The year is 2005 and I have just returned from school after result day. I got my first period two months ago, and I am trying to deal with the monthly ravage within my body when my mother notices something as I stretch my arm, my armpit visible from the sleeve of the t-shirt.
She asks me to follow her into a room and hands me what would be the bane of my existence for many months: a glass bottle of Anne French, with its horrible stench signalling the demise of body hair from underarms and pubic areas.
Since that day, I have changed products and hopped to appliances, but have always been conscious about my body hair despite reminding myself that it’s perfectly okay to not shave or wax — yet submitting to the perils of patriarchy each month.
At one point, removing hair from arms and legs, or facial hair from upper lip and eyebrows, wasn’t a question for me, but once I was an Intermediate student, the last two were added to the monthly runs to the nearby salon
Come to think of it, as someone who has been living in the same vicinity for a good many years, the women working at the salon have seen me grow as they dealt with the hair on my skin.
The cult of hairlessness
We constantly see hair removal cream ads targeted towards women. In every ad, the model is already hairless before applying the cream — making one wonder about the real efficacy of the product and the aversion to body hair presented to us everywhere.
If we look at films, after facing a significant period of hardship — like war — and lack of access to amenities, a man is often shown with an unkempt beard and hair, but women in similar situations are shown hairless, at all times.
The aversion to body hair and never-ending profiteering from it confirm that patriarchy and capitalism go hand in hand even if it is about using femvertising to use hair removal creams to support the ‘cause’ of women empowerment.
"The hygiene defense is such a popular cop-out."
Now as we enter another decade, I wonder more and more about the raised eyebrows, when a woman does not conform to the norms, jeopardising many opportunities because such women are often considered irresponsible because they don’t ‘look after themselves’.
Some seven years ago or so, I remember a young girl coming with her mother to get her upper lip waxed for the first time. However, the mother was very incessant, and did not really bother about the protests which soon transformed into sobs as hot wax was placed above the lip to be ripped off leaving no traces of hair behind. She left the place angrily, shouting at her mother, and while she may be dubbed as a rude child, many wouldn’t think the same for the mother or the society in general for being so heartless to the women.
When asked from women, many do believe that removal of body hair has a lot to do with ‘hygiene’, ‘cleanliness’ as well as looking ‘presentable’. Despite women complaining about the pain, the socialisaition to bear the pain to fit the image expected by society is so strong that they would spend thousands to get it done each month. And guilty as charged, while I am trying to accept my body as it is, I too give in quietly.
Owing to PCOS, 23-year-old Alizeh* has to deal with an unusual growth of hair on her body but while some areas can be hidden, she is left with no option except to remove hair when it comes to her face.
“There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t been made uncomfortable by unwanted stares and unsolicited advice. Since childhood I’ve been shamed for having a “moustache” and “beard”. I used to get so conscious that I’d look into mirrors a thousand times before going out to make sure my face doesn’t have hair.”
“It was like I was fighting against biology, because body hair is natural. I still haven’t learnt to accept my facial and body hair because of years of conditioning and humiliation but I’m trying to accept them,” she puts forward.
Earlier, the artist would get her face waxed each week but she now she goes without the wax for as long as she can. She feels that people still stare at her but now she is accepting herself as much as she can because it is not possible to deal with the excruciating pain every six days or so.
"If you think your armpits or crotch smell, the answer is a shower — not a shave or wax."
“Even my own my family comments on my excessive facial hair and it’s even worse to deal with them because you expect your family to be kind at least,” she asserts.
While there are many women who believe that hair removal is an essential part of hygiene, some are divided about waxing or shaving arms and legs as opposed to underarm and pubic hair, with the latter also having some religious obligation in Islam.
Zara*, a 31-year-old mother of two, feels that bringing young girls for threading or waxing just because they may have more hair growth than others is cruel, but maintains that after a certain age, it needs to be done because of societal expectations.
Counting the costs
With small salons at every corner in most cities, the price paid by women is not just in terms of the pain. Each month, they set aside a budget for hair removal.
Alizeh, who lives in Islamabad, spends Rs600 each month on facial hair and upper lip, but if she goes for eyebrows as well as full body wax, the amount would soar.
Zara, from Karachi, spends around Rs2,000 each month — which includes body wax, upper lip and eyebrows — while Maham* spends Rs2,250 each month without getting her eyebrows threaded. These women get their waxing services at home, so the prices are lower than at salons.
Sameen* from Peshawar, on the other hand, gets waxed every two months and pays between Rs1,000-Rs1,500 each time depending on the type of salon. She usually gets her upper lip threaded by her sister; otherwise she’d have to spend another Rs200 .
