content note: body hair, discussion of hair removal.
When I was younger, and up until not too long ago, I would often fantasise about a machine that might exist in the future which you would step into as you were, it would zap you, and then you would step out hairless. Hairless maybe except for eyebrows, eyelashes and the hair on your head – there would be some sort of technology to prevent that from going because that was acceptable hair…
That was my ultimate fantasy. Not to fly or to read minds but to be rid of all the hair on my body below my eyeballs.
It’s hard to explain just how big and how haunting the hair that my skin was home to was and has been throughout my life. To write about it has been a long time coming and yet no words can do justice to the trauma of the hair. Obviously all women are projected an image of hairlessness as beautiful and desirable, we know the way razor advertisements show women shaving hairless legs – the very concept of hair on the body being censored. But being brown and of south Asian heritage I had hair that was not supposed to exist. Hair that wasn’t censored on TV because it just wasn’t there to start with. This was the hair only other brown girls knew about. The burden only we seemed to share.
At high school in the PE changing rooms was the first time I realised I had this illegal hair. It visibly coated every part of me and many more parts than any of the white girls in my class. I observed that this was not a good thing. This was a shameful thing. No one wanted to be hairier after all.
I learnt to carefully unpeel my trousers whilst sitting down with my trackies laid out ready to slide on to minimise the time that people might have to glimpse my leg hair. I learnt there was a way to put another top on without letting my stomach or back hairs be seen. I learnt to remember to unroll my sleeves any time I unconsciously pulled them up to reveal the black stripes of hairs down my arms.
But soon that wasn’t enough. Because there was hair I couldn’t hide. My face was a velvety softness of hairs that I would avoid the mirror over. If I stood face to face with my reflection there were too many hairs to count. I decided if I smiled more the shadow above my lip would be less noticeable when people spoke to me.
And I watched their lips as they spoke. I was eager to find a trace of hair on other girls and women. I soon became an expert at spotting hair on people’s bodies. These were trophies I collected – the slight fuzz around a girl in PE’s belly button, the bushier eyebrows of a white friend’s face, sideburns visible in the sunlight, a halo rim of fluff round someone’s chin, a glimpse of back hair on a ridden up top, a follicle or two just visible in the V of a low-cut top. Hair was everywhere, and yet, it was nowhere as much as it was on me.
I was tortured by the unashamed growth. Sickened by the way the hairs grew loud and unruly as if deliberately defying my greatest fantasies. Sometimes at night I combed my arm hairs with my fingers and imagined winning a game show where the contestant with the longest single strand of arm hair would win. Other times I put myself to sleep watching hair removal videos on youtube.
However, all was not lost. There was a history of hair haunting brown women and thus a history of exorcising it and chasing it away. Not just the armpit hair and leg hair that everybody knows about, but the taboo secret hair white people didn’t know about – hair you can’t reach, hair you can’t see yet. Waxing arm hairs, clipping toe hairs, bleaching face hairs, plucking, burning, threading, trimming, snipping, electrocuting, shaving. There was a world of methods and yet none permanent or entirely safe. Some nights I would try to work out how many years it might take until I could save up enough money to afford laser hair removal, and I wondered which hairs I would remove first. Surely the facial hairs? Surely I could be saved a world of consciousness if my face was barren and bare, a home to nothing, a matte finished canvas like the faces I saw on screens.
This was my secret growing up then. My furtive, shadowy, silent growing up. My locking-myself-in-the-bathroom growing up; staying-out-of-direct-sunlight growing up. Hair was a burden and a bane. It occupied my time, my thoughts and my energy. It seeped into everything – how I held myself, what I wore, how I smiled.
I drew some small comfort from knowing I was not alone though. From reading threads online of others who were also haunted. From seeing the stubborn black dots about to become shoots on the skins of other brown girls. But it was small comfort. Tiny in the mass of trauma.
And so you’re wondering where this becomes a love story. And in a way I am too.
I’m not sure at what moment or after what pivotal experience I began to fall in love with my hair, but it happened. It happened slowly and accidentally at first, and then it happened quickly. It came of laziness and visibility and it became appreciation. A true falling in love. Not at first sight – at all – but over time and through time.
I fell in love with my hair the same way I hated it: furtively and secretly. And even in the falling I was not, or am not, always proud. I am not meant to be proud. I am meant to feel dirty and unclean. Undesirable and unfeminine. But its too late, for I have fallen. Fallen in love with a secret reflection and in love with the bravery of rolling up my sleeves.
I see white feminists growing out armpit hair and leg hair and I smile for them, for their liberation is important. But I also roll my eyes. I roll my eyes because I want to see wiry black hairs on stomachs out in the sun. I want to see arms draped in velvet black, hands, fingers, wrists. I want to see faces, foreheads, chests, backs. I want it all not only to be acceptable but to be beautiful.
And in wanting that, I realised I already knew where and who could provide that vision best for me. And so it happened. Slowly and quickly and not all at once but in moments. In not bothering to remove turning into not desiring it. In removal being a place of safety to it being a place of disappointment.
And I also fell in love for the sake of younger brown girls. I fell in love in the hopes that my little sister might see the lazy hairs on my legs or the way I can now pitch my head upwards and laugh loudly in open sunlight. I fell in love in the hope that every time I saw a little brown girl fixated by the few strands reaching out to her from the top of my socks it was something she might remember. I fell in love because I wanted it to be known that I could. I wanted young boys to see that too. Wanted my younger brother to understand that my body could exist how it did and that I could be happy. That it was possible to love what had haunted me. That it was possible to see the haunting as something else. As flourishing.
I fell in love in the hope that I could be a vision I needed to see.
But I won’t pretend I am in love every single day. I won’t pretend that I don’t still feel haunted when white women discuss how hairy their white-skin-blonde-hair arms are. I won’t pretend I don’t get paranoid in well-lit rooms and close-up conversations. But love stories aren’t straight forward and this one really isn’t. And the haunting is still louder than the loving, though it is more distant now.
But I see the haunting with new eyes and complexity. And I do not resent myself for feeling haunted at all. I understand that stopping the celebrations at blonde-hair armpits is a way of just further shaming brown girls for continuing to wax and thread and burn. Even whilst we try to deconstruct things like beauty and desirability, we have to see that they harm us all differently. There is more at stake for brown girls. There is more space between beauty and us.
Maybe if by standing, hairy, somewhere in that space, I can be a vision someone else needs to see – that someone first and foremost being me.