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An open letter to my body hair

You have always been an obvious part of me.

When other children would be sitting cross legged in assembly – my most dreaded and anxious time –  in their staticky nylon grey shorts or deep pleated skirts, it would not even occur to them to consider that their legs might be subject to the judgement of others.

What was there to judge? Their legs were good at running at playtime, good at hopping on the hopscotch squares and particularly good at suspending them from the railings as they hung upside down. Their legs were also next to bare, or at most, had a smattering of golden fuzz.

Yet, when I sat in assembly and my knees were touching those of the children next to me, there was a very clear difference.

I was very lucky to be able to do those things, too. I ran fast, and beat most of the boys at races. I loved that. But my teacher was very concerned that she could see you, my dark leg hair. Gradually, other children became concerned too. My teacher pulled my Mum aside after school and asked her if she might consider shaving you or having me wear the uniform (cotton, sweltering) tights for the rest of the summer term. My Mum would do no such thing, of course.

The seed had been planted though; I was gross and weird and not a proper little girl, and nothing would be right until I had gotten rid of you at 8-years-old.

Those bleeding shins, ankles and the raised, burning rash all over my legs were preferable to a millimetre of you being visible for the other girls to inspect, judge, and ruin my friendships over.

When I was 12, and all girls had begun puberty (a year or so before any boy would), I would run home on my lunch break to dry shave you off my legs as quickly as possible before a P.E lesson.

Invariably I would forget the evening before, and as a result, I would take at least a layer of skin off my shins. Those bleeding shins, ankles and the raised, burning rash all over my legs were preferable to a millimetre of you being visible for the other girls to inspect, judge, and ruin my friendships over. And they would.

When I was 14, our year group visited France for an ill organised history trip. While we were away, someone started a rumour that people could see the shadow of you on my armpits. A boy called Gareth told me to lift my arms to see if I could touch the ceiling of the coach we had been sat on for three uncomfortable, tedious hours. Yes, I could touch the ceiling and, yes, the evidence of your roots were visible, much to his bum-fluff laden top lip delight. From that moment on, for the final two years of senior school, I was given daily put-downs for being ‘a lesbian’.

When I was 19, single and living in Brighton, you were a daily burden and physical pain. I wanted a settled, monogamous relationship with someone who was simultaneously spontaneous, experimental and yet a grounded, responsible individual. I wanted to fuck someone new every day. It didn’t really matter what type of physical interaction it was; if it was something that could give me a break from the self imposed isolation I had been slathering myself in, even for a few hours, then it was enough. Obviously, I could not do all of this with you being visible to others. It wasn’t up for debate. I had zero pounds and zero pence available to me, and I had one disposable razor with which I would shave every inch of you from my body, every day. You were so thick, and the blade so dull, that it would take up to an hour in the bath to achieve what I considered an ‘acceptable’ shave (the tiniest feel of you on the upward stroke of the area, but nothing to cause chaffing during sex). One guy came over to my dingy, mildew haven of a house for casual sex and after a while of messing about saw that I had a shaving rash on the back of my thighs, just below my bum. He told me, as a matter of fact, that he found it ‘off-putting’ and ‘un-ladylike’. I asked him if he’d have preferred I hadn’t shaved you off, to which he replied, ‘I’m not gay’.

pink razor

It was in the following hours that I decided, as an act of self-love and defiance, I was no longer going to spend the time and effort it took to shave you off. I was no longer going to damage my skin every day removing you, and I was not going to continue to meet the expectations of people who shamed me and all self-identifying women. You, in your simplest form, are evidence of no longer being a child.

For a year, I grew you and you loved it. You flourished into something I did not expect. You didn’t turn me into an unidentifiable feral creature, nor did you change my cleanliness. I didn’t feel or dress any different. I met my long-term partner six months after I started growing you and he did not care.

For all my perceived confidence in my growing of you, though, there was clearly a conditioning that I was finding hard to undo. A deep, solar plexus-gnawing anxiety that I couldn’t shift despite my attempt at bravery. Why was I even considering it as bravery? Why couldn’t I dismiss the very basis of your oppression? I sat down with my partner and asked him if he cared about you, before he told me that he did not. I felt the need to ask. And ask again. And ask again. I felt the need to wear dark, high denier tights or trousers to formal events. I could not wear my shorts in the house if we had visitors. When my Mum asked me if I’d shaved you off, I would lie and tell her I had, because it would save us the hassle of her buying me an (overpriced) pink razor set and telling me to “Use it, for God’s sake”.

I’d see photos from the Big Four fashion weeks: Paris, London, Milan and New York: no leg hair there. I’d watch my favourite radical feminist bands play: none there, either. Where were my hair heroes?

All my beautiful female friends at the time were shaving off their body hair, like they had been since they could remember, and so I used this as a weak justification to get rid of you again. I had been feeling more depressed than usual, and of course I was feeling depressed because I was ugly, and part of my ugliness was you. Was it worth the constant contemplation of how I was the butt of someone’s joke? No. Not then. How could I have expected to be confident when today’s reference for attractiveness was doing the opposite of what I was doing? I’d see photos from the Big Four fashion weeks: Paris, London, Milan and New York: no leg hair there. I’d watch my favourite radical feminist bands play: none there, either. Where were my hair heroes?

But this wasn’t the end. I still flitted between phases with you. I bought into the prescribed ideals, and then I would reject them. I would shave all of you off at the last minute before a night out and feel more feminine than I had felt in an age, my shaved legs looking fantastic in my heels. Three months later, I’d have the best, life affirming, I-feel-like-a-goddess sex in months with you, fully grown, on my akimbo legs.

I want to apologise to you. My inconsistency is not your fault. When I chance upon other women growing and showing their body hair, on those rare occasions, my heart leaps joyfully in the presence of their confidence and rebellion. Yet, I do not apply the same love to you. Try as I might, I always go back to getting rid of you for one reason or another, before keeping you again for a while. I’ve come to realise that this is OK. We do what we need to do to feel good at the time.

Sometimes you help us in the ways we need, and sometimes you don’t. You can be the confirmation of my femininity and my feminism, and you can also bother the hell out of me. Any which way I look at you is OK, because you are my own, to do with as I choose. Nobody decides to keep you or shave you off except me, and there’s no rule that I have to choose one or the other.

What you have taught me is that you empower me, in whatever way I need you to. For this, Dear Body Hair, I thank you.

Top image by Andrew Halloway.

Middle photo by Karolina Mis/Flickr

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