Editorial Note: To be a feminist is a bi-monthly column that features personal stories documenting the innermost emotions, vulnerabilities, and contradictions that every feminist encounters while trying to push through varying degrees of patriarchy in private, professional, and public spaces..
Just recently, I shared an Instagram reel from a content creator about what it means to be feminine. She pointed out her acne and her strong jawline, but what struck me was the fact that she shamelessly showed off her facial hair. reel.
I would like to believe that I have consciously called myself a feminist for at least four years now. I followed my journey of learning body positivity which evolved into understanding that everyone is beautiful in their own way. Despite, after seeing the reel, I felt compelled to share it because I came up with the idea of embracing body hair‘extraordinary‘.
Why does body hair mean so much to us when it is universally known that its growth is not an anomaly? The archaic notion of body hair as a gender identifier doesn’t stand the test of time, and my brain agrees, not to mention that the concept reinforces gender binaries that exclude many people.
But years of internalizing distorted body norms will take a little longer to unlearn. No matter how comfortable I claim to be in my own skin, my instinctive urge to put my hand down if I’m wearing a sleeveless top or my constant itch to pull down my crop top don’t agree with me.
Many of these notions are fixed in our consciousness as a precedent by our parents and society, from the beginning of our childhood. The mother who scolded me for raising my hands because I had dark armpits, the brother who asked me not to wear skirts because of my hairy legs, the friend who said he doubted I was a boy because of the hair on my chin – the list goes on.
Those random comments that were masked like ‘light suggestions‘ (the surname ‘bear‘ was a particular success) slowly but surely built in me the idea that I was not desirable because I had more body hair. Add PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) and hirsutism (excessive growth of dark, coarse hair) to the mix, and you have a recipe for self-esteem disaster.
My journey to get rid of body hair started with Veet, depilatory cream, in sixth grade. It took me exactly two days to figure out that hair removal cream and underarm lightening roll-ons were absolutely not a good combination for my skin. But the ingrained insecurity in me was so persistent that it took the peeling of my skin for me to stop using them.
That didn’t mean I had learned my lesson. I have experimented with other hair removal creams, waxing and shaving. Little did I know it had become an obsession, until I used all my allowances to buy myself an epilator set which was worth five thousand rupees. I remember the feeling of frustration and regret that followed when I realized it was nothing more than a razor.
For a little while I tried to console myself that my excessive hair growth was due to PCOS and that it was fine because I had a medical condition. However, I quickly realized that the acceptance of body hair due to medical conditions such as PCOS and adrenal virilism (development of male secondary sex characteristics in women) succumbed to biological essentialism – the idea that a person’s personality and characteristics like femininity or masculinity come from their innate essence, and that a medical condition is the only exception that can reasonably exist.
Fortunately, because of the feminist discourses I had participated in at the time, I realized how problematic it would be to go that route. I was indirectly embracing a line of thought that values hair on male bodies and equates it with masculinity, virility and sex appeal, while eschewing female bodies to wear it.
Read also : Femininity and fashion: the conflict between dressing to fit in and being a feminist
A look at advertisements for hair removal products shows how, in addition to blatantly portraying hairless women as desirable, our visual culture tries to reinforce the narrative that it’s more comfortable for women to get rid of body hair. Phrases like ‘smooth and velvety skin‘ juxtaposed with images of young girls laughing and rejoicing in their freedom, and addressing ‘other bodies‘ with adjectives like ‘thorny‘, add to this story.
I had also bought into this marketing technique, feeling agitated every time I saw my hair grow back. One of the very few good things that came out of lockdown for me was restricted access to lounges, which made me realize that continuing my routine with my ‘hairy body‘ is actually quite comfortable.
But what wasn’t so comfortable was the awkward sex conversation I had with a friend of mine about the hair’the low‘ once we have become sexually active. Looking back on that episode, I’m appalled at my decision to place the approval of a random person who might see me naked, on my fear of sharp razors near my genitals.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate my natural hair a little more, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely free of my internalized patriarchal conditioning. I feel like a hypocrite every time I back away from my hairy arms. This journey of unlearning, at least for me, is one that comes and goes.
Some days I feel divine in my unshaven limbs and others I stare longingly at my razor. The compromise I’ve been able to make so far is that I won’t spend money on hair removal at salons. I’m also not willing to pay a pink tax for razors’specially designed for the woman in me‘. I vowed to stick to normal razors and use them sparingly.
Nevertheless, there is a treacherous little voice whispering to me:What if you wanted to shave? It’s your body, your right.” I will not shame anyone of their choice not to keep their hair because each body must be able to assert its own autonomy. But I’m also thinking hard about this question: If my idea of beauty, and by extension bodily autonomy, is influenced by norms that were never inclusive and designed to take advantage of women’s insecurities, is that really autonomy?
Read also : ‘Isn’t fangirling feminist?’: Loving A Bollywood star and enjoying cricket while being a feminist
Featured illustration: Ritika Banerjee for feminism in India