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.
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.