When I boarded the 6 train last week, I made the unfortunate mistake of sitting across from you.
There were three of you: All of you appeared to be in your late 40s, and were busy chatting like old-school friends. Only a few seconds had passed when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed you noticing my legs.
Never mind that a man was sitting right next to me, whose calves were also bare, and whose leg hair was many times more thick and dark than mine. No, never mind him, because a man unabashedly being himself in public is nothing new.
You chose instead to point at my legs, pull faces of curiosity, then confusion, then disgust, whisper to each other, then escalate your giggles to straight-up laughter.
In disbelief that 40-something year-olds were behaving no differently than the bullies of my tweenage days, I got up and moved to another part of the train. But that didn’t stop you from treating me like a freak show.
At every quick glance back in your direction, you continued to stare and snicker to each other. I’m pretty sure I saw one of you point your phone camera at me.
At this point, a few other people on the train picked up on what was happening. They looked back and forth at you, then me, then you again. Between your obnoxious mockery and the silent watchfulness of my fellow straphangers, there was far too much attention on me to continue comfortably riding in your train car.
Embarrassed and on the verge of crying, I exited at the next stop. And yes, I heard you laugh even louder as the doors closed behind me, apparently pleased with yourselves for driving a young woman off the subway in tears. Congrats.
The first time I shaved, it was because my 10-year-old self had the audacity to excitedly raise my hand in class. A tuft of soft, peach-like hair had begun to develop there.
Two of my peers grimaced. “Eeewwww! Shave that!”
I pulled my arm down. I did not answer my teacher’s question. That was my first lesson in being ashamed of my body hair.
It wasn’t my last lesson, though. My education in self-hatred continued from girlhood to teenhood to womanhood. It came from all directions and never relented. Every magazine I thumbed through, every advertisement I was exposed to, every TV show, every movie taught me that my body hair was a mistake that needed correcting.
This is our birthright, as females: to be reminded constantly that we are dirty, that we are wrong, and that we must alter and restrict and mutilate ourselves before anyone will acknowledge our humanity. And even then, we will not be seen as human. Always, rather, something less.
I assume that you, too, had been subjected to a lifetime of body-shaming propaganda before our encounter on the subway. How deeply did these messages infiltrate you, to make you defensive at the sight of an unaltered female body? To make you become the forces that subjugated you? To make you hate as hard as what hates you?
Despite being betrayed by my own kind, I still have faith in you. We can learn how to stop perpetuating this toxicity from our dominant, anti-female culture. We can learn how to support and love and be awestruck by each other. We can be the ones to treat each other as human, when no one else will. We can do better.
Here is what I hope for you, and for all women:
I hope one day you grow your leg hair out. And your underarm hair, too. And whatever other hair you’ve been coerced into removing regularly. I hope you get to know your hairs, with all their different lengths, textures and colors.
I hope you let them growgrowgrow, until the uncomfortable prickliness softens up. Until you develop the habit of rubbing your legs when you need comfort. Until it feels weirder to be hairless than not. Until you find the idea of shaving absolutely ludicrous. Until you hear all the anti-hair messages in the movies and on TV and from friends and family and strangers, as utter nonsense.
I hope you let so much time pass, that you forget what it ever felt like to hate your body hair.
I hope one day you know a love of your body so boundless and intoxicating that it emanates from your eyes, your smile, your skin, and graces every person who has the privilege of walking by you.
I hope one day, your mere presence in the world lets girls and women know that they have the right to take up space, give their bodies a chance, and stop deforesting themselves.
I hope you’ll become a catalyst of self-acceptance, inspiring one girl, who inspires her friends, who inspire their teachers, who inspire more women, who inspire their daughters, and their daughters, and their daughters…
… until the day when no one will ever have to know what it’s like, to be pointed at, and laughed at, by three women on the subway.