A rough estimate of the expenditure goes to show that a woman spends between Rs12,000 to Rs24,000 each year from relatively cheaper services available, and in households with more than one woman, it can go up to Rs50,000 or Rs72,000 each year as well. This is without including services like cleansing, facials or haircuts.
Due to these recurring costs, many women often choose other methods which include buying pricey epilators, or just using razors and hair removal creams to remove hair.
Yet the idea of femininity tied to hairless skins remains alive, no matter what the cost may be.
Is it even possible to opt out?
While it can be difficult to gauge whether women who routinely go through painful hair removal procedures do so as a choice or not — because one may not want to rob them off their agency — there is a lot of debate around waxing being linked to beauty among cis-women.
Aisha, who doesn’t shy away from sporting body hair, feels that one mustn’t talk about what someone else should do with their body. She believes that for some, hair removal may be a hassle but for some it would give the same kind of relief or happiness as getting a new hairstyle or getting a tattoo.
“It's a form of body modification too, and it can be done out of pressure or preference or even particular mood. Personally, I believe my mind has better things to think about than the length of various sets of hair,” she believes.
While the conversation about body hair normally surrounds women, especially cishet women, Aisha adds that it is a systematic way to uphold standards of femininity at the cost of erasing the lived experiences of cis and trans femmes, and of course cis and trans men.
“Trans and cis women are punished for failing to match this hairless illusion (and pitted against each other as part of it) while cis and trans men are shamed for being unable to grow just the right amount of hair — nothing like the pelts of the 1970s, but nothing ‘too smooth’,” she says.
Aisha asserts that since an early age, it is taught that something or other is wrong with our bodies, and even now, she is not wholly comfortable with her body: “Not every act of non-conformity is an act of resistance. Sometimes it's just the recognition that if we only ever lived as we're told to live, we might not have much of a life.”
However she is vehemently against subjecting children to hair removal. “It is painful, medically not recommended and actually advised against by doctors. I don't care if a parent feels defensive about it.”
“Children are not our personal canvas for the projection of our own complexes and their minds and bodies should not be subjected to pain to satisfy those. If this bothers some people, they should well be bothered and they should ask themselves what it is about their baby's body hair that makes them feel bad enough to put their child through a pain he or she (of course, usually a she) is unable to even understand, let alone consent to.”
Aisha maintains a plain stance about the hygiene excuse often put forward, and having studied medical in the past, she stresses on the unrealistic expectations of body hair removal:
“The hygiene defense is such a popular cop-out. If only it was actually backed up by medical evidence. There is nothing intrinsically dirty about body hair but, personally, I find it interesting how sexual mores, anxieties about puberty/sexual maturity as well as the adult body (especially the female adult body) or what it represents mingle to form the bizarre idea that there is something uniquely dirty about the hair in our pubic region and armpits. As if our pheromones would magically disappear if the hair itself were gone and all their effects along with them. It's hair removal that exposes the skin to potential for infection.”
"Maybe being away from home will make me more comfortable with not shaving my legs and arms, at least while the winter stays."
“Back when I was studying for my dental degree, we learned hair is an organ of the body's integumentary system and it serves several purposes from providing cushioning to wicking up excess sweat and preventing the bacterial growth that could otherwise feed on it. Does that sound like the secret to good hygiene is its removal? If you think your armpits or crotch smell, the answer is a shower — not a shave or wax.”
She also mentions another biological — or perhaps psychological — importance of hair that's often overlooked. Referring to Ashley Montagu’s book, Touching, she says that hair plays an important role in the tactile perception of the skin.
“We know each hair follicle is embedded in its own bundle of nerve endings (no wonder removal hurts so much!) I like to think of it like this: the skin is a blind organ but hair is one of the ways it ‘sees’ or feels the world around it. Why would I want to rob it of that?”
An enlightening experience?
All that being said, it would be a lie if I didn't say that the reason I was scared of moving away from Karachi, apart from the people and food, was the woman who came to wax me every month.
The woman who comes over to make me hairless has the most progressive views, whether about inflation, religious minorities or even the Dam Fund, so maybe I had used those intellectually-lit but painful 30 minutes as an excuse to remove body hair, because I try to question my conditioning each day. Though her politics are usually on point, I cannot engage with her on the politics of body hair because that’s her bread and butter.
Maybe being away from home will make me more comfortable with not shaving my legs and arms, at least while the winter stays. In summer, time shall tell if patriarchy wins and I lose, because — to tamper with the Divine Comedy — “Abandon hope all ye who have body hair.”
Illustrations by Namerah Khan
Has your relationship with your body changed as you became more aware of social norms? Share your experience with us at firstname.lastname@example.org