Can the Feminist Body Hair Movement be Intersectional?

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.

What Let Girls Learn Has Taught Me

Michelle Obama smells amazing. When she wrapped her arms around me for a hug after speaking on her Let Girls Learn initiative, the first thing I thought was holy shit Michelle Obama is giving me a hug, and secondly, wow she smells so good.

It was a sweltering Washington D.C. July afternoon but the First Lady seemed unbothered by the heat. Instead, she brought inspiration, poise, and grace with her: “You all are here today because someone believed in you, because someone gave you the chance to be everything you would want to be.” That line stuck with me then and continues to remind me both that I am worthy of my opportunities, and so are the amazing people around me. But on that July afternoon, I was thinking, what did I want to be? Who believes in me? And what sort of girl do I have the potential to be?

It was a question I asked myself a lot that summer. I was a Teen Advisor for the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign and had spent a couple days in DC working with other Teen Advisors for the 2015 Girl Up Summit. I was overwhelmed by the other girls I served with, and couldn’t help thinking that I wasn’t meant to be there. My sixteen-year-old self was not important enough to interact one of the nation’s most inspiring women, and here she was wrapping her arms around me. It was a summer of is this really happening right now? And, why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve to be here. I thought that all summer: in DC at the Girl Up summit, at home as I was packing for a 3 week trip to Rwanda for a global “women in STEM” program, on the plane-ride, and on the bus from Kigali International to our compound at Gashora Girls Academy in Eastern Province, Rwanda.

But once I got to Rwanda, after meeting girls from eight African countries and from around the U.S. and sharing a meal together, I thought – we’re all in this together. The three weeks in Rwanda flew by, and I made lifelong friends. My final project was a prototype of a solar powered Wi-Fi hotspot that was created with love, hard-work and long-nights. Working alongside three other girls from Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana, we had moments of cultural difference, misunderstanding, and frustration, but all of that was accompanied by moments of brilliance, joy, and success.

Throughout my time in Rwanda I was in constant reflection – I was journaling, talking with friends, writing a personal blog, and a more public blog for the Huffington Post. I was constantly progress checking: Do I know the type of woman I will be? Who believes in me? Who inspires me? Have I grown? And the answers became ever clearer: maybe, apparently a lot of people, WOMEN, and YES!!

At the very end of my trip, I was able to present my tech-prototype with another First Lady, The First Lady of Rwanda Jeanette Kagame. I held my head high as I presented on the lack of Internet access afforded to a majority of the world (4 billion people do not have access to Wi-Fi), and the emerging technologies that can better connect people globally. As I sat on the plane on my way home, I knew not only that other people believed in me, but that I believed in myself.

Let Girls Learn taught me about global citizenship, teamwork, female empowerment and most importantly, self-belief. Last week, when an internal memo from the White House was released on the termination of Let Girls Learn, I was devastated. Immediately my phone blew up with Facebook messages from young, empowered women and girls who had, like me, directly benefited from Michelle Obama and the PeaceCorp’s program.

While there have been retracted statements from The White House as to their continued support of women’s empowerment, it is uncertain what the future of Let Girls Learn looks like. Let Girls Learn has been pivotal to me becoming who I am today. I am saddened to think that girls after me won’t have the opportunity to ask themselves the hard questions that I did over the summer of 2015. And even more devastatingly, many won’t have the opportunity to recognize their immense potential. Michelle Obama, in her big way, believed in me, and it taught me to believe in myself.

What Would You Say to Your 19-Year-Old Self?

There are moments in life when you simply need to remind yourself that you are enough. In order to do that, you have to have enough self confidence to come up with the words that are both comforting and inspiring.

I’ve been told that nothing is impossible, but also that certain things aren’t meant for me. I’ve been told to follow my heart, but also to always be mindful of others. I’ve been told to say what I really want and to move in that direction, but also to move with caution.

I’ve been told many conflicting things, but I am finding out that the most important words come from within. What do I tell myself when I am not sure of the next step, or when I am scared to articulate my thoughts and turn them into actions? I tell myself to move. Just move. Take a step, and move. Be bold.

Forget your failures and mistakes because they are over. Sometimes we have to fail over and over until our failures are no longer setbacks; they simply push us closer to our goals.

Ask yourself…what are my goals and for how long am I willing to pursue them?

It took me many years to invest in myself and to appreciate my own value. But once I knew my own worth there were no more excuses. I don’t have many profound words of wisdom or a wonderful magic toolbox to fix every unforeseeable problem. But if I could sit down with my 19-year-old self, I would tell her how special she is and that there is no need to be so unsure. I would tell her to just be selfish.

Be selfish, know your worth and love yourself. Wait for no one to validate you, just make sure you have your own stamp of approval.  Stop hesitating and move boldly towards your goals. The world is your drawing board so dream big, hold on tight to those dreams and pursue your passions with unwavering focus and perseverance.

Most importantly, I would tell her: “Some things aren’t that serious. Just smile!”

If you could sit down with your 19-year-old self today what advice would you give?

Cover photo credit: Wynter Oshiberu 

The Fine Art of Learning to Love Yourself

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon an interesting picture while scrolling through my Facebook page. The words ”You have to love yourself before anyone else can take the role of loving you” were written in large letters. The quote really got to me and for a moment I actually felt an ounce of despair. Is it really not possible for anyone else to love me if I do not completely love myself first?

The first thing that came to my mind was the definition of the words ”loving yourself”. Does it mean that you should put yourself first or is it more about self-confidence?

In Sweden we sometimes talk about putting ourselves in “the first room”, but in English I guess you would refer to it as putting yourself first. Often when talked about, the first room is something good and an absolutely necessary thing to do to improve your personal welfare. When applying Cognitive Egoism to your life, you allow yourself to do things that bring happiness to your daily life.

