I’m in fifth grade, and I’ve been wanting to shave my legs since I realized that was an option. My mom buys me a bottle of Nair instead. She says most people only shave their calves, but she has fine, thin hair, and I end up doing my whole legs pretty soon. I shave my fingers and toes, too.
I’m in sixth grade, and I have a unibrow. It’s the early ’00s, and thin, delicate eyebrows are in. Mine are huge. My mom won’t let me wax them yet. She has thin, delicate eyebrows. I end up using Nair on the spot between my eyebrows. It’s red for the rest of the evening, but I look fine by morning.
Later that year, a fellow sixth grade boy asks me if I’m growing a bush. One of my friends has to tell me what that means.
I’m in sixth grade, and I have a unibrow.
I shave my legs even in the winter. I soon learn that most people don’t shave their legs every day to keep them hairless. Some women only have to shave every few days, and you can’t tell the difference. My legs are never completely smooth, even when I’ve just shaved.
In maybe eighth grade, I start shaving my bikini line. I’ve had hair down there for years, but I’ve only recently noticed that it might show when I’m wearing a swimsuit. I don’t shave it all. I figure that I will at some point, but I never do. I’m tall and have thick legs and spend so much time shaving already.
I learn the term “hermaphrodite” in science class. A fear plants deep inside me that maybe I’m not really fully a girl; maybe I was born as a little of both, and that’s why I have all this hair.
I have hair on my upper lip. I don’t know when it got there, but my older brother and my mother have both commented on it. I bleach, wax, try hair-removing cream. Never shave, though—that’ll make the hair grow back thicker.
A fear plants deep inside me that maybe I’m not really fully a girl; maybe I was born as a little of both, and that’s why I have all this hair.
I learn that some other girls shave or wax their arms. I can’t stop noticing how dark the hair on my own arms is. I try keeping them hairless for a summer, but it’s so much work.
The hair starts sprouting on my chin. My mom buys me a fancy contraption that burns off the hair. It’s somewhat effective. It hurts sometimes. I start shaving my belly.
Hair on women’s faces is a common punchline, a shorthand way to indicate that a girl is unattractive. There’s a reason the Bearded Lady can be found at a freak show. I learn that older women respond in horror when they find one or two coarse hairs on their chin.
I see an endocrinologist. He puts me on birth control and gives me a cream. They don’t help. I get laser hair treatment. It doesn’t help.
By college, I’m using a combination of bleaching and an as-seen-on-TV product that’s essentially sandpaper on a bit of plastic to keep the hair less noticeable.
Hair on women’s faces is a common punchline, a shorthand way to indicate that a girl is unattractive.
I go to a really liberal college and become a feminist. I meet a lot of women who don’t shave their legs or armpits. One of them notices that I shave my belly and asks why. I don’t have an answer. I don’t think that women SHOULD have to be hairless, but I never stop wanting to be. I switch to waxing my belly instead.
I spend a summer as a camp counselor, with limited privacy or mirror access. By the end of the summer, the hair is more noticeable than ever. Nobody has said anything to me about it. It’s long enough that I can wax it, though.
I take a science class in gender and sexuality. I learn about genetic factors that can influence gender, so that someone with XY chromosomes might appear “female,” or someone might be born with genitalia that doctors decide needs to be changed. I fear that one day I will discover that I am not as “female” as I’m supposed to be.
I start seeing my first boyfriend. I feel embarrassed if he touches my neck. I refuse to acknowledge the hair for years, even though I know he can see and feel it himself.
I learn more and more about gender identity. I learn about transgender people, genderqueer people, nonbinary people, and intersex people. I learn that you don’t have to “pass” as a woman to be a woman. I learn that gender has been taught to me in such an oversimplified way, but I can never get the fear of not being feminine enough out of the back of my mind.
Waxing and plucking isn’t enough. I can feel it and see it whenever I look. The hair is never long enough to remove easily but it is always too long. I’m still holding out on shaving, though, because I know my skin is never smooth and hairless when shaved, but bumpy and angry and sprouting more hair.
I learn that gender has been taught to me in such an oversimplified way, but I can never get the fear of not being feminine enough out of the back of my mind.
I’m always anxious with new partners. Will they notice the hair on my chin? Will they mind the hair on my stomach and around my nipples? Will they expect my vulva to be totally shaved? I’m worried that it’s so uncommon to have any pubic hair at all that both women and men will be put off by it.
I see another endocrinologist. She prescribes me an androgen blocker that should take a couple months, and might not be effective at all.
Here’s the truth of it: women have hair. Some women have more of it than others. Some women choose not to remove theirs, but all women are taught that it’s preferable to be hairless.
And even knowing that it’s a social construct, and that there are companies profiting off my desire to appear hairless, I still buy boxes of wax strips with pictures of Photoshop-smooth faces and pink razors that never seem to shave quite close enough. And I haven’t yet found within myself the desire to stop.
Photo by Allef Vinicius.