Sunday, June 23, 2013

Our Body Hair Dilemma

If you don’t know me personally you should know that I’m a sassy, liberal, Dominican, engineer, raised in New York City who is supposed to be planning a wedding with my Egyptian fianc√©. We haven’t gotten to the actual planning a wedding part yet, but I have a Pinterest board (yay, progress!) Since most of his relatives live in Egypt and won’t be able to make it to the wedding we decided to visit them and have an engagement party there.
Admittedly, I was a little afraid of having an engagement party in Egypt. I’m not into events where everyone is paying attention to me, and my idea of primping for a special event consists of tweezing a couple stray hairs between my eyebrows, a grooming habit that I foolishly thought was good enough.

LITTLE DID I KNOW THAT I WAS EXPECTED TO REMOVE EVERY INCH OF HAIR ON MY BODY, BELOW THE HAIRLINE.

It all started the day before my engagement party, when a female relative made a casual remark about the need to buy a depilatory cream for me. I looked at her with a confused face and asked “why?!”, truly not understanding what she meant. She said that I needed to remove my body hair, especially the soft, almost nonexistent hairs on my arms and face. I told her I didn’t think it was so noticeable I had to remove it, and that I would prefer not to, but she insisted that it wouldn’t look appropriate for the engagement party.
I won’t lie, I was offended. I felt criticized and ugly, and wondered if everyone in the family wBas thinking the same thing. I left the room in a fit of pent up frustration and did what I do best, started to cry.
It got worse the day of the engagement party. I was scrutinized by every hair stylist and woman in the hair salon. They all asked (via my friend/Arabic interpreter) if I wanted to remove my body hair. When we said “no” I was looked at with pity, she was told that maybe I had not understood the question. A woman even asked if my dress was long and had sleeves, and as I replied that it was a sleeveless dress, I immediately knew why she was asking me that question.
Latinas, like all other women, have body hair. As an art teacher in high school told me once “if you have thick, dark, wavy hair on your head, it’s probably the same everywhere else in your body.” And indeed, it is, but it’s also soft and baby-like, and until I was a teenager I never felt ashamed of my body hair.

IN LATINO CULTURES BODY HAIR IS CONSIDERED BEAUTIFUL.

Growing up I was encouraged to never shave or wax, and was constantly told how beautiful my thick eyebrows were. Admittedly, I never had a humongous unibrow, but the reason why we consider soft, unshaven body hair to be beautiful is because it’s reminiscent of adolescence and youth. Little girls don’t have waxed upper lips and perfectly arched eyebrows, and we think they are the prettiest humans that have ever walked this earth. That notion, however, does not exist for adult women in our society.
As a Dominican immigrant living in the United States I had to find the middle ground between two completely different and opposing beauty standards. This middle ground is a common theme in my life, because it shapes every single one of my actions. When it came to the removal or appreciation of body hair, it was the same story. As a teen I badly wanted to shave my legs and shape my unruly eyebrows so that I can look like the women I saw on magazines and TV. My mother refused, even confessing that she had never removed a single hair in her body to show me that if I could just endure my teen years I would learn to appreciate my body. But I relented, and shaved my legs and waxed my eyebrows.
Long story short, I regretted that decision almost immediately. Not only did I find that I am incredibly sensitive to wax, but I am now a slave to the razor. Years later I have to shave my legs at least every other day because it grows prickly and feels uncomfortable. I let go of wax and now only tweez a few stray hairs, and trust me, I look fine.
The removal of body hair in Middle Eastern societies is considered proper hygiene. I don’t attempt to change centuries old traditions, and I don’t want to. What I do expect is to be accepted the way I am. I firmly believe that every culture considers its practices and customs the norm and everyone else is just, “different.” When I tell my Dominican family that women in Egypt remove all their body hair, the response is astonishment, and so is the opposite, as evident in my experience in Egypt.

WE SHOULD STRIVE FOR A MORE FLUID DEFINITION OF BEAUTY; ONE IN WHICH WOMEN WHO WAX AND WOMEN WHO DON’T ARE EQUALLY RESPECTED AND ADMIRED FOR THEIR CHOICES.

There are a lot of role models for hairless beauties out there, so I understand not wanting to feel ostracized for refusing to submit to a socially accepted beaty standard. But if you are looking for inspiration, look at Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter who took the world by storm with her gut wrenching and perfectly honest self portraits in the 1920s. She had a unibrow, a little peach fuzz over her upper lip, and her arms were covered with soft hairs that perfectly blend in with her caramel skin. I can only assume that she also never shaved her legs or underarms, yet Frida was considered a beautiful woman with sex appeal, rumored to have had female and male lovers.
Throughout the years I have had to readjust my own idea of beauty. The level of comfort I feel with my body was hard earned and I fight daily to not relinquish that. I just hope one day we can all feel comfortable to show our own idea of beauty– to release our inner Frida Kahlo.

*This post was written by me and originally posted on Sex and Fessenjoon.