It was a balmy summer evening in Delhi. Seven-year old me was sitting on my mother’s bed, watching my older sister and her discuss what should be worn for the dinner we were getting ready for. The options for my sister were a pretty pink skirt, which showed her shins, and a pair of blue denims.
“The skirt is so much better,” I chimed in.
“But my legs have hair on them,” my sister moaned.
I didn’t get it. “So?”
The skirt was clearly the superior contender. I was told again that it doesn’t look good. The correlation between a beautiful skirt and a tiny amount of hair on my sister’s legs didn’t add up in my child-like mind. I tried to fight the tide, which was inching towards the denims.
I lost. The hair just didn’t look good.
It took me about another seven more years to figure out why.
Let’s rewind a bit. During the 20th century, there was a palpable shift in the idea of what made a woman feminine, and consequently good. In Victorian times, it were morality and decent character, and now it was their bodies.
Now that women were liberated enough to wear shorter clothes, they needed to serve another purpose: to appeal to men. To be hairless meant to be feminine, clean and well-groomed. Hair was suddenly unsightly and unclean. Moral policing transformed into a combination of body shaming and societal control, mainly by men.
It is saddening, yet completely understandable how readily we have accepted the fabrications that are fed to us, decade after decade. Capitalism drove the earliest initiative towards making women hairless in the 1910s – the then-growing Gillette wanted to create a new market for women. As sleeves disappeared from clothing, the “Milady décolleté” was introduced to women with advertisements that claimed underarm hair to be “an embarrassing personal problem” that had to be taken care of for “good grooming and dressing”.
Depilatory powders such as “X Bazin” screamed out to women that their hair was “objectionable” and “unsightly”, and that to be a woman of refinement, it was essential to depilate. The aim was to shame, isolate and embarrass – and it worked. This pervasive ideology made its way to leg hair as skirts got shorter, and by the 60s, it had become a norm for women to tear off the hair that grew on their skin, or slice it away and chemically burn off the layer of protection that biology had granted to us – our first barrier against infection and a vital tool for temperature regulation in our bodies. It didn’t matter how much it hurt or how inconvenient the process was. It had to go.
I distinctly remember how it was an unspoken decree within the girls at my school. After Class 7, everybody magically had smooth legs emerging from under their uniform skirts. The fine hair that had just made a home on our legs had been done away with, and suddenly the topic of conversation transformed from playground politics to dreaded painful waxing appointments.
I gave in at some point, but only to the razor. I was in no mood to inflict unnecessary pain on my body, especially after I watched a friend scream in pain when I accompanied her to the salon, then politely declined the parlour lady’s offer to inflict the same pain on me.
In retrospect, this was a wise decision; when I tried waxing a few times many years later, I bled a fair bit. And then I stopped and never did it again.
But even then, as a young woman involved in several sporting and non-sporting extracurricular activities, and with ungodly amounts of homework to do, I couldn’t make shaving my legs a priority. Perplexed, I wondered how the others did it, but the thick, wiry hair on my legs grew and grew and was shorn off only when it became a tangled mess.
But that didn’t mean I was completely nonchalant about it. Every time I rested my legs across a bench and they were hairy, I felt watched. I felt shamed, even if nobody said a word. Sometimes, a well-meaning senior would extol the virtues of waxing over shaving to me. I felt sheepish over not using the right method to depilate.
This continued well into my adult life. To let my body hair grow and show in college and at my jobs somehow meant that I wasn’t succeeding at being womanly enough, that I was lesser in some way. So, I shaved and shaved and shaved – normalising the nicks and cuts that hurt like hell. I looked at other women with hairy arms with disdain too, until I checked myself. This was social control of women’s bodies, perpetuated by all, regardless of gender, and one that refuses to let go even in 2020.
It is dangerous to normalise the made-up body, the photoshopped body of social media and magazines. My lack of care towards the length of my body hair started early, wavered as friends told me how lasering the follicles off their skin was cool and convenient, increased when I had partners who didn’t care if my body grew hair (a miracle!), and came to a head during the pandemic.
I trim and remove body hair that feels necessary to remove – which is not to say I’m above it all. I’ve become comfortable with my arms being hairy and wear whatever I like, but whenever this pandemic does end and I go to a party, I will most likely remove my leg hair.
I recognise it is a long, arduous journey but when I do scale the Everest that is this regressive gender norm, I will sit back, count all the money I have saved, and brush the fur on my legs till it gleams.
Fawzia Khan is a photographer and creative director, whose first love has been, and will always be writing.
Featured image credit: Lisa Marie Trunkenbolz/Flickr