What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
A few months ago I went to a discussion group of women in their 20s and 30s. The topic was hair, and although the leader clarified that hair on all parts of the body were up for discussion, the conversation was mainly focused on the hair on our heads. Which made for an interesting and thought-provoking discussion in itself, but I was a bit surprised that the talk never strayed further south. Because I know I’m not the only one who's ever struggled with accepting hair that's not confined to her head.
I should clarify: I’m not talking about hirsutism or anything even close. Nope, I’m just your garden-variety white Jewish woman whose dark hair isn’t only found on her head or the other usual places.
As an adolescent, I felt excruciatingly self-conscious in those early days of spring when, finally in short sleeves, my arm hairs stood out in sharp contrast against my winter-white skin. The arm hair was even worse than the leg hair, because at least that it’s acceptable—even expected—to shave your legs. The one time I cautiously broached the topic of shaving my arm hair with my mother, she shot me down at warp-speed. She also, however, showed me how to use Jolen cream bleach on my upper lip.
I haven’t been anywhere close to a box of Jolen since the late 1990s. But I can still smell the sharp scent of the grainy concoction as it sat just under my nose and I perched on the edge of the bathroom counter, trying not to look at the clock. Time seemed to slow down when I smeared it on, just like it did on the few occasions I experimented with Nair and at-home waxing. The time spent applying, waiting, removing, and then doing the whole thing again because whatever I was using was just no match for the coarse, dark hair—well, at least I could read in between application and removal. It’s harder to ignore the money spent on all those treatments, although at least I got them at the drugstore.
But finances eventually played a large part in helping me accept my hair in all its locations. Living in New York after grad school, endlessly looking for stable employment and relying on savings and occasional freelance work, brought my priorities into focus pretty darn fast. Paying rent and buying groceries were necessities; going out with friends made the list too, if only because having a social life helped keep me sane. But spending money I didn’t have battling body hair that, more often than not, only I was seeing eventually struck me as ridiculous and unnecessary.
Who was I worrying about this hair for? Not for any potential employer, not for the friends that were probably too preoccupied with their own appearance issues to even notice mine. And any guy that was going to reject me because of an unwaxed bikini line wasn’t a guy I could see myself with long-term, anyway. So even when I finally had a job and a stable paycheck, “stress about body hair” had moved so far down my list of personal neuroses that it barely ranked at all.
These days I do what makes me feel comfortable, which means bare legs and underarms. When I notice the hair on my arms, I feel a twinge of regret for the self-conscious adolescent I was, so worried about every aspect of her appearance, even the ones that were obvious only to her. And that helps me keep other, more current worries about how I look in perspective. And that helps me keep other, more current worries about how I look in perspective.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t still spend too much time looking in the mirror, scrutinizing tiny hairs when they make an appearance on my chin. I grab the tweezers and swiftly pluck them out, even as I know they’ll likely grow back. But that’s okay, because this is who I am: an adult woman with hair on her head, and the usual places, and some less-than-usual ones, too.