There is a tumbr post making the rounds on my dash.
The first picture in the series is of an Iranian princess Zahra Khanom Tadj es-Saltaneh from the Qajar dynasty. The legend goes – she was considered so beautiful that about a dozen or so men died after she rejected them. The photograph stands in stark contrast to the usual “exotic” representation of Middle astern princesses who are often portrayed as nearly Caucasian, scantily clad belly-dancers in a lot of Anglophile authored fantasies. The woman in the picture has something akin to a unibrow and a visible moustache, is covered from neck down in a gown and is on the heavier side, physically.
Under the picture are reaction photos to indicate that something is very wrong in the idea of finding women who look like her, desirable. One of the commenters – a white male in his early 20s – displays explicit dismay over anyone finding a “hairy” woman attractive. Thankfully, another commenter provided a fact-checked background of how Iran has a history of acknowledging and appreciating seemingly “masculine” appearance in a woman including display of body and facial hair.
Outside of this tumblr post, Iranian scholar Afsaneh Najmabadi in her Radcliffe lecture titled “Women With Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity” further explored how sexual mores and queering up of gender roles during the Qajar dynasty meant that men with delicate features and women with masculine appearances weren’t outcasts but included, appreciated and widely celebrated within the Qajar culture in Iran.
If you are of an Afghan, Indian and Rroma heritage – as I am – body hair has probably been a predominant internal monologue all through puberty and largely, even afterwards. In the echelons of hegemonic advertising that is designed to engage and foster the Male Gaze (esp White Male Gaze), for us beauty is defined in a series of absences – absence of body hair, absence of scars or marks, absence of dark skin, absence of body fat & so on. A lot of us have experienced this is continued and pervasive erasure; constantly being reminded that everything we contain should “ideally” be absent. This narrative is deeply harmful for young brown women/femmes stepping into adolescent.
Growing up, my cousins and I would consider those among us with lighter body hair or a more manageable growth that didn’t need a trip to a waxing-salon every 3 weeks, “lucky”. At beauty parlours, old aunties would nearly strip naked my bushy eyebrows till nothing but a stomped-out trail of a baby earthworm was left above my eye socket. In a somewhat hilarious contradiction, I was then asked to thicken this dull line of leftover hair with an eyebrow pencil. Therefore, it has now become both ironic and annoying for me to watch Cara Delevingne as a goddess of “perfectly natural” eyebrows when I and other brown girls like me were always dissuaded from carrying our own eyebrows in all their natural glory. This is also indicative of what kind of natural hair is considered “beautiful” to display & why Harnaam Kaur, who is one of the bravest role-models for South Asian women, is still not as well-known as Delevingne.
Body hair in women is something of a tabooed topic even now & especially in certain cultures including India. In my college hostel, we always joked about how there were technically two seasons that circulated at a quick pace – knee-length & full-sleeves. Knee-length was essentially the 2 weeks you had from the time of body hair removal before the Amazon grew back thick and bristly. During this phase you could saunter in mini-skirts, shorts et al without batting an eyelid. Full-sleeves was the time right after, till hair grew out sufficiently for another round of epilation, waxing, shaving etc; this period demanded full-sleeved blouses, shirts and equally modest whole-leg-covering lower body attire. The first thing my femme friends and I would ponder about when asked out on a date by a dude was how far along its growth cycle had the hair on our legs or arms reached. Looking back at that phase of post-teen hyperventilation about romantic escapades helps me realise & rectify the strong and toxic social conditioning of cishet patriarchy that regularly teaches young women in my part of the world to aspire for such improbable and tiring beauty standards.
Hair removal has been practiced for ages now. Originally the routine came into existence as a method for survival against mites and insects and was equally practiced by all members of the homo sapiens community. As “culture” became more gendered in each zeitgeist, this routine soon morphed into a more classist and sexist approach towards how bodies were perceived. Historically, hair removal has included a vast, surprising and sometimes iffy set of procedures, products and potions – from cat poop to seashells to ammonia-soaked bandages; in fact, it was only in the 1900s that a women specific razor was introduced in the market. Of course, there also religious and faith-based beliefs about whether body hair should be left alone or removed.
In adverts on TV, I will often watch a slim-built model praise a new hair-removal cream or a shaving razor and somehow I don’t spot a single strand of hair on her legs or arms as the voiceover gloats about some newly fangled technology etc that will now make my skin smoother than a chiffon saree in a Bollywood film. The great chicanery of not showing any body hair while selling the invincible features of a hair-removing product or appliance is also a pretty solid measure for how deeply entrenched is this sexist and gendered approach to body image.
More Radical Reads: 8 Things That Happened to my Body After I Stopped Shaving
I spoke briefly to my friends who experience hirsutism on account of PCOD or other hormonal imbalances and they recount dreadful tales of slow-sinking depression that disoriented them for days when they went had to deal with the stigma attached to women with darker and more evident facial hair. One of them narrated the emotional abuse she had to withstand from her husband during the most critical phases of her PCOD diagnosis including being called “a man” and enduring continued shame for her excessive hair growth and complications with getting pregnant. These stories, as disgusting as they are, aren’t exactly uncommon. Girls with facial hair are bullied and stigmatized in heartless ways. Ironically, the same conditioned sexism that demands boys to adopt a more masculine appearance from an early age as a sign of superiority is woefully negative towards girls/femmes/gender non-comforming folks who might appear “masculine” on account of physical or facial features and characteristics. Young girls especially are made to feel that something is not quite right with them just because they don’t match preset standards for beauty and/or body criteria hatched in the boardroom of a skincare company’s marketing division.
Women spend billions of dollars yearly on products catering solely to hair removal. There is a lucrative economic motive to keep us imprisoned in our insecurities to the extent that we can continue to shell out money towards achieving impossible beauty goals. This is our own collective Sisyphean boulder that gets bigger every passing generation. Fact is, our self-worth should not be tied to the amount of body hair we may have or lack. There are those amongst us who are comfortable with overgrown eyebrows while there those with meticulous plucking schedules; fact is, all that we wish to engage in when it comes to our own bodies should be a matter of comfort and self-determined without the unnecessary pressure to jump over a series of sexist hurdles our bodies weren’t designed for.
More Radical Reads: This Summer I Stopped Hiding: Reclaiming Femmeness and Body Hair
It is far from me to preach a one size fits all approach to how we manage our own perceptions and realities attached to body hair, but what we can do more regularly is cut ourselves some slack over punishing regimens of hair-removal that somehow get interwoven with ideas of self-care and love. It is absolutely critical to take good care of yourself in ways that are mindful and also uplifting, but it is not necessary to feel like you are obligated to anoint performative rituals that you may not always feel comfortable about. Bless the body when it is all silk and shine & bless it also its lush, furry glory.
[Featured Image: A photo of a person’s face in three-quarters profile. They are wearing a knit hat. They are wearing a light and dark blue cloth on their shoulders. Source: sandeepachetan.com travel photography]