The maalish-wali looked at me with the confidence of a seasoned professional. ‘Ek baal bhi nahi bachega!’ (Not one hair will remain) I pretended to be amazed, stopping short of applause. Had she known that I had been taught the art of massaging babies with besan and turmeric paste by virtue of my mother going through an industrial quantity of grandchildren, she would have realised she was in conversation with a fellow professional who had enough experience with vanquishing the arch nemesis of every Indian home with a girl child, excess hair.
Strange, isn’t it? What is celebrated and coveted on the crown becomes a nuisance everywhere else. Ask real estate agents. It’s all about the location. What is also strange is that the very hair that many women find virile and sexy on men, becomes an ungainly sight on themselves that needs to be mowed down. But this wasn’t always the case. Hair, since the stone ages; was a rather functional item, from the point of view of hygiene, protection or controlling body temperature. Over a period of time as civilizations expanded and humans started becoming annoyingly complex, viewed from diverse prisms of class, gender, economics and politics, being hairy or hairless took on myriad hues for women. Where people are divided over principles and policy, it only took a bunch of hair for the ancient Egyptians and western Europe to classify women sporting them on legs, armpits and the pubic area, barbaric and a hallmark of the lowest classes. Much like the portrayal of chikni and confident women in advertisements slaying it in corporate boardrooms, the artists of the time played their part. They carved and painted the imagery of upper-class women with smooth complexions and hairless bodies so deep into the minds of the people that it was further associated with aspiration and privilege. Once bathrooms became more private and Gillette in the early 1900’s placed razors in the hands of women, hair, anywhere, didn’t stand a chance.
In India, the progressive land of Kamasutra and women with bare torsos, the issue of double standards on multiple womanly issues continues to be a ‘hairy’ matter. While our ancestors were traditional in their ways, the practice of hair removal itself is not new. The oldest references to epilation methods can even be found in the Mahabharata where Draupadi in exile, as Sairandhri would whip up herbal hair removing pastes for the Queen. Hygiene, beauty, control, whatever the reason, it was a personal matter, largely tucked beneath the drapes of clothes and long hemlines. As Mughal, British and several other cultural influences merged into the heartlands, all with their own sense of decorum and style, snugger and more experimental formats such as the salwar kameez, modern versions of sarees, ghagra cholis etc were born and the general disgust towards body hair on women came to the fore. Men would salivate at women with smooth arms and legs and the same people would come back home and ask their women to cover up, yet stay hairless beneath. That’s quite a confounding khichdi of expectations if you ask me. Almost as confounding as the decision of Queen Elizabeth I to start a peculiar trend of broad foreheads which necessitated extreme thinning of eyebrows to make women look imposing and in control!
The Hairy Warriors
The debate is eternal but where it turns dangerous and diabolical is when the choice is taken from the women sporting the hair to society at large. Whether we choose to pluck nose hair, grow braids inside our armpits or shave our legs every single day is a decision that should originate from individual tastes and needs instead of an external langar of opinions. Did you know that male swimmers and cyclists often shave their legs to wear compression tights more easily. Those poor blokes aren’t spared either, they are emasculated and ridiculed for being too feminine. What amazes me is the level of vehemence and vitriol trained at people who decide to go against the tide. How is this any different from religious or political intolerance?
Artist, dancer and hula hoop coach, Macey Duff from Nevada, USA started shaving her legs since she was 10 years old and was gobsmacked when she once saw a woman with a lot of body and facial hair, unaware that such an option even existed. That’s when she made the decision to celebrate herself as she was born and keep all her body hair, undeterred by the disgust and surprising hate that came her way.
Have you heard of Harnaam Kaur? She is a brave Sikh woman based in the UK, who suffers from PCOS. This condition caused her to have a beard, something no one in her family or immediate environment could understand. She was encouraged to keep shaving in the hopes of having a ‘normal’ life till she finally refused to. The ridicule and pushback just made her more determined.
Thankfully there are certain cultures around the world who don’t damn women for making this choice. Nigeria, Ghana, even rural Russia are countries where women have all the freedom to keep the hair on their bodies. Interestingly the very countries who possessed archaic and discriminating views on body and facial hair have undergone a revolution of sorts where women from France, Italy and Germany have become very vocal about their choices and way of life. In fact the pendulum has swung to the other extreme where sporting pubic or underarm hair is considered sexy, exotic even. Something else that often makes me chuckle is how being a feminist and having strong views on equality and opportunity have been entwined with hair. If you choose to be an iconoclast and keep your body hair, you are a bra burning, man hating bitch who has sullied and distorted what it is to be demure and feminine. See how humans have a penchant for complicating and labelling everything?
Speaking of labels, Gillette knew just which kind to pick; to make women feel that they are undesirable if they have any body hair. Women are nothing if not impressionable, constantly having to mould our sense of self and identity to the environment we find ourselves in. Then there’s an entire industry sitting on the side lines, ready to target our multitude of insecurities, even if it is body hair, something that is symbolic of a progression to womanhood, wholesomeness and growth, that we then spend the rest of our lives detesting, hiding or hacking at.
The other day, before leaving for the gym, I reviewed my perfectly shaved armpits, wondering if I should have a go at it once more, just in case there were too many people around. What would they think even if there was some hair spotted? That I can’t afford a razor? That its ungenteel? That I am (God forbid!) a hateful feminist? Made me wonder about that wonderful book, The Art of thinking clearly. Rolf Dobelli was right. My mind was working against me to confirm the biases and preconceived notions floating around. The Pavlovian theory of classical conditioning isn’t limited to canines. It’s time to break free ladies. Keep your hair, or make it disappear. You do you. You be you. There is even a social media campaign called #Januhairy that encourages women to embrace their body hair and post about it. If you’d rather not wait till next year, there’s always today. And remember, if all else fails, there’s a cheap ticket to rural Russia where your handlebar moustache shall be welcome!
Richa is an award-winning writer with four books under her belt, two of which are getting adapted for screen. Views expressed are the author’s own.
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