navigating hair as an indian-canadian woman
I am seven years old, sitting in the car next to one of my family friends. The light from the street lamps occasionally flits into the dark car, illuminating parts of our skin.
“Look at my arms,” she tells me. Through the dimmed glow of fluorescent yellow light, I catch a glimpse of her tanned arms. I look at her, puzzled.
“There’s so much hair on them,” she whispers, her voice cloaked in shame.
I have hair on my hands too. Dark and wispy, I can see them on my arms, like thin grass from seedlings in the spring.
“I have them too,” I tell her.
“How come the white girls in our class don’t? Why is it just us?” she wonders, her pupils widening in the dark.
I hastily change the subject, afraid and unsure of the answer to her question. But through the years, I have carried this memory with me. I remember it every time I go in for a waxing appointment and my legs are looked at with disgust. I remember it when a friend points at the small hairs that sprout on my upper lip.
“Smooth and clean,” my aesthetician exclaims as she painfully rips off sections of my hair. I grit my teeth, cognizant that my outfit the next day depends on my hairless legs. After each appointment, the aesthetician looks at me with a proud smile, as if my body has been transformed with each wax. As I walk out of the salon, I feel oddly empty, pruned to a sanitized perfection. And every two weeks, my body fights back, wildly sprouting dark hairs at an even more rapid rate, refusing to be tamed. The battle continues.
I am not alone in these trials. A poll conducted by Jezebel reports that women spend over 1,728 hours in a lifetime waxing or shaving. The economic cost of hair removal is even more surprising. The Atlantic reports that the average woman who shaves spends more than $10,000 on hair removal over the course of her lifetime, while a woman who waxes will spend more than double this amount. Given the exorbitant amounts of time and money we spend on bodily hair removal, it is interesting to note that shaving and waxing provide no biological benefits. In fact, Nature Magazine reports that bodily hair follicles are crucial to providing a productive ecosystem for the human microbiome. In other words, our body hair is beneficial for our health. Why, then, do we spend so much of our time and energy on hair removal? To better understand how hair removal has been inculcated in modern culture, we must turn to the historical forces which have led to current day practices.
In the early 18th century, European settlers chastised the hairless skin of indigenous peoples. They found hairlessness to be a strange phenomenon of the indigenous community. Hair removal was, in fact, considered a violent and brutish practice by European settlers. It was only when Darwin published Descent of Men that social conceptions surrounding body hair were transformed. According to evolutionary theory, men were deemed to be hairier, while women were characterized as less hairy, smoother, and more feminine. An 1893 study proclaimed that insane women had thicker and more copious amounts of hair than sane women. According to 18th-century scientist Havelock Ellis, women who were hairy were considered more likely to be criminals and display strong characteristics of animal vigor.
It is evident, then, that hair became a medium of social control. American women in the 1900s aspired to have smooth, clean, hair-free skin. Body hair became a distinction of class, with middle-class women employing hair removal techniques to distinguish themselves from lower-class and immigrant women who couldn’t afford to do so. This was further exploited by corporations in the 1900s, when Gillette launched an aggressive marketing campaign focused on helping women achieve beautiful, smooth underarms. This sentiment was carried throughout pop culture, with magazines lauding the clean, smooth, attractive woman. Ads with the captions “Unloved” attempted to characterize hairy women as lonely. As new hair removal techniques emerged over the course of the 19th century, the practice of shaming hairy women and adulating women with smooth bodies continued. And so, hair has become a powerful product of racial, political, and corporate forces, ultimately changing the way women perceive themselves.
As a woman of South Asian origin, shaving and waxing is a necessary means to exist within the fabric of society the Western world has imposed. While my long eyelashes and dark, defining eyebrows are celebrated, my legs and arms are scorned in their natural state. And yet, I have my moments of rebellion in the dark winter months, when I stop battling my body and let nature take its course. It is during these cold and silent months that I become accustomed to seeing the way my hair curls on my body, dark and liberated, loud and defiant.
I sit with my nine-year-old cousin in a movie theatre, when she turns to me and asks why she has hair on her upper lip.
“Everyone makes fun of me for having a moustache,” she says, earnestly looking up at me. In her eyes, I see my bewildered seven-year old self, hastily pushing down my long sleeves to cover the hair which grow on my skin. I look into her wide, doe-like eyes and uncover my sleeve to reveal my own unshaven arm hair. “It’s natural,” I tell her.
Whether we women choose to shave, or not to shave, is a highly personal choice. And yet, it is my hope that through small acts of resistance—encouraging young women to be proud of who they are, acknowledging that beauty itself is a fluid construct—we can create a more accepting, inclusive, and free society.