Throwback to Primary School Food Tech class where I’m in sitting at a table with some friends. Next to me is my best friend, a beautiful Sri Lankan girl, and across the table sit two boys, both of South Asian descent. One of the boys picks up the peeler and passes it to my friend saying, “You need to shave your arms.” Shocked, we look at each other, speechless. We have no witty comeback today. According to sexist social constructs my friend was beautiful, apart from her body hair. Fortunately I had avoided being a target that day because by age 11 I had already started shaving in secret. I can’t remember what caused my actions, but no doubt it was a result of other humiliating moments like this. I got caught eventually and received a talk from my mother and sister, both whom understood and were helpful enough to explain the dangers of shaving to me. To this day my arm hair troubles me, especially as it became thicker than normal due to my preadolescent shaving.
Out of all the teasing and bullying that went on in primary school I only recall a few significant moments and this was one of them. Although this wasn’t my moment, there were plenty that each South Asian girl going through puberty faced. The pain and humiliation of that moment was something I’ve never forgotten. Her humiliation was my humiliation. She, I and every other South Asian girl our age went through similar ridicule at the changes in our bodies which stood out against our white contemporaries. Sex ed class warned us of puberty but nothing prepares you for the extreme physical changes and the disgust it arouses in others. Our once soft, fine, ‘normal’ body hair suddenly became thick and inescapable. Our eyebrows and upper lips turned into subjects of repulsion overnight. Once again women of colour were placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy, as white girls, and boys of all races gained another area in which they could reassert their superiority. But our body-shaming didn’t stop in the playground or classroom, it came home with us, as a living presence staring back at us in the mirror.
The desire to hide and change these parts of our body has a lasting effect. As an adult I know better than to worry about such things, but that doesn’t stop me from waxing when I can, and covering my body when I can’t. Hair removal is painful, time-consuming and costly. Yet the South Asian female body continues to face extreme pressure to conform to the hairless fantasy that society expects. The beauty industry is incredibly profitable, but the number of salons and at-home beauticians in my hometown has rapidly risen in recent years, and the majority of them are run by fellow South Asian women. This may be great news for the women of Harrow, and other London boroughs with a large South Asian population, as my mother recently reminded me that “in her day” there weren’t such services available and “you just had to deal with your moustache”. But the rise in beauty salons and the development of modern methods of hair-removal like laser treatment aren’t just evidence of us ‘solving’ the issue of body hair, it demonstrates that the problem is more significant now than it was previously in society, at least in our own minds. The pressure to look a certain way, free from body hair like models in magazines and on instagram with their perfectly smooth, slim bodies is a growing problem.
The problem can double when we find a partner if they too have been indoctrinated by images of women in the media and pressure us to look the same, finding parts of our bodies we’ve never worried about before and turning them into new causes for anxiety. Both genders have body hair. Both genders in the South Asian community have even more body hair, but growing up under the white gaze has turned this natural part of us into something alien and other, something to be ashamed of, thus we hide and remove it at all costs. Body hair is natural and maintaining it should be a choice, not a requirement. The pressures on South Asian female bodies to be hairless is another form of control and oppression. Female body shaming isn’t a new problem, but the issue of body hair is deeply personal and complicated. There are various factors at play here, including socially constructed gender roles, the sexualisation of women, double colonisation as well as modern day beauty standards.
Female beauty expectations grow ever more difficult to keep up with. And for women of colour who are less represented in the media, trying to keep up with Western beauty standards is physically impossible and psychologically damaging. Women’s bodies have been plucked and pulled for centuries, but the plight of the contemporary South Asian woman is endless; as soon as you remove the hair it immediately starts re-emerging. You may wonder how something so small can have such an impact on our lives and self-esteem. Think about the biology and physicality of it. Body hair is an essential part of our bodies, it’s a part of our skin. It coats our skin entirely, some places more than others. The constant pressure to remove it, to rip these chunks of hair from our bodies has a greater negative impact than we assume. The impact can be so consuming that there are days when you don’t want to leave the house because of it. The fear of being seen with facial/body hair is a real problem and needs to be addressed.
What is it about body hair that causes such disgust? Is it a furry reminder of our evolutionary origins? Is hairlessness equated to culture and civilisation? Is it merely another tool used by a patriarchal system to control and inflict pain on female bodies? Is it another signifier used to separate us from men? A form of othering and inequality?
The lack of choice when it comes to South Asian female grooming starts from a very young age. This obsession with body hair begins early and never seems to end. Growing up in a white dominated society and the representation of white female bodies in the media have added to the obsession, making these parts of our body things we must remove in order to function, let alone thrive in 21st Century Britain. Whether or not you choose to remove your body hair, you need to think about why. Does it make you feel inadequate or unwomanly? Why? The pleasure felt through admiring yourself after a wax is a form of relief at having tamed your socially unacceptable body temporarily. But if you feel compelled to remove your body hair because of society’s inability to accept your healthy body as it is, what are you really achieving?
Will there ever be a day when we accept our thick black body hair? When we refuse to remove it, or at least refuse to hate our bodies for it? I hope so. The growing pressure to look a certain way merely adds to the multiplicity of issues South Asian women face in Western society. We need to teach children that body hair is normal, not something to be ashamed of. The battle with our bodies is tiring and one we can’t win unless we start accepting ourselves as we are, hair and all. Essentially it is up to us to redefine beauty. We shouldn’t let society’s impossible beauty standards control us. What matters most is how we view ourselves when we look in the mirror.