I remember the day that I learned there was something ugly and wrong with me like it happened yesterday.
The summer after third grade, when I was nine, I was invited for a day trip to the beach in Brooklyn, NY. It wasn’t hot enough for a bathing suit, but we were all in shorts and t-shirts. It was such a beautiful day and I remember being joyful in body and mind. We ran up and down the beach chasing waves and I can still feel the quality of light as it danced on the water and reflected back up to my face from the sand. I have always had thick and beautiful hair and it was pulled back into a braid so the end of it rhythmically thumped on my back between my shoulders as I ran.
We finally stopped for a moment to take a break and all of us girls sat in a circle and chatted about the things that nine year old girls chat about. There was laughing. After a rest and Twinkies—-it was the early 80’s so you could still give your children baked goods that would never go bad and drive a whole bunch of kids around without seatbelts—-we were back up to run and play. We were loosely playing tag and I was the “it”. All the girls scattered and there was more laughter and light bouncing off the ocean, on our ponytails, and glistening on the waves of the thumping sea. That is when my friend’s mother looked at me standing there, deciding who to attempt to tag first, and said, “Sharon! You have hairy legs like a monkey! Little monkey legs!”. She went back to smoking a cigarette and talking with the other woman who was there with her. I, on the other hand, was changed forever.
They were my legs, so this wasn’t the first time I had seen them. But, it was the first time I had seen them as “hairy”. It was the day I discovered that there was something ugly about me. I had monkey legs. Once home, I immediately took a shower and used a razor to shave my legs. It was a useless attempt to set things right again. But, even with my smooth and hair free legs, I was to remain “Monkey Legs” in my mind’s eye. There was something ugly about me that couldn’t be erased by laser, wax, or razor. My mother was livid. She was not livid that my friend’s mother had called me monkey legs. She was enraged that I used her razor and that I shaved. Now, it appears, I was stupid too because, apparently, shaving only temporarily removes the offending evidence of my being a mammal. I remember my mother yelling, “The hair will grow back Sharon and once you shave you have to shave for the rest of your life!”. The rest of my life seemed, at that moment, to be an awful long time to both shave and suffer the affliction of Monkey Legs.
It turns out that you don’t have to shave for the rest of your life. For the most part, I have, but there have been a few times when I haven’t. One of the most memorable was a summer that I spent living in a tent in Michigan and leading outdoor adventure trips for children. You see, without warm running water and a razor and when you are camping with fifteen, eleven year old children for ten days and caring for their every need, meal, and emotion, you simply don’t have the time to worry about your monkey legs. Monkey legs be damned because I have to set up tents for fifteen kids and make sandwiches. When I visited my boyfriend in the middle of the summer, he became physically ill at my touch. Even in the dark, he said, “Your body feels like a man’s body.” I didn’t bother to ask how he knew that. Why didn’t my body just feel like my woman’s body, but with more hair than usual? He begged me to shave, but I had to go back to camping in the woods and it wasn’t worth the time. Actually, it was so much hair that shaving wasn’t going to be an option for hair removal. At the end of the summer, I went home and heard my sister and mother giggling and whispering as they looked upon me asleep with my legs sticking out from the sheet covering me. “It looks like a man’s legs!”
Before I went back to college that fall, I had my legs waxed of the offending hair, but I kept my hairy pits for a longer time as a nod to the rising tension in my heart around this thing about me that was so ugly and betrayed my gender. Truly, I didn’t like the way my legs looked so hairy, but none of the men that I worked with on those camping trips had treated me in a different way. Maybe there wasn’t something so wrong with me after all? Did being myself make me look like a man? Like a monkey? Was it ever going to be possible to be myself and be feminine and beautiful? If only I could turn back time and go back to that version of me that didn’t think twice before wearing shorts to the beach without shaving and that only felt the power to run and dance in my strong legs. What if my boyfriend had embraced me and my hairy legs? What if being natural had turned him on instead of making him sick? The ugly thing about me actually nauseated a man who loved me. Now that I am older, I understand more about the dance of attraction in long term monogamous relationships. I know that open communication about how to nourish attraction is important. But, actual nausea? That’s pretty harsh.
When my mustache started to darken in middle school, I discussed my options with my mother and friends. The consensus was that shaving would just create more thick and dark stubble, so it seemed that bleaching the fuzz was my best option. In the movie, Reality Bites, Winona Ryder’s character used cream hair remover on her upper lip when preparing for a date. I tried that once and ended up hairless, but with a bright red strip above my lip that would break out in hives when I washed my face. Some of the hives got scabs and took weeks to heal. Not attractive. My mother and father joked that there were men who liked women with mustaches, but that we didn’t like those types of men. So, not only was there something ugly and wrong with me, but the only men that might like me anyway, or like me as I was, had something wrong with them. And, the wrong that was wrong with those men wasn’t something that could be solved with a pot of melted hard wax.
Over the years, I’ve waxed, plucked, electrocuted, cut back, tweezed, bleached and battled with the hair on my body. Thousands of dollars have been spent managing my body hair. There have been times when I couldn’t be as vigilant as others and usually no one noticed. I never let body hair stop me from doing something I want to do these days. If I haven’t shaved in a few days and someone asks me if I want to meet them at the pool, I’ll go anyway. If I am newly intimate with someone or I think there might be a chance, I will shave before a date. It’s short-lived though because the hair on my body is hearty, thick and simply grows too fast to keep on top of it for any length of time. And by “length of time” I mean anything over 12-hours. Go to bed with me smooth and wake up with me fuzzy. Like it? Great, because this is the way it is. Makes you kind of sick to your stomach? Grab a Nutrigrain bar on your way out my dear and don’t bother coming back because this is the best it is ever going to be.
