Not bragging, this is important back story information: my memory is incredible. No, seriously. I have vivid memories from my first birthday, I can still, at age 38, name all the students in my class pictures from kindergarten on up (and I went to a different school every year until 5th grade), and I am able to easily recall very specific details about books I have read or events I’ve attended or conversations I had from my entire life.
But this is a story about body hair. I woke up with it on my mind thanks to a photo I took last night of my son sleep-snuggling me in bed. After I posted the photo to my Instagram, I realized that the hair on my chest was pretty visible. I stared at the tiny screen in my hand for quite a while, simultaneously debating whether just to delete the post or stay proud of who I am and leave it be. Ultimately, I decided that if a little bit of my chest hair offends someone, that is their problem and not mine, and anyway if anyone even notices it other than me, they probably wouldn’t say anything anyway. Welcome to the latest step in my journey to myself. Now I am going to rewind this story by about 32 years. Join me on a tour of my body hair timeline?
One day in the first grade, my best friend, Bridget and I were sitting in a concrete tube on the playground, talking about whatever 7 year old kids talk about, when Bridget asked me if I had any hairs on my privates yet, because she had a few and was curious about them. I couldn’t believe that I was not the only one! We talked about the 5 or 6 little hairs we’d each recently noticed on ourselves, wondering what it all meant, and felt solidarity in our precocious puberties, even though neither of us knew anything about any of that. Bridget said that she thought hairs on your privates meant that you were a girl and that someday you’d have a whole lot of hairs there like her mom and big sister did. I told her that I hoped someday I could have a beard on my face like my dad, and Bridget laughed at me and said that girls don’t grow beards, Silly. –File that under “Childhood Premonitions” if you’d like–
When I was in fourth grade, ten years old, I was shopping for summer clothes with my mother when she decided that the aisles of TJ Maxx would be best location to have the discussion to explain that wearing tank tops that summer would only be okay if I would let her show me how to shave my armpits. I could feel her disappointment in my body as she even said to me that she hadn’t been expecting to have this conversation with me at such a young age. Evidently, the jungle growth under my arms required intervention before I could be deemed socially acceptable enough for summer vacation. I felt so angry and I adamantly told her that I am just a kid and I don’t care about my hairy armpits and I don’t want to shave. But at age 10, you’re just a little girl who doesn’t have a voice yet and so that night the forest was graded by the classic pink lady shaver that’s blazed the trail to adolescence for so many of us . –Dear Younger Self, Let’s just internalize this experience. It’s a good foundation for a host of neuroses later in life. Trust me, Older Self–
Five years later, I came home from school one day to find a little box of cream hair bleach on my bed with a note that said only “Love, Mom.” Humiliated and scared, I threw the box in the trash and yelled at her to butt out of my life. She said she was only trying to help. Help what, I still wasn’t sure. But I spent hours that evening studying my face, lip, and chin. I’d barely even noticed my little dark mustache before and I certainly hadn’t felt concern about it enough to bleach it. Why would I bleach it? What was wrong with me? –Insert mad amounts of self-consciousness here–
By the time I was 20, I couldn’t deny it any longer. I definitely had more hair on my face and body and it was noticeable. Here’s the short list of mortifying experiences from this era: young campers at the Girl Scout camp where I worked asking me why I had chin whiskers/mustache/side burns like their daddies, my first gynecologist asking if I felt like doing anything about the amount of hair he noticed on my stomach, thighs, and privates, and close friends and girlfriends/lovers trying to mention my facial hair casually and lovingly offering to support me if I decided I wanted to do something (I didn’t then, but I appreciate that love now. Thanks y’all!). The list is longer, but my point is made: my offensive facial hair obviously bothered a lot of people in my life and maybe it should be bothering me more than it did in its current, unaltered state. Maybe I should get rid of it so people will stop noticing me.
I shaved my chin, neck, jawline, and side burns for the first time on the night before my 21st birthday. I felt sick for doing it, but also fascinated by my smooth face and I knew I was addicted, immediately. And since no one ever mentioned my facial hair again, I must have been successful, right?
