By Lauren Apfel
I learned to deal with unwanted body hair at my mother’s knee. I am dark and she is dark and this was part of my education in being a girl. I would sit on a low stool in her bathroom, which was big and blue-tiled, and watch as she depilated in one way or another. I was acquainted with the tools of the trade early-bleach for the face and arms, tweezers for the eyebrows, razors or wax for the legs – and when I came of age, 12, maybe 13, I graduated to using them myself. And so began the life of a woman who is constantly shaving, plucking, stripping and lightening the hair on her body, some of which is the very mark of her womanhood in the first place.
I used to be embarrassed by all that hair, as a teenager and young adult. Now I am more embarrassed by the vast number of hours I’ve spent – and the pain I’ve endured – getting rid of it in the name of some ideal of female beauty I did not determine for myself. I’m not embarrassed enough, mind you, that I’ve stopped removing it. That ship has sailed. My aesthetic standards are so ingrained at this point, I can’t shake them. Sculpted eyebrows look attractive on a woman. Hairless armpits and upper lips are desirable. The pubic area should be neat.
I still work on a regular basis to meet these standards. What I try not to do is draw attention to it vis-a-vis my children. And yet they are, as most kids tend to be, savvy little spies. My five-year-old twins, a boy and girl, were both “shaving” their legs in the bath the other day, with old toothbrushes and lavender bubbles. Watching the performance, the question that crept into my mind was this: what am I going to say to them about shaving in the future, especially to my daughter? What grooming habits is she going to learn from me and what will I tell her about why she might be expected to shave her legs, while her brothers won’t be, and about who, in actuality, she will be shaving them for?
At 12, I was content to accept my mother’s implied thesis that this is part and parcel of what women do to be beautiful. At 38, I’m more skeptical about that reasoning and not particularly proud of the vanity it resulted in.
When I ask my friends why they shave or wax, they tend to say, especially the more feminist bent among them, that they do it for themselves. “I love the feel of my smooth legs,” one of them insisted and I’m sure she means it. “Would you love it if your husband’s legs were smooth, though?” I ask and the obvious answer is no. Hairlessness of this sort is mainly the province of women, it is intimately linked with our femaleness. It is our effort to make, our cross to bear. We might now, those of us who are coupled up, do it “for ourselves,” but at some point we were doing it to attract other people or, if not that, to conform to societal expectations.