I was eight years old the first time I was shamed for my body hair. “Your legs are so hairy.” Michael said. I looked down at my legs peeking out from under my uniform skirt and dangling down from the cafeteria bench. “That’s gross. You need to shave.” Little girl legs, dirty from the playground ending in ruffled socks. When I informed my mom of the conversation, she let me know kindly that shaving would be an option for me once I had my first period. She also shared her own leg hair shame and a photograph of my grandmother, sitting in a chair, holding a telephone receiver, twirling the cord around her fingers. Her leg hair was clearly visible in the photograph. “It runs in our family.” My dad’s sisters had to draw on their eyebrows. My mom’s family was French.
I mostly forgot about it and continued unbothered by my body until that fateful first shorts day of the season following the arrival of my first period. I furthered my contribution to the pink tax as I chose the junior pink disposable razors with flowers on the bag. This was so exciting! It was a rite of passage of womanhood. I learned to navigate the tricky regions: the knees, the shin bone, the little space behind the ankles where the leg muscle connects to the heel. I figured out the perfect spot to rest my toes for optimal lighting and the least slippery positions.
At first I was only allowed to shave mid-thigh, but when my shorts inched higher than that when I sat down, the hairy section of my leg stuck out like a sore thumb and I was able to convince my mom that it was okay for me to shave my entire leg.
I loved the feeling of it. I would rub my smooth legs together as I waited at the bus stop first thing in the morning. I took pride in choosing my favorite Skintimate shaving cream scent. I was a Raspberry Rain, but my best friend was (the now discontinued) Peaches. Waking up early to shave every morning definitely was not optimal, but if I shaved the night before, you could feel and visibly see the stubble.
I used to wish that I could fill a bathtub with a magical hair removal liquid. Like Nair, but without the burn. I’d tie my hair up in a high bun then slowly ease into it, keeping my arms raised. All the hair would just melt away, disappear. Dark, thick, embarassing hair. On my toes, my legs, my pubes, my happy trail, my hairy back, the stray hairs around my areolas, my armpits, even the tiny baby hairs on my neck. I would have to figure out a way to dip my hands as well. For some reason, I’ve always been okay with my hairy arms. Arm hair was socially acceptable. The only problems it didn’t solve were my sideburns and my eyebrows. For a “hairy person” the only embarrassment I had been spared was a mustache, but if watching my mom in the mirror with a pair of tweezers was any indication, I wouldn’t be spared forever. I would soak in my remover, maybe rinse off, and be magically smooth, desirable, perfect.
I have always had an active imagination.
One day in high school, my period started a few days early. While a friend came to the rescue with a tampon, I hadn’t left first period soon enough. I had bled through my pants. I tried tying a sweater around my waist, but I couldn’t get it to stay or look remotely normal. I attended a private school with uniforms and held out hope that there would be extra clothes somewhere. The nurse had a uniform skirt available. While it just so happened to fit, it left my hairy legs exposed. I burst into tears. The nurse asked my best friend if this was something that happened frequently, questioning my mental health. She called my mom who left work early to come pick me up. I hid in the nurse’s office until she arrived. I missed a day of school because I couldn’t bear having anyone see my hairy legs.
As I got older, hair removal became less about what people would see and more about what people would touch. Nights out would begin with lengthy hair removal. If I didn’t have time for the full routine, everything remained covered for the night.
Shaving was always a prerequisite. Trips to the pool or the beach were delayed or postponed. Pants were worn, even in summer. I even shaved if I had to wear tights, my hair was so dark and coarse that you could see and feel it through thin materials. So much of my life and my time was dictated by my body hair. Not even my body hair, but my perception of how other people would feel or what they would think about it.
I have friends who shave daily, year-round. They do it for their own comfort. Shaving for me was something that was only done for summer or any time in the winter when someone would see my legs. While I appreciated the perfectly smooth feeling, it wasn’t something that I ever did for myself. If no one would see my legs, they remained hairy. I could go for weeks without shaving in the winter. Anytime a school dance or date rolled around, I would have to use two disposable razors, one for each leg to get down to Barbie plastic smoothness.
This fall, as I hid my hairy legs under leggings and jeans, I started paying attention to other things that I kept hidden and covered. My town became engaged in a legal battle to “Free the Nipple.” Inspired by the movement, I began to pay attention to the gender divide in nipple treatment on social media and pop culture. From there, I began to pay attention to the gender divide on everything. I had been raised to see women as equal to men. I had been raised to ignore the ways that I was treated differently simply because of my gender. In wanting to see myself as equal to men, I gladly accepted the rhetoric. However, the facts don’t lie. Nipples are only sexualized and censored when they are attached to women’s breasts. My hairy legs are only shameful and disgusting because they are attached to my female body.
Now, I see these feelings of shame for the sexist stereotypes they are. While so many strong femmes are leading the body hair positive movement, my story is less strong and more Cersei-Lannister-followed-by-Septa-Unella. My shame and discomfort make it even more important for me to break the cycle and live my own truth and define my own beauty. I refuse to do anything simply on the basis that it is expected of me as woman.
I could live in dresses and flower crowns, but high heels are not for me. I don’t wear earrings, but I love all other jewelry. I am comfortable without make-up and I can be comfortable without razors. I get to choose what makes me comfortable, what makes me a woman, what makes me beautiful. I’m done letting other people shame me.
Robin Berl is a highly sensitive person. She’s actively trying to figure out all the shit, both her own and everything else in the world. She writes about parenting and has been published at Parent.Co, SheKnows, and Ravishly. She has a BA in English Literature and Ancient Greek and Roman Studies from the University of Delaware and currently lives in Northern Colorado.