My adolescence marked the beginning of a painful struggle with body hair. Before puberty, I lived in a happy, carefree world where my only worry was how to properly untangle the long, curly hair on my head. Then there came the hair on my legs, under my arms, and on my genitals, plus all the troubles that went along with it.
First of all, I had to learn how to make it disappear. Choose a method: Is the epilator really worse than waxing? Does your hair really grow back thicker if you use a razor? I was very anxious and full of questions. Did I have to remove the hair on my thighs as well? (One friend told me "no, be careful not to,” while another said "totally, otherwise it's dirty." It was an awfully complicated issue and everyone had clear-cut opinions.) Even more complicated: How should I remove the hair on my genitals? I had to find a balance that was neither too "neglected" nor too "slutty" — in the words of my group of friends back then — and we all know that the line between these two is thin.
This took up a lot of my time and mental energy. I tried everything. To start, I had my first appointment with a beautician, a.k.a the nine circles of hell. I have never understood how a place that’s supposed to be so nice, where you can get a super-relaxing massage and you’re supposed to feel more beautiful, could be so awful and guilt-inducing.
Every time the beautician began to study the fleece on my little teenaged legs, she’d shake her head slightly in disapproval. And very often, she’d make a little comment: "Ah, yes, there is a lot." "Have you shaved since your last visit? It's obvious." And very, very, very often: “You have an ingrown hair. You must exfoliate once a week. You already do that? Then try twice a week. Exfoliation, it's important!" Despite all the trouble I went through to exfoliate my skin ever so thoroughly, I got the impression I was failing an important test in knowing how to be feminine.
I also tried various types of wax: cold and hot, the kind you heat up in the microwave that burns, and a variety with a roll-on cap that "facilitates" the application (except when the cap gets detached and all the wax spills on you). Next I tried an epilator, a product touting a completely new, great revolutionary system to save you some pain, and an awful-smelling depilatory cream.
But the icing on the shitty package was discovering that after all this effort, the hair just grows back. What a pain! Based on the information I’d gleaned, I concluded that waxing was better than shaving, but the problem was you had to let it grow back a bit before you could remove the unwanted hair. Yet a girl was never supposed to have hair on her legs, not even for a few days.
So, what could I do? This was particularly anxiety-inducing because, as a teenager, I had a few boyfriends who might potentially see my legs. Back then I was trying to be heterosexual (spoiler: it didn't work). To be perfect in all circumstances, I had to find a way to get an appointment with the overbooked beautician when my hair was long enough to be removed. But not so long that I’d be completely embarrassed while waiting. Waxing was mandatory before a date, but not right before, or the red dots of all the hair follicles traumatized by this pruning against nature would be too visible. Anyway, it was an adventure, and I should have gotten a medal for the many times I managed it all like a queen.
I realize now that instead of asking "Which hair removal technique should I choose?" I should have just asked myself: "Are all these hassles really necessary?!" But it was impossible then, when according to the standards set by my friends, TV and magazines, a woman simply could not be anything but smooth as a pebble polished by the sea water. In fact, I’d never even seen another woman’s legs in their natural state, which gave me the impression that I was particularly unlucky. At the time, there was no Tumblr filled with pictures of proudly hairy women’s legs — and that's a shame, because it would have allowed me to let out a big sigh of relief.
The few times my boyfriends could see a (tiny) bit of hair starting to grow back, I heard what they thought. Sometimes their tone was joking, or amazed. They never intended to be mean, but deep down there was still a reproach: I’d failed to maintain my femininity. So it was difficult for me to feel any more relaxed about this hairy question.
Then one day, in college, I finally realized that it was desperately useless for me to be dating guys, because I actually liked girls. And for the first time, I found myself in a relationship with someone who knew exactly as well as I did how much the business of hair removal sucks.
The change occurred fairly gradually. I knew that waxing hurt, so I didn’t mind a little fuzz on the women I dated. Her hair grew back? Not a problem. I wouldn't judge her. Looking back, I even found those little hairs sprouting on her legs very cute. It didn’t prevent her from seducing me. And she had better things to do, anyway: I’d rather have her spend the next two hours in my arms watching a movie than rush off to remove the slightest bit of excess body hair. At the same time, I understood that this goodwill was fully shared, and it wasn’t really a problem if my own removal situation wasn’t spick and span.
I felt a level of relief as intense as my old stress had been. Body hair was no longer a source of unmanageable pain, but a topic of free discussion with another person. We could show one another our hair without drama, study it, compare it. This called a lot of things into question for me and cast body hair as an object worthy of rehabilitation. Why should a woman remove her body hair at all costs? A few years ago, my then-partner preferred to keep her legs natural, and that was just fine.
Of course, I don’t want to generalize: there are plenty of gay women who are stressed out by their body hair, as well as straight couples who are quite relaxed around this issue. But for me, dating women is what changed my mind.
Regretfully, there are still limits to my carefree attitude on body hair. I’m well aware that when it comes to my own grooming, I’ve normalized the standard of hairless skin for too long to throw my razors in the trash for good. So I continue to remove my own hair, but now I do it in a somewhat bohemian way. I don’t go to the salon anymore. From time to time, I use an epilator on my legs and a razor under my arms. I get most of it; it's rarely flawless. I don’t worry if my hair grows back and I don't have the time to take care of it; I'll do it later.
In the same way, I stopped exfoliating. And I've got news I'd like to share with all beauticians I crossed paths with. For years, I was committed to scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing my legs with exfoliating gel, loofahs and bath puffs. Then I stopped completely and it didn't change a thing. Nada, niet, zero. I didn’t get more ingrown hairs, or less. All those years I spent scrubbing myself cost me a ton of money and a lot of hours I could have spent watching The Good Wife. And that's a shame.
A few days ago, I realized that I hadn’t taken care of my underarms for a while. I could see a little fluff beginning to grow in the mirror. I looked a little closer and saw that the hair under my right armpit was much longer than on the left: clearly, the last time I’d shaved, I’d been in such a hurry I’d forgotten about one side. And I’d stayed like that for several days without noticing it: hairless skin on the left, hairy on the right. Of course, I rushed to show my girlfriend my finding. We had a pretty good laugh.