“By making yourself the first priority, especially by doing things that makes you happy and makes you feel good, you get energy. That energy is needed while taking care of a job, a home and taking care of others.”

Cecilia Kärvegård, Swedish Behaviourist in Aftonbladet Wellness.

I do agree with this form of loving yourself. I actually do believe that by putting yourself in the first room and treating yourself right, you get the energy to be able to let yourself be loved by someone else as well.

If by loving yourself means that you have to create a spot-on self-confidence or self-esteem, then I disagree with that. Self esteem has to do with the feeling you have of yourself, it’s the version of yourself that you wish other people see. When growing up, I lacked a lot of self esteem. When I look back at the way I used to feel about myself, I honestly feel heartbroken. I did not consider myself beautiful nor did I feel good enough, because I had people telling me that I was not. I believed them, completely, which dragged my self-esteem down a lot.

Today I look at myself in a very different way. I may not consider myself beautiful every-time I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror, I may not be great in every single thing that I do. However, what I do know today, that I didn’t know a couple of years ago, is that I am totally and completely good enough just the way I am.

Today, the number of young people living with a mental illness is rising. The Swedish National Centre for Suicide-research and Prevention of Mental Illness presents numbers of young people in Sweden living with a mental illness. The amount of young Swedish women hospitalised for trying to take their own lives or for self-destructive behaviour, has increased by large numbers since the early 90’s. It’s also a fact that the number of adolescents suffering from anxiety has increased by three hundred percent in Sweden over the last twenty years.

The question many people, including myself, is asking themselves is why this is happening now. Why is it that more young women try to take their own life today? One aspect of the problem might be the immense pressure created by our society today, on how you are supposed to look and act. The idea of what is considered beautiful and successful suddenly narrows down quite a bit while scrolling through social media. I often catch myself blaming society for these ideals, when in reality, society includes all of us. We are all capable of changing the ideals we find lousy – we are all capable of changing society.

I don’t think that you need someone else to tell you that you are beautiful before you realize it yourself. You are fully capable of realizing that on your own.

From my own experience, it’s easy to fall into some kind of idea that there is only one type of look or some characteristics that society find appealing, which is utterly and completely wrong. How much of a cliché it might be, everyone is in fact beautiful in their own way. I don’t know if I will ever love every single part of myself, but that is okay, because even my less attractive parts makes me, me.

Featured photo credit: Aki Tolentino

To Teenage Girls: Compliments Are Good For You

Caitlin Moran writes a column in the Times Magazine every Saturday and very often I buy the paper just so that I can read it, and every week that I read it I enjoy it, because Caitlin Moran is A Very Good Writer.

Last weekend I was reading it in a café, when all of a sudden tears choked me. Then they poured silently down my cheeks, which made those around me start edging their chairs sideways a bit. The column – addressed to under-confident, compliment-dodging teenage girls – was so painfully accurate that I couldn’t take my eyes or my mind off the words.

From the grand and wise perch that is 24-years-old, I think about my teenage self the way you might think of an old friend you have gradually drifted apart from, but remain very fond of all the same. When I think of her, I mainly laugh at her, because she wore a lot of eyeliner and it made her look a bit like a raccoon. I roll my (hopefully more subtly lined) eyes at her, because she spent vast chunks of time agonizing over things like her next MSN Messenger name.

Sometimes I feel quite ashamed of her, like when I think of how casually she spoke with spite to my lovely parents, and I’m shocked and impressed in equal measure when I think of how she and her friends swanned around in nightclubs they were never supposed to be in.

When I read that column, though, I cried for the girl with all the eyeliner on, because when I think of her I also think of the brutal way she spoke to herself, and of the self-inflicted pain she felt as a result. Moran’s message to teenage girls was:

“If I could change one, vital, thing for you, my younglings, it would be to make saying cruel things about yourselves as culturally unacceptable as saying cruel things about other people.
You rage on the behalf of others. And then you will sit in a circle, taking it in turns to berate your own hair, your own bellies, your own skin – the Teenage Girl Hate-In that is in every school, in every bedroom”.

I recently read something that said if you are ever in trouble, if you are sad or afraid or overwhelmed, if you have done something either a bit stupid or very stupid, you should think about what you would say to your best friend if she came to you in the same situation.

Would you analyse the details of her story, scrutinizing and replaying and dwelling on the especially bad parts? Would you tell her that she is doing a pretty crap job at life, overall, all things considered? That she is failing, because she spends all her money before pay day every single month, sometimes on rent and vegetables but sometimes in Zara? That she is inadequate, because she doesn’t actually know what contouring even means? Would you remind her that she is most certainly not beach-body-ready, because she hasn’t done any yoga today (or ever) and has neither consumed nor Instagrammed any kale-based juices?

Of course you wouldn’t. You’d speak to her with kindness. You’d reassure her and remind her of all the very best parts of her self and her life.

And so, as I muddle through my twenties, it’s something I try to remember. I try to act as a cheerleader for my friends. Our WhatsApp group is basically a place for us to take it in turns to panic and/or despair, only to be bolstered by unconditionally kind words – plus kiss-blowing and heart-eyes emojis – from the others. But I also try, as much as I can, to act as a cheerleader for myself.

I don’t know whether it has to take as long as it took me to learn that the voice you use to talk to yourself should sound exactly the same as the voice you use to talk to your closest friends. I don’t know if it’s possible, when you’re sprinting away from the difficult parts of teenage girlhood as fast as you can, to look back over your shoulder and grab the hand of someone just arriving at the start line.

All I do know, after reading Caitlin Moran’s words last week, is that if I should ever have a daughter, that column is going in a frame on her bedroom wall.