I know plenty of feminists who struggle with the matter of whether or not to shave their legs and armpits. I’m struggling with the same issue from a different angle: whether or not to continue shaving my arms.
Shaving takes me ten full minutes every time I shower. I shave most of my body, for the simple reason that I got it into my head in my teens that I had more hair, darker hair, thicker hair than any of my friends, and thus could only become an attractive girl that boys might want to date if I removed as many signs of this hideous difference as possible.
I remember magazine articles – in Mizz or J-17 most likely, given my tastes at the time – which advised me not to shave the hair from my upper lip, but to bleach it. If I shaved it, it would be forever grow back faster, thicker and darker than before, but bleaching would make it invisible.
Unless, of course, you are NOT WHITE. But I don’t think the mid-to-late ’90s editors of Mizz and J-17 had really considered the ramifications of this suggestion to their readers of colour, who were almost certainly all too young to do more than shrug and say, “Well, that won’t work for me so I suppose I have no choice but to shave!” as I did.
“I have to shave because I’m a hairy Indian woman!” I would say with a laugh (hi there, internalised racism), and have been saying uncritically for years, but over Christmas and New Year I was able to stay with my family for some weeks and made two discoveries: firstly, my willingness to spend ten whole minutes shaving every time I take a shower is entirely dependent on whether or not I think I might sleep with someone in the near future. Secondly, I discovered that the hair on my arms is not actually darker, thicker or more repulsive than the arm-hair of my white, brunette friends. “Why am I wasting my time shaving it off?” I wondered, and resolved that when I next had a shave in preparation for my return home, I would leave the arms. An obvious step to most people, a pretty big deal for me.
Unfortunately, the habit of a decade is not so easily broken, and I completely forgot until I was halfway through one arm. I could have resolved to leave it again, simply made an effort to keep remembering and wear many cardigans until my arm-hair was back to normal, but on my return to the north of England I made a less pleasant discovery: being hair-free is one way in which I can compensate for being neither white nor thin. I have received unprompted compliments from men about my smooth arms over the years, and the new boyfriend is no exception.
So now I am stuck in an uncomfortable position: recognising that I am perpetuating an unrealistic beauty ideal I despise and which actively represses me, but also recognising that I am more confident when I feel that I am meeting as much of that beauty ideal as possible. The empowerment of meeting society’s expectations is a strong and addictive drug, but I hope that some day I can go Cold Turkey and learn to put myself a little more on the outside, as a force of resistance.