As good as I felt after that first shave, I had no idea that I had just opened the door to a terrible closet full of fear, anxiety, and shame. From that day forward, I would shave my face every day for the next 15 years. Every. Day. It became a habit and a ritual and a necessity. Now that my facial hair was a secret, I was terrified that someone would find out. I would beat myself up in the shower every single day as I shaved, playing horrible self-talk “You’re a beast. A hairy monster. You are a piece of worthless shit.” Truly awful stuff to tell yourself on a daily basis, but that’s what I did. I hated myself for growing dark hair on my face and body. I never felt beautiful or sexy. I didn’t believe lovers who told me otherwise. I questioned their motives for lying to me.
I also became obsessed with taking a shower daily. I had to be able to shower so I could shave! I love to go camping (I was a summer camp director professionally, for crying out loud), but still to this day I have never been backpacking or taken any kind of a long outdoors trip because it would require me to be away from a shower-source. I know I would love it, but fear has kept me paralyzed for two decades. Any sort of traveling meant that I would work out when and where I would be able to shave before anyone else was awake or see me. I had a plan with my sister that if I ever had to be hospitalized or unconscious for any period of time that she would promise to shave me. That’s some deep shame I felt. Out of necessity, I morphed into a cheerful morning person, an early riser not because I love the sunrise, but because of anxiety that a lover might see my morning whiskers and not love me anymore or a colleague might catch a glimpse of a shadow on my face and make a judgment or gossip about me. It was exhausting work, keeping my hairy secret.
So fast forward about 15 years. For the sake of brevity (ha!) I won’t go on with more details of the razor burn, whiskers, and self-loathing that decorated my twenties and early thirties. Skim that page and land in the next chapter which started, on a whim, about 26 months ago.
December 2011. I mentioned to my partner that I wanted to have laser hair removal done on my face. I’d mentioned it casually before, but it always felt like an untouchable gift of the privileged and most certainly not something I could actually imagine doing for myself. This time, my out loud wishing was met with my partner’s loving and supportive, “You should look into it for real. See if we could finance it. It would be so worth it.”
She couldn’t be serious! But okay! Maybe I could do it. So I researched and called and found a good deal with a reputable company and set up an initial consultation. Ignorant to the life-changing experience on the other side of the doors, I sat in the office with my partner as the physician’s assistant explained the process to us and told me that I was an ideal candidate. We signed the financing paperwork, made one more promise to each other that $135 a month would mean a pretty significant tightening of our budget, but if this procedure could do what it promised, then yes, it would be worth it in the end. My partner never once hesitated or balked. She kissed me and reminded me that I am worth it. I didn’t believe her, but I wanted to. And then the PA said that I could have my very first procedure done right then and there. That day my life changed and my relationship with my body hair took another step in it’s journey to that photo on Instagram.
So now what? I religiously went to every appointment, once every 8 to 10 weeks for 18 months! My face is not hairless, but my face doesn’t have that freshly shaven smoothness or a five o’clock shadow anymore. I haven’t touched a razor in almost two years. Am I proud of my face now? Did laser hair removal fix my negative self-talking and shame? Well, I no longer call myself a hairy beast daily. So that’s good for my mental health.
Only now I am examining my relationship with hair so much more than before. And I am examining my CONTROL over my hair. Right around the last time I shaved my face, I also stopped shaving my legs and underarms. I have an obsessive, possessive-boyfriend relationship with all the other hair on my body. I love my apey legs and my furry pits. About six months ago I stopped shaving the hair on my boobs and chest. My son calls my chest hair “Mommy’s feathers” and I LOVE that more than imaginable. I wonder if I’d be so open and able to delight in my furry feathers if I had never had the lasering done. I don’t think so. I think that taking control of my facial hair was empowering to me and has allowed me to feel like I have more freedom to express myself the way I want to and on my own terms.
Sometimes I also wish that I had never done it, because with my newly discovered gender playfulness and Pride and Body Hair™ I think I’d grow a pretty nifty beard and own it… like a BEAST.