By MALVIKA DAHIYA
My relationship with my body hair is complicated, dynamic, and often difficult. Like many other women of South Asian descent, I grew up confused by my body hair, living in a world where images of femininity, beauty, and even normality were divergent from the body I called home. Much of my adolescence was spent struggling to mirror the hairless, skinny, and white bodies that I believed connoted attractiveness. To add to my confusion, growing up in Michigan, various cities in India, and Singapore, I found these Eurocentric expectations of beauty inescapable. Wherever I went, it seemed, the ideal of female hairlessness was as stubbornly pervasive as the hair growing unforgivingly on my body. The challenging relationship I have had with my body hair makes it hard to comfortably digest the current mainstream wave of white body positivity. It is a slap in the face to women of color everywhere to see White women declaring empowerment in the same thing they have policed our bodies for.
For Indian women, hair removal is inextricably linked to colonial expectations. The Indian subcontinent has a long and complicated history of being invaded by lighter skinned people, and has since been suffering from a colonial hangover that it has yet to cure itself of. In its modern measure of beauty, South Asia has consequently developed a fastidious obsession with the lack of both melanin and body hair, in conformity with our historical oppressors.
Since I was raised by Indian parents, for whom waxing rather than shaving is the norm, my introduction to hair removal began lying down at the mercy of the Indian waxing lady rather than a hyper-feminized, commercialized, pink razor. In between the violent rips that ruthlessly stripped my legs bare, the waxing lady shared with me her little tips and tricks to maintaining beautiful skin. Regular waxing se aap ka pura tan chale jayega. Regular waxing will rid your skin of its tan–a piece of advice given to me by countless Indian parlor ladies extolling the benefits of waxing, from hairlessness to fairness.
This debut to hair removal happened, of course, as I found myself entering puberty–the peak of my body hair insecurities. It felt like overnight, my smooth prepubescent skin had been rapaciously attacked by hair that I could not understand, and could not see in anyone else around me. My White friends growing up simply did not have hair of my thickness or darkness, and the Indian women I saw around me waxed meticulously. The other primary place where I saw women–the media–was obviously no help either. I suddenly felt like an alien, half-girl, half-man, and this was reinforced by messages around me-mainly by the White girls of my age. I distinctly remember a White “friend” suggesting to me that I take Nair and apply it on my entire body. Other friends cruelly pointed out the hairs on my fingertips and hands, extending from my wrists, or the light hairs on my lower back when I’m in a crop top, giving me various suggestions on how to remove it. I had a coat of hair, in varying thickness and density, on essentially every part of my body. My eyebrows were two fingers thick, my upper lip clouded by a faint grey shadow of hair–it felt like an unbearable curse.
And the more I tried to resist it, the more the hair seemed to fight back viciously. I tried waxing, shaving, depilatory creams, tweezing, epilating, threading, mixing and matching different methods for different parts of my body–but I simply could not keep up with the rapid growth of my hair. The relentless forces of genetics, puberty, and ethnicity refused to give me what I craved so desperately–to be feminine and normal.
In high school, I developed a skin disease called folliculitis, which essentially caused infections in my follicles everytime I removed body hair. Everytime I waxed or shaved, my skin erupted in boils and red bumps that left dark wine colored scars and ingrown hairs all over my legs, decorating them like polka dots. It was as though my body was protesting this foreign manipulation of its natural state, angry at what was being done to it–fighting this invasion, this colonization, this unprecedented theft of its rightful sovereignty.
I felt like a prisoner of my own skin. While hair seems so easy to fix or remove, an insignificant and controllable issue, this was simply not my reality. And the self-loathing and sentiments of abnormality that haunted me growing up all derived from a violent combination of both patriarchal and colonial forces–a duality that White pseudo-feminists today seem to conveniently forget.
In recent years, body positivity, including body hair positivity, has become a major trend in mainstream feminism. Bushy, full eyebrows became a trend years ago with Cara Delevingne. Celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Madonna have showed up on red carpets with armpit hair, and some White social media feminists have even dyed their armpit hair different colors! The arguments behind such actions seem fair and innocent enough. After all, any woman defying societal expectations, liberating herself from the male gaze, avoiding the pain, cost and time involved in hair removal, and asserting autonomy by making independent choices about her own body must be on to something.
One of the main issues with feminist body hair is that it is a movement controlled and led by White women at terms suitable to them. Women of color are often excluded from the conversation when it is us who need it the most. Body hair is acceptable when it is delicate, blonde, dancing around a pale armpit with graceful dexterity, careful to never escape a defined area of skin. The manicured suburban garden enclosed by a white picket fence is okay, the mysterious tropical rainforest that grows uncontrollably is not. In other words, White feminists are only fine with body hair that looks like theirs. Many Brown women have hair that exceeds the acceptable boundaries that White women have drawn out. Our hair is significantly darker, thicker, and exists outside of just the armpit and crotch area. It isn’t pretty, rose-scented or light in color. When we refuse to (or are unable to) remove our hair, we are penalized, shamed and bullied for it, often by White women. I have yet to see a White body hair positive feminist even acknowledge that some women might have a snail trail, back hair, or stubborn ingrown hairs–hair that is difficult to romanticize and that does not align with Western standards of beauty. In this context, women of color are often alienated and isolated from the feminist body hair movement. We are ignored and invisibilized.
This practice is also dangerous because it is a form of appropriation, white hypocrisy, and frankly, just flat out unfair. White women capitalize on features that we are penalized for. When the Kardashians get lip fillers, wear braids, and have big butts, they are trendy beauty icons, while Black women are mocked and even criminalized for the same- labelled as unprofessional and “ghetto.” White girls in sororities wear bindis to Coachella and fill in their eyebrows, forgetting that they made fun of me for my unruly brows, my strongly scented lunchbox, and my mother’s ethnic clothes. Women of color do not have the privilege of choosing when we are women of color. We don’t choose when we are or aren’t discriminated against. Our experiences and traditions are not costumes or trends for White women to borrow and dispose. This appropriation is analogous to the behavior of the Whites who colonized most of the non-White world centuries ago–marveling at the riches and jewels of our lands, looting them, and then mocking us for the poverty that they induced. For White women to create a body positive movement that is truly transformative, they cannot forget these histories.
It is preposterous for White feminists to believe that their body hair positivity is radical or valid when they fail to acknowledge their role as the Oppressor and blatantly dismiss the significance of intersectionality. It is hypocrisy, appropriation, and yet another way in which women of color are excluded from mainstream feminism because our voices do not benefit white women. White women have consistently participated in the exclusion of women of color in their standards of beauty and have actively shamed us for our appearances–from body hair in Brown women, to natural hair in Black women, to eyelids in East Asian women. Women of color are punished from deviating from the White norm of “beauty” and our bodies are policed in a way that White women’s bodies are not. It is this hypocrisy that makes White women’s claims to body positivity simply laughable.
Until women of color can comfortably exist in our own bodies without either punishment or the commodification of our aesthetic by White women in mainstream media, body hair positivity is bullshit. The feminist body hair movement is yet another reminder that women of color and White women are still playing for different teams. It is a reminder that mainstream feminism was not designed with us in mind.White feminists seem to have a deep understanding of their oppression without regarding the ways in which they are oppressors (shout out to White female Trump supporters!).White women are, after all, still White.