When you are a woman of middle eastern background, shaving feels mandatory

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When I turned 11, I became desperate to rip out every hair on my body, from my upper lip to the hair on my ankles. How grotesque I felt compared to other girls. For Middle Eastern women like myself, our hair tends to be coarser, denser, and more noticeable. In primary school, many of my peers had thin, light hair or their parents allowed them to remove it. My mother told me I wasn’t ready, and that I should enjoy childhood.

Well, I didn’t enjoy my hairy childhood, and after weeks of covering my legs by pulling my school dress down and socks up, I was finally allowed to wax my calves and underarms. What an apt induction into womanhood, this lengthy and sadistic act of skin pulling and ripping. And epilating too, dear god. Imagine a million microscopic elves rapidly tearing your hair follicles out.

Hair removal can be a painful process.

The ritual of hair removal is modern-day torture, yet the number of businesses in the waxing and nail salons industry in Australia has grown 2.2 per cent per year on average for the past five years. In my 20s, I continue this expensive, time-consuming and painful routine, not in the pursuit of beauty, but rather to assimilate into the pervasive beauty standard of pretending I never grew hair to begin with. Oh, I’m just a soft, buttery young woman and I only grow hair on my head, eyebrows, and eyelashes! What kind of beast grows hair everywhere else? Not me!

I associated body hair on women with disgust, shame, and bad hygiene because my mother told me from a young age it was “dirty”. Adult women in my life, aunties, and teachers were hairless. At school swimming carnivals, the hairier girls were sniggered at. In the classroom, another girl was nicknamed “hairy bear” by her male peers because her eyebrows were coarse. Witnessing this terrified me. I made sure to shave every day, so I wouldn’t be bullied too.

I now go to my laser hair removalist monthly. It humbles one’s ego to lie under the fluorescent lighting while a 20-something burns intimate parts of your body red-raw with a high-powered laser. It isn’t permanent, the hair comes back, so I’m bound to this lifelong cycle. “I’m seeing more mothers bring their pre-teen girls for lasering,” says my esthetician, “I don’t see the point.” Adolescent changes mean laser can result in hair growing faster and won’t reduce the future amount of hair.

Hair removal is a life-long commitment.

Hair removal is a life-long commitment.Credit: Greg Totman

When I’m surrounded by people in hipster pockets of Melbourne, I’ve been told to liberate myself. “I let mine grow” one friend said, “I just can’t be bothered anymore. You should grow it out too. Who cares.” I look at her barely-there blonde armpit hair and feel a sense of annoyance. Am I setting the feminist movement back by not dip-dying my armpit hair? There’s a difference between a person who fits Western beauty standards growing out their wispy, fair hair and me growing hair; enough to make a toupee out of, dark enough to see from across the room. Body hair is an accessory for some, but for me, it’s a barrier to acceptance in many spaces where visible body hair would garner a prolonged stare or nasty comment. Women who have darker, coarser hair tend to bear a greater burden to remove it. I feel I won’t be awarded the same opportunities in life if I’m not perceived as attractive or feminine because I am not hairless.

The pro-body hair movement sweeping TikTok, Instagram, and certain social circles gives me hope. But I have to wonder if the movement includes people like me and those outside the hipster bubble – ie: the rest of the world.

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