When I was living in China I had many experiences where my body hair was not considered ugly or manly, but was a significant point of interest. Once, when I was first in China (this was in the early 90’s and not so long after China opened to visitors after the Cultural Revolution), I was on a crowded bus and felt pinches on my arm. I looked over at my arm, which was gripping a central pole for balance, and there was an elderly man on the other side of the pole pulling at the hair on my arms. When we made eye contact, he smiled at me. It was one of the most genuine and beautiful smiles I have ever seen in my whole life. I relaxed and smiled back. He said, “Gende Ma?” (Is it REAL?) as he pulled a little bit more gingerly on the hair. I laughed and replied that yes, yes the hair on my arms was real. This wasn’t a criticism, but a genuine curiosity regarding my body hair. I enjoyed the playful interaction and it didn’t make me feel bad about myself at all. A few years ago I was having a coffee with my sister in New York. If you know my sister and I, while we were both living in New York as adults, you know that we were pretty much always having coffee, or going to get coffee, or on our way back from having had coffee. When you have this much coffee talk, there is no topic too small for sharing. I confided in her that I really hated the hair on my arms and she said, “Why don’t you just wax it off then?”. It was so liberating to realize that I could solve my current body image problem with a quick trip to the Red Door Salon. But, also kind of sad because had I not had hairy arms, then I never would have been on the receiving end of one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen. I did discover that I have some really cute freckles on my arms.
Today, I dropped my daughter off at school and it was dress up day for school pictures. As I walked away from the school, the most gorgeous and bright young girl ran towards me in a red dress, with shiny red shoes. I complemented her shoes because, as a stranger, it was something neutral that I could say to a child without it seeming creepy. But, I saw a woman facing me who was watching her with “mother eyes” and I said to her, “Are you her mother?”. The woman said yes and I said, “Your daughter is so incredibly beautiful and obviously bright.” It was true. It was so true that it needed to be said out loud. The woman said to me, “She is really upset about her hair. It’s not how she wanted it to look.” The young girl was African American and had this gorgeous, full head of beautiful dark and thick hair. She really was absolutely gorgeous. I replied, “How had she wanted it to look?”. The mother said, “Oh, she wanted me to straighten it. But I told her that even if I had, it would be looking like it does right now by the end of the day. I only wish that my hair was still so soft and thick, but I ruined mine by straightening it.” I replied with another compliment and walked away to my car, but my throat got tight and I just wanted to run after the little girl and find her and tell her that her natural hair was amazing and complementary for her and that she should love it and love herself.
I was brought back to one of my first memories of laughing until I cried as a child. I think I heard the audio of Whoopi Goldberg doing her “luxurious long hair” routine on an airplane on my way to Florida to visit my grandparents. (Here is an academic look at this issue in Children’s literature.) Why I thought it was so funny, I’m not even sure. Perhaps I could connect with the issue of having non-ideal hair due to my personal struggle with having so much body hair? I’m not sure, but clearly, “hair” is a big issue for women from a very, very young age. This is not so in every place and time. Some years ago I was traveling in Western China and a young man who spoke some English sang a Uighur folk song and when I asked what it was about he said, “The beauty of women with bushy eyebrows and thick arm hair.” I had finally found my people! I went on to study Uighur language and culture for years. I actually dated a man once (yes, one of those men who must have something wrong with them because they like hairy women) who explained to me that it was a big turn-on for him to be with a woman with a lot of body hair. Apparently, according to his experience, hairy women were better lovers because they had more free-floating testosterone and were more likely to get turned on and really enjoy sex. While his research methods may have been questionable, perhaps this is what inspired the Uighur folk songs in awe of the hairy women?
It would be easy to dismiss my struggle with body image around my hair as a problem that only someone privileged with not having to figure out how to find food or safe water or shelter can give service to. But, as I consider the challenges that we have with consent and the pervasive sexual assault of girls and women, I have to wonder about how girls and women start to feel that there is something deeply “wrong” with them. Many of the personal narratives of assault that have been shared on social media lately that I have had the honor of reading and witnessing have happened when women were just young girls, before puberty and the arrival of darker body hair and pubic hair. If what is “attractive” about a 9-11 year old girl is that she is still hairless and therefore not ugly, then we need to consider the root of this social concern. We also need to consider how to help girls and women feel that they are lovable and attractive as they are because this would help us reject partners who reflect back our self-hatred to us through their disrespect. These men become a mirror where we can see and feel that ugly thing about us, whatever our personal bit of “ugly” is. This does not excuse sexual assault, but I want to at least consider that this lifetime struggle I have had is more than just a matter of being comfortable with my body.
I stopped dying my hair two-years ago this November. I was dating a man who insisted he preferred my gray hair. Insisted! When I let the last bit of temporary brown gloss wash out, I found that I also preferred it natural. I liked the way the more textured gray hairs kind of popped out and it was kind of wild and bold. Sure, I appear “older” than I do when I have it dyed. But, how much older? And, is older less beautiful? I doubt it. When I was at work the other day, where I interact with the public in my role in “Guest Services”, a man said to me, “You have the most interesting hair. I bet everyone says that to you.” I replied, “Yes, and it is all natural.” He smiled at me and replied, “That’s the way it should be.”.
Written by Sharon Fennimore, a global doula, writer, and yogini, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.