On Hair, There and Everywhere, and Intra-Cultural Shame
by Beejoli Shah
“A girl told me today that I would be a lot prettier if I got my eyebrows threaded. So I told her she’d be a lot prettier if she got surgery to turn her fivehead into a forehead!!”
File that one under the “swing and a miss” column of my sick burn top hits listicle, but biting wit notwithstanding, my mother was unperturbed.
“Maybe you should start threading your eyebrows,” she conceded, staring fervently at the thicket perched above my nose like it was an unsolvable calculus problem.
I was not expecting that response. I was nine.
Any article trending on the Internet right now can tell you how difficult growing up female is, but let me make it clear: growing up female and Indian is about 100x worse. Thanks to my follicular birthright, I was covered in body hair — not just that adorable little unibrow, or even the wispy mustache that would put prepubescent teenage boys to shame, but wrist to shoulder, leg to ladypart thick black hair. The longest relationship I’ve ever been in, 16 years and counting, has been with the nice Indian lady who threads and waxes me bare — a woman who, despite being so skilled at hair removal she made it a career, once commented, “I just don’t understand why your chin hair is so stubborn.” (Me either, Roma Auntie, but I agree with you, it does seem like laser hair removal has really helped, right?)
If you were interviewing me to be an entry-level management consultant at your top four firm, and — in lieu of asking me how many ping pong balls I thought could fit into a Boeing-737 — asked how many hours I’ve spent in my life removing body hair, I wouldn’t just estimate that shit to show you my thinking. I can give you cold hard numbers. 18 years, seven minutes of leg shaving every three days, one hour of arm waxing, eyebrow threading, and myriad other ways to “clean up” the rest of my face every three weeks, and I’m staring down the barrel of 723 and one half hours. Throw on another half hour of laser hair removal (saying nothing of the time I spent crying in the car after laser hair removal, because it hurts that badly), and that’s 30 days of my life dedicated to maintaining the image that I was, as Leonardo DiCaprio puts it in The Wolf of Wall Street, “hairless from the eyebrows down.”
Feminism and the patriarchy notwithstanding, I wax, shave and thread myself into oblivion for two reasons. One, we discuss loudly — in women’s magazines, over boozy brunches, and all day every day on Gchat: sex. The other, we don’t discuss because it’s awkward, uncomfortable, and snaps most of us right back to the elementary school playground: without a wax, we risk being openly mocked for looking like a distant relative of the Bearded Lady.
Once you reach a certain age, there are certain unspoken rules between women. There are lines you just don’t cross with fellow members of the sisterhood. Stealing boyfriends, being passive aggressive, saying “What? I’m not being passive aggressive” when confronted about being passive aggressive — ALL FAIR GAME. But calling out another girl for being hairy — to her face? Literally, never. You might as well throw battery acid on Beyoncé, for all the standing you’d have left in the female community after that.
But here I was, three days into turning 27, staring down the barrel of the most bonkers email I’d ever received, from an ex-girlfriend of a guy I’d barely started seeing, when buried within her attempts to tell me to stop dating him was this gem:
He and his friends have nicknamed you Chewbacca, for crying out loud.
Oh. Okay. I’m nine years old again.
When I relayed this story to my friend Maggie, who is half-Indian, I initially forgot to mention the biggest transgression of all: the girl who sent it to me? She just happened to be Indian too.
After delightfully crowing my cyber bully’s name (an anglicized Indian name so generic, she may as well have christened herself John Smith and called it a day) for upwards of five minutes, Maggie looked at me and matter-of-factly summed it up. “An Indian girl shaming a fellow Indian girl for having body hair? No. No. No. Shut it down.”
And she’s right. That’s not to say that every girl doesn’t have it tough growing up in one way or another based on how she looks, but as my Italian best friend who once got called Werewolf in junior high for her arm hair can attest to, there’s a certain solidarity in shared hirsuteness. Show me an Indian girl, and I can show you a girl who has at some point in her adolescence cried crocodile tears because she had to wear shorts in Phys Ed and some girl — probably a Jessica because it’s always a Jessica isn’t it? — made fun of her goose down legs. Those scars may get threaded, waxed, and plucked away on a biweekly basis, but damn if they don’t grow back.
While Maggie continued to yell my new favorite Indian’s name apropos of nothing for the next hour, I spent the last two glasses of rosé explaining in painstaking detail to Maggie’s husband how there was no way I could be mistaken for a Wookiee, because I had gotten a bikini wax the day before our first hookup, and threaded my upper lip and chin before our last date. It took a third glass of rosé and a tipsy walk home spent peering at my now-baby soft arm hair to realize the bigger lesson: while I might expect another Indian girl to avoid causing this particular and recognizable pain, this woman was fighting a desperate and unwinnable war. It was very likely experience that had taught her where on my now-hairless body to plunge the knife, and in her rush to hurt me, she brought out the weapon she thought worst. All I can do is what Beyonce would do in the face of battery acid — turn my other smooth cheek and wish her the best.
You can find Beejoli Shah on Twitter @beejoli.