For the longest time, I believed that white women had no body hair. How lucky! No waxing, no shaving = no worries.
I was proven wrong when I was 12 years old and shopping for jeans with my father. I went off to the changing room, only to find Sienna Miller plastered on the door. There they were. Thin strands of hair. Visible only because of the lighting in the photograph and the close-up shot. What a revelation!
I had never seen women in the media with body hair.
It is no wonder that South Asia is obsessed with women’s body hair. A colonial hangover and the hairless ideal promoted by the media don’t make for a good combination. This is evident when tracing and reflecting on the history of body hair removal and hearing experiences of Indian women.
In India, waxing is a sacred ritual that starts as young as 12. It is common to hear your neighbourhood aunty snicker that you are due a parlour visit to ‘clean up’.
Living in the Netherlands has changed my relationship with my body hair.
Long winter months are greeted with tights. Waxing prices are restrictive. The Dutch dress practically thanks to the wind and rain they cycle through daily. When summer comes around, many women shave their legs. Most tend to be more relaxed about their arms, as arm hair is generally lighter and less visible, and hence, not such an ‘issue’.
However, this is not necessarily the case for Dutch minority women. And this is the exact reason why the feminist body hair movement spearheaded by celebrities like Miley Cyrus have come under fire for lack of representation.
Although I still occasionally remove my hair, the pragmatic culture I’ve found myself living in has rubbed off on me for the better.
I suppose getting older (and wiser) also has something to do with it. I don’t remove hair as often, nor do I let my hair removal calendar dictate when I can or can’t wear a skirt.
Of course, I am not advocating that we must all stop removing body hair. We navigate and negotiate our ‘choice’ in the issue. When I return to India, I slip back into old patterns – albeit consciously. To avoid uncomfortable stares, I choose to wax. This is the reality for many with poly-cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and for minorities with coarser hair, for whom the costs of rebelling against societal norms are too high.
How do we move away from the idea that hair is ‘dirty’ and create an intersectional feminist body hair movement that all South Asians can own?
Reframe and contextualise body hair in sex education.
Sex education should go beyond mentioning pubic and armpit hair. Discuss the options of body hair removal so that young women can be informed, without encouraging it as an inevitability. Talk about why it has become common, and place it in your country’s context. Frame body hair within changing fashion trends. And parents, support your kids to develop self-confidence.
Get the boys on board.
If you are lucky enough to have received sex education, you will know that there is often very little dialogue between girls and boys during puberty. As a result, many boys and men in India have disappointing attitudes to hair on women. Boys must not only learn about their own body hair, but also that of women, so that they understand what is natural and normal.
Let hair be seen.
Even adverts for razors in India are afraid to show actual body hair! Deepika Padukone, a famous Bollywood actress, shaves an already hairless leg in this one to show the wonders of her Gilette razor. I think a serious makeover of Indian school uniforms is needed, too. Mandatory skirts don’t allow girls to show their hair on their own terms.
Let us change the way women are represented. Have images in school textbooks that depict women with body hair. Check out illustrator Aqya Khan for inspiring examples.
Let’s take control of the narrative of body hair and allow it to be seen – for all those 12 year-old girls across South Asia.