Body Hair Politics: A Brown Girl’s Point of View
Illustration: Erin McPhee
The earliest memory I have of confronting the issue of my body hair was in junior high. It was in India, early 90’s when I had entered a modelling contest. I wore a low-cut black dress with heels, rocking a short spiky haircut. I felt confident knowing that I was bringing a modern flair to the contest—except my legs were totally visibly hairy. As I strutted down the runway, I felt eyes turn to me, including those of the judges. I saw them stare at me up and down, and it was as if my hair follicles internalized that stare and my legs felt like they were on display. I didn’t win the contest and I had a few folks ask me about the hair on my legs after the show at which point, I approached my mom about them, and she told me not to worry about it and that I was too young to be thinking about shaving anyway. I wasn’t allowed to date or truly embrace my femininity until I was old enough to go to college or unless I was to be married. Some of those ideals I was raised with became ingrained into me, governing my behaviour that I still sometimes puzzle over or struggle to grasp.
I didn’t press the issue and life went on. I played ball with my girlfriends in the school courtyard, rocking our sports bras and hairy legs with sneakers on our feet. We had begun our awkward and rocky journey into puberty. This was the time in our lives when we would internalize a lot of shame about our womanhood, and not the sexy kind. We were growing up fast in a world that would impose its morals upon us, and lay down the law as to who we were going to be. During this time of straddling the murky waters between childhood and adolescence, my parents took us, me and my sister, to Toronto, Canada. Ripped out of my old life, away from friends, family and all that was home, I had to start fresh in a brand new country with its own customs and traditions. I was suddenly the outsider, a foreigner trying to fit in, like a checkers piece trying to fight its way in a game of backgammon. The first week of middle school, I wore a grey dress and shoes to class. As I walked past the playground, and down the hallways and into my classroom, I felt everyone staring at me. Some folks whispered as I passed them by, whereas others openly commented on my hairy legs, saying things like, “Hey, new girl, this isn’t how we do things in Canada” and “Whoa, did you see her legs?!” It was as if I was hyper visible, and it was horrible, so I ran all the way home crying where my mom just made me change into jeans, and made me go back to school.
I still remember the shame I felt and the way others had targeted me. I was always liked and well known in India, so to be hated for no apparent reason was really hard on me. I couldn’t understand why the other kids didn’t like me, let alone bully me. I stole a razor from my dad and started shaving for the first time that night. I got nicks and cuts all over my legs and they stung. After that, I started shaving regularly. I was surrounded by a culture that on all fronts taught me that body hair was wrong and something so shameful, that it had to be rid of. That I had to alter my appearance to make myself seem desirable, and that this should be my top priority, especially at the tender age of 11. I mean, I even had Venus tell me that all I had to do to reveal the goddess in me was take a razor to my skin. I didn’t know goddesses had access to a modern supply of shaving products, and that hair-free skin gave women power.
All through high school, I shaved every inch of my body. I was dating a boy so I wanted to appear beautiful to him. Since my mom had no clue that I was stealing my dad’s razors, I used his razors for every part of my body daily. Thus, I didn’t have proper counsel on the most effective and safe method of hair removal. This changed the texture of my hair, from natural baby fuzz to darker, courser, thicker making it even more visible. I was basically chained to my razor trying to branch out into learning about other forms of body hair removal. It wasn’t until I met this white girl in high school, who I would end up dating later, that my outlook on body hair changed. She embraced being hairy, and proudly acclaimed that she hadn’t used a razor in three years and that she especially loved her armpit hair. She would dress in tank tops and skirts showing off her hairy body. At first, I was afraid for her yet in awe of how she navigated the world still so freely and visibly different. Dating her changed me, and for the better because her feminist ways rubbed off on me. I started to feel stronger and more empowered in my girlhood especially with her right next to me. I eventually started to develop a healthier relationship with my body hair. Instead of something I hated the very sight of, it became something I grew to accept and love about myself. I started to think about how women are expected to live up to unnatural standards of beauty and perfection and how unfair that is. The whole concept of body hair removal became a huge conspiracy to me that I had solved or seen through.
It was liberating for sure, except I still noticed a subtle difference in the way that I was treated out and about in the world compared to when I was with her or the ways in which folks responded to her. One time, a bunch of us were on the subway when these men started to harass us. As I chimed in with a bitter retort, they singled me out of everyone and called me a “paki.” I was shocked, and it was as if the words cut right into my skin, and I felt humiliated. When I talked about what happened with my girlfriend, she helped me make sense of it in a way that I was unable to articulate in that moment. She said they picked on me because of my race as a way to isolate me from them, to further solidify the difference between me and them; it still rankles within me.
This is one of the earliest instances of racism I can still remember. It set me apart from the other white girls and the violence pierced through the armor they had helped build. This was something that I had to face on my own and that which made me different from them. My brown skin wasn’t as easy to shrug off as traditional notions of femininity were. I had been put in my place and reminded of the social order. As a woman of colour, I have experienced a lot of violence in my life. I have been bullied in school and even attacked physically on the way home. I have been targeted online and through social media. I have gotten hate mail. It was fun to be a riot grrrl, and I will always look fondly upon the movement and my sisters but sometimes you just don’t want the attention, and sometimes you just want to blend in or disappear in a crowd and have a sense of normalcy. Sometimes the risk is simply not worth it, and I have to think about my safety.
Also, brown girls just have a different hair texture. Our hair is darker, thicker and quite visible. We grow hair everywhere, and for some of us, it’s a constant struggle. A lot of us employ drastic measures to tame our hair such as laser hair removal or electrolysis. When you have experienced the kind of hate that seeps into your bones, and that defines your DNA, you have to learn the hard way how to survive and how important it can be to fit into Canadian society. Some of us don’t want another issue like body hair to further marginalize us. It’s already hard enough to find a place in academia, find suitable employment as well as fruitful careers when you are a woman of colour that sometimes, you have to blend in order to be seen as worthy and valuable.
As brown girls, we are impacted by sexual as well as racialized violence. We also deal with class issues or what our status is in Canada. Some of us face language barriers or financial ones. Our identities are fraught with many complex nuances that we are constantly balancing. As someone who attends family gatherings, weekly trips to the temple, frequents spaces with a mostly South Asian crowd, who also goes to zine fairs, concerts, queer art shows, burlesque shows, as well as the queer bolly-wood scene, I feel like a chameleon—constantly changing and adapting to the environments I am in. I think it’s healthy to be able to express your feelings, and channel them. If you can let the experiences you have define you and shape you, the embodiment of the discrimination you face based on who you are fuel you and your work, you are actively resisting the systems in place that try to control and hurt you. I like to find ways to express myself daily, whether that be through my art, or the choices I make, including writing this blog entry for Shameless as a safer way to publicly vent about my body hair.
Nish Israni is a fierce femme who loves to make magic happen in the form of art, conversations, performances, rioting as well as through community building and solidarity. Writing is her craft. She is the co-conspirator for Masala Militia, a facebook group and community dedicated to women/trans folks of South-Asian descent and the diaspora. She was just published in the Slutwalk Anthology and you can follow her blog at ishmusk.tumblr.com
Get Shameless’ alternative beauty issue on stands January 2016.