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On Shaving And Shaming: How I Was Taught My Body Hair Makes Me Unattractive

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By Aakanksha Sardana for Cake:

The earliest memory I have of the shame that accompanied body hair was wearing shorts to school as a 13-year-old. They revealed my hairy legs, and I was one of the few 13-year-olds who hadn’t had the “Can I wax?” conversation with their moms yet. I hid my embarrassment with carefree breeziness (and we all know how THAT works out), till one day I bought a pack of hair removal cream from the market, glad that the embarrassment could now stop. Eight years later, the familiar feeling of embarrassment sometimes creeps in during evening jogs in the park, on days that I’ve forgotten to shave.

Why was a 13-year-old taught that her body hair makes her unattractive? Why is it that so many women recall so many sexual experiences with a person who was disgusted by their body hair? And when did hair become one of the many unreasonable parameters to judge a woman’s attractiveness? On days when I just feel too lazy to shave, why does it only get me disapproving looks and a list of the parts of my body that have no business having any hair? Why, as women, has our body hair become so offensive, even to one another?

For many South Asians, our body hair is seen as one of our greatest curses. So many first hair-removal stories are like mine. Prolonged embarrassment and bullying followed by picking up our mom’s hair removal creams, or some other method of hair removal that we were barely aware of, and probably messed up a few times.

Now, I’m not against shaving of body hair. What I’m against, is a society that shames a woman about the most natural process of the human body to an extent that she desperately searches for means to stop it, only because she is expected to fit into a patriarchal idea of attractiveness and femininity; and the hair removal industry, worth millions today, is proof that convincing a woman that her body hair is unattractive and unclean is a sure fire way for capitalistic success. And if you thought hair on your legs was the worst thing, women have also been convinced that their pubic hair is unattractive. No one will be spared – how dare anyone have body hair?

Let’s talk about pubic hair, the thing people have and yet feel uncomfortable about. It’s been made taboo to such an extent that when Versace picked dutch model Saskia De Brauw for their jewellery line in a photo shoot that showed her pubic hair, she won our admiration by doing something no other model had done before – even in an industry where nudity is a staple.

Ask a woman to recollect all of her sexual encounters with a guy, at least one will feature a guy who was too uncomfortable seeing her pubic hair. So many women are afraid to have sex without getting their pubic hair removed, and rush to get Brazilians (complete hair removal in the pubic area) to “be ready for sex.” Many blame porn for this, and the shock that follows the realisation that women aren’t naturally hairless (I KNOW, it’s true!). The disappearance of pubic hair may just be another grooming practice, but is so often a result of the embarrassment that follows a partner seeing your pubic hair and being disgusted by your body.

hair removal
Celebrities endorsing hair removal products.

A woman’s body has long been a bone of contention between everyone from political parties to religious groups. Women are so frequently denied control over their own bodies. Consider abortion rights, contraception and now body hair. But, the decision to remove or keep it, mustn’t be because of shame or embarrassment, but, like everything else, a personal choice, influenced by no other person. It is our own comfort that should be the highest priority and not someone else’s expectation of a woman’s body.

And while all women are policed on this issue of body hair, it is downright dangerous for trans women to have body hair, as they risk ‘detection’, as if body hair somehow makes any women, less of one. Facial hair is one of the greatest problems that transwomen face and a simple Google search brought up hundreds of websites, suggesting the easiest way for them to deal with it, both physically and mentally. It is also a common perception that women who are not heterosexuals will have body hair. And suddenly, appearance is not just a personal choice, but a political statement. The presence or absence of body hair is only used to reinforce gender binaries – what people are expected to look like and behave based on their gender.

So, if someone tells you that body hair is unclean and must be shaved, tell them no. Tell them that all the functions that your body undergoes are for its own health and well being. Question why a man with facial hair is considered attractive, but Harnaam Kaur, a Sikh woman who had facial hair because of a medical condition was bullied relentlessly. Ask them why a man’s facial and chest hair are so often linked to masculinity, but a woman is expected to undergo inconvenient and often painful methods of hair removal. And ask them, most of all, why your body is any of their business.

This article was originally published here on Cake.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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