalism and patriarchy amalgamate in the most vicious ways. Over the course of years, I have experimented and hopped from one parlour to another in search of a non-judgemental, happy and positive place. A place that doesn’t advise me to spend more money so I look less hideous. Of course, I am privileged enough to make that decision to spend or not spend the money that I have. But I have come to realise that a beauty parlour is a place that body-shames you the most. It is ironic because you go there to feel better about yourself, hoping that you will emerge looking different, feeling better and exuding increased levels of confidence.

A few years ago (when I was single), ahead of a friend’s wedding in Benaras, I visited a local parlour to get help with sari-draping and make-up. While the lady was helping me out, she gasped in horror looking at the hair on my stomach. She asked me why I hadn’t got it waxed. A simple “Because I didn’t want to” did not satisfy her. She probed further.

“I like hair over there. It makes me feel happy when I look at it,” I told her.

She seemed very uneasy and uncomfortable with that response.

“And your boyfriend is fine with it?” she asked. (But of course, as a woman, I need to be straight and in need of a boyfriend, potentially a husband.)

“Um. I don’t have one.”

“And now you know why,” she stated, as a matter of fact.

I never forgot that. But I learned that there is no one else that can make me feel good about myself except me. Not even the people I pay money to look/feel different (if not better). Learning to love myself became much easier after that. Because I figured if I wouldn’t be okay with my body – whether it is shaved, tanned, hairy, skinny, voluptuous, or freckled – no one else would be. And I will not let that happen.

* A quote by Yrsa Daley-Ward.

Originally published on InPlainspeak here.

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Of learning to accept body hair status quo


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.

By Carol Rossetti

By Carol Rossetti

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.