BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
I stood next to the white lines on the pavement, looking down at my legs. Pointy black hairs stuck out like porcupine quills. I was embarrassed. I was 11 years old. Other girls in my fifth grade class had already started to shave their legs, bragging about it in huddled groups by the hopscotch lines.
In an overly large v-neck sweater, a shapeless plaid skirt, and Doc Martens, I would always stand at the edge of the group, feeling lost. This is when the taunting began. It was usually always the girls.
After switching schools in the seventh grade due to excessive bullying, I became friends with a group of girls. We often slept over each others' houses, deciding what lip gloss color looked best, discussing which boys in the class we liked, what we wanted to be when we grew up.
I begged my mother to let me start wearing makeup, shave my legs, start going to school dances. I desperately wanted to be grown up--as a child, I never actually wanted to be a child. Being a child felt helpless, and after awhile, I knew the games I played were just games.
I vividly remember always watching my mother apply make-up before going out, mixing deep purples with golds, her cheeks shimmering like stars melting into wax. I was 12 years old when I applied a pink lip gloss for the first time. I discovered my lips.
Ever since, my fascination with fashion and cosmetics only grew--I loved to experiment as much as I could. I still do. However, there came a point where I could no longer go out without applying a fresh face of foundation, or shaving every inch of body hair that grew. I hadn't learned to 'bare it all.’ To be naked and not feel naked.
Up until recently, I would shave every other day like clockwork. I used to feel as if I could only have short hair if I was a “real feminist.” I don’t know why, I felt as though short hair was my identity—somehow, it set me apart from others, from the kinds of people who I felt isolated by. Then, a few years ago on a whim, I decided to let my hair grow. Because fuck, it’s just hair, right? Who cares?
Well, it’s never just hair. Our aesthetic choices always represent more than that.
I didn't even know what my face actually looked like with long hair. Unlike many women who dread the scissors, I yearn to change, to rebuild myself. As I began to grow my hair out, I began to wonder what the rest of my body would look like if I grew all of my hair. Fast forward: I stopped shaving. Everything.
It’s not that I felt as if I would be less attractive or ‘feminine’ if I had body hair. Ideas of masculinity and femininity are merely societal expectations and structures to begin with. And I definitely don’t care what anyone else thinks. It’s just that I never knew what my adult body looked like, and it was a matter of the comfort of complacency.
I had been shaving my legs, arms, and pits since I was 11 years old. I was raised to believe that's just what women did. It never occurred to me to question it, even as I grew older and self-identified as a feminist.
So, I began an experiment, a no-shave Movember experiment a month early. I let myself grow the hair on my legs and underarms. At first, I hated it, because my legs became so itchy and my stubble reminded me of being 11 years old again. It’s been about two months at this point—I didn’t have a goal in mind, just curiosity. I discovered something: I didn't care. I actually kind of liked it. Except when I had to show other people.
It was clear that I was more self-conscious than I initially realized—hairy armpits were one thing, but for some reason, revealing my hair legs were another. Wearing transparent tights made me feel naked, so I avoided them. Even going to the gynecologist made me blush—as I sat with my legs in the cold, queasy stirrups, I had a mini-anxiety attack having my doctor and his assistant see my legs.
Why was I was comfortable in my personal life, not actually minding the way it looked, but in public, I felt ashamed? Yet every time I shower, I still refuse to shave. It’s a strange duality, of not knowing which version of myself to accept, of what is a societal pressure versus a preferred aesthetic.
If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that hair is a charged subject, in all ways racial, sexual, social, cultural, and geographical. When I was a high school English teacher, I taught “The House on Mango Street.” In one chapter, Esperanza talks about how everyone in her family has different hair. She internalizes her observations in a way where she clearly feels uncomfortable about her own, as if her being different from other girls means she can't be attractive.
I also taught “A Raisin in the Sun,” where Beneatha is encouraged to process her hair. And when she stops, her mother goes crazy.
When I would talk about hair with my students, their answers were varied, but most of all, I encouraged them to think on their own. To break away from tradition. So, why was it so hard for me to do the same?
Why are women expected to be “hairless?” Why did I feel the need to adhere to these strange standards, when they serve little purpose? We praise men for having beards, yet no one praises women for having leg hair, arm hair, pubic hair, any type of hair that isn’t on your head.
I don’t care what anyone does, but perhaps it’s time we make ourselves uncomfortable, and do what we normally wouldn’t. What kind of message are we sending to young girls that if we have hair, we are less desirable? Or that if we change how we look, somehow, it will have negative consequences.
While I’m not saying we need to idolize Yoko Ono’s bush, it might be time to stop and think for ourselves a little more. Maybe I’m feeling a little rebellious, maybe I’m feeling lazy, or maybe I’m feeling attractive. Whatever the case is, I’m just glad I’m not limiting myself anymore. And I'm thankful for that.
Don’t let them tame you.