Maria Penaranda // Arts & Culture Editor
It’s a process I’ve been repeating for as long as I can remember. The first time I did it, I was about 10. My dad took me to a salon where I laid on a long, green leather chair tucked in the back, but still visible to all the other customers. I wished they couldn’t see me and I felt a bit exposed, but said nothing. Above me, a woman approached with a wooden spatula of wax, and slathered it from the side of my lip to the middle, placing a cloth strip over the wax as it cooled. She tugged a little at the edge of the strip, and then: pain. My eyes began to tear up, but my mind was focused on being as outwardly calm as possible. I felt warm tears stream down my cheeks. When she finished, I sat up and took hold of the mirror she handed me. My upper lip was raw and red, but most importantly: totally hairless. I felt my anxiety melt away. Thank God, I was a normal girl again.
As a child, waxing was my way out of being ridiculed. If there’s no hair on my upper lip, there’s no hair to make fun of. It was a ritual that I dreaded but nonetheless never avoided, because it was how I returned to girlhood.
I’m 24 now, which means I’ve been removing the hair on my upper lip for 14 years. I’ve got a whole routine figured out: wax, then bleach when hairs start to come in again. I keep bleaching every other day until the hairs are long enough to wax again. It’s a three-week cycle that’s become second-nature to me.
When I was about 18, a blonde friend quietly revealed to me that she shaves her facial hair. “Honestly, just shave it,” I remember her telling me. I felt a pang of anger. Of course you can shave your facial hair, I thought, you’re white and blonde. No one can tell when your stubble grows back.
I’m not sure exactly how, but during my early twenties I started to shed some of the anxiety that comes with exposing my body hair. I had never really cared about the thin lining of dark hair on my arms. In the summers, I couldn’t be bothered with shaving the hair on my thighs. I brushed off the comments and stares when I wore bikinis and didn’t have the time to shave my pubic hair before. During the winters, I stopped shaving my legs. I let my prickly calves peek out from cut-off jeans and couldn’t care less about it. I can honestly say I whole-heartedly enjoy shaping my eyebrows. It seemed my moustache was the last frontier for me, the one last hairy place on my body I was not ready or willing to sacrifice for my feminist cause.
A few weeks ago, a blonde coworker revealed to me that she shaves her facial hair. This time though, I wasn’t angry with envy. I quietly typed into the Google search bar at my work, “Can you shave your facial hair?”
An Allure magazine article titled, “Yes Ladies, You Can Just Shave Your Moustache” popped up. My eyes raced through the words while my history with upper lip hair removal—the time, the money spent, the pain—flashed through my mind. I opened a new tab and did another search, “If you shave your facial hair does it grow back thicker?” Again, I skimmed and scanned through the words and found the same answer repeated again and again. That night, I took the mini razor I had been using to clean up my eyebrows, slathered on some face lotion, and thought, fuck it. I did it again the next morning, and the morning after that. Since that evening, the longest I’ve gone without shaving my moustache is two days.
The result? I can see why people think their hair grows back thicker after shaving it, especially women of colour with dark hair. The hair cuticles are definitely more pronounced than after having it waxed. But honestly, there’s barely a difference. My ‘stache hair grows back within two days after a wax anyway, so my choices are a day without a trace of a moustache before resetting my three-week cycle, or a faint outline of hair cuticles every day (and no, I can’t afford laser). I wanted to grow it out over a week to know and include how it turned out here, but I’m sorry to confess, dear reader, that I wasn’t able to.
Why? I’ve had a lifetime to accustom myself to reactions of disgust from people when they are confronted with female body hair.
A few months ago, my brother told me my moustache was not that bad until he leaned in closer to look and shrieked out, “EWWWW!”
Last fall, I was with a professor editing an article when I mentioned an interviewee’s armpit hair. The professor, out of nowhere, started recounting his childhood (female) tennis teacher’s armpit hair and how disgusted he was by it.
Just a couple of days ago, I was having lunch with my coworkers and I mentioned how I don’t like wearing leggings because my legs get itchy. “Maybe you should shave then,” one of them joked (my legs, by the way, were shaven at the time).
The whole world seems dead-set on the belief that body hair on a woman is unnatural, unfeminine, gross.
I’m not mentioning these moments because I want to put those people on blast. I’m mentioning them because I think it’s important to acknowledge the scope and pervasiveness of this disgust for hair that grows, and will continue to grow, on every woman’s body.
This disgust is so much more than a reaction to a body that falls outside the hyperfeminine, infantile and Eurocentric mould of normative female-ness. It is a reiteration of the belief that women need to exist within this norm—women need to be attractive—in order to be afforded humanity.
At that same lunch with my coworkers (after my typically hairy legs were roasted) another co-worker, who often doesn’t shave hers, became the butt of the joke. I probed at my coworkers, “So what, who cares if she doesn’t wanna shave her legs?”
“I’m just concerned her husband won’t be able to tell what gender she is anymore,” my manager giggled.
That’s really what it’s about, isn’t it? Our notions of what it means to be a woman are rooted and seeped within that norm, within that belief. You let your body hair grow out, you’re no longer a woman.
If I were to grow out my moustache hair, I know what I’d be losing. I’d be losing the power that comes with inhabiting a body that fits comfortably within normative femininity; I’d be losing the power of being a pretty woman. And with that, I’d be losing my claim to being a woman. I’d be losing my humanity, or at least the humanity afforded to me by others. I’ve heard trans women speak on this societal requirement of existing within normative femininity to exist as a woman at all. I’m only just coming to understand my place within it now, how I benefit and suffer from it, and how afraid I am of existing outside of it.
It’s too easy to shrug off the feminist predicament of hair removal as a personal choice. How can you be what you can’t see? How can I demand the greater world to accept women as people in whatever hairy body they occupy, when I can’t even be brave enough to ask the same of the people around me?