Why Hair Removal For Trans Women Isn't Just About Vanity

Photographed by Maisie Cousins.
I can't find an exact or even semi-accurate estimate of the number of hairs a human being has on their body. Taking an average from endless online sources, it would seem that we have at least five million hair follicles — or, put another way, a lot less than a chimpanzee, our nearest and dearest relative, but a lot more than a Mexican hairless dog. We are hairy beings, male, female, cis or trans. There is no escape from the hair's growth, although we can try to control, tame, or eradicate it with degrees of success, and a whole lot of body shaming.
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If you flick through the 'facial hair growth' Wikipedia page, you are led to believe that men are mainly hairy and that only some women are a little bit hairy. Men develop facial hair as a secondary sex characteristic, while women are also capable of developing facial hair but often after the menopause, and typically far less than men. It goes on to say that men's facial hair is celebrated and women's stigmatized. As an older trans woman I'd quite like a new page dedicated to fitting me somewhere on this spectrum of expectation, and apparent disorder.
I transitioned in my 30s, long after the celebrated beard growth had manifested, so I then had to endure several years of utter pain, discomfort, and cost of hair removal that extended from my chin to the very margins of my nipples. Facial hair removal such as electrolysis can cost up to $100 or more a session, with each hair getting zapped 10-20 times. In a 30-minute session, the area above your lip will get around a third of its stubbly hairs cleared. As a rough calculation, to be smoothly kissable potentially runs into thousands of dollars. I worked for many years in my 30s just to pay for the mortgage and hair removal. No spare money for holidays, expensive face creams, twinkly jewels, or M&S pudding splurges — I spent it all on treatments and the cooling relief of a cheap aloe vera cream. I recommend keeping the cream in the freezer.
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Hair removal for trans women isn't just about vanity or feeling gender-stigmatized, it's an issue of personal safety; having a five-o'clock shadow or long, white spiky hairs glinting in the sunlight signals to the world that your body is in flux.
A five-o'clock shadow covered in foundation is a daily reality for many trans women early in the wonderfully liberating process. For many others, the exorbitant costs of hair removal can mean an ongoing battle between new hair growth and a blanket of foundation. I assumed I'd zapped every hair on my face in my 30s and 40s but the older I get, the more stubble appears every morning, like ears of corn waiting to be harvested. It's often only when I'm out that I run my fingers over my neck or chin and feel clusters of hair that seem to have appeared on the walk to the station – maybe the fresh air promotes growth?
Most days I accept and can get past it — I'm freelance and seldom have to sit in people-heavy meetings or tension-filled pitches — but occasionally the stubble floors me. I want to curl up in a ball and stay on the train, going backward and forward all day long until the dark of night falls and it feels safe to be on the street. I know there is an element of body dysmorphia here but I also am self-caring enough to know that it comes from a place of feeling vulnerable, not just from vanity. I have often ended up at drugstores buying yet another pair of tweezers and a magnifying mirror and finding a secret corner in which to pluck away; occasionally I pluck too hard and end up reddened and marked.
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Look at the freedom men have to grow full and luxuriant beards. They call it 'fashionable facial furniture', as we're running into corners to pluck hairs we are told are not feminine.

I'm angry that as trans women we feel we have to endure this misogynistic ritual just to feel safe on the streets. Trans women with hair are not marked out as "hairy" – we become real targets, often for abuse and violence, because people read us as "men pretending to be women." This isn't creating an "us versus them" dichotomy, as the sexism that demands smooth, hairless women pervades all of our internal voices and I know from conversations with my sister that she has been made to feel that she is 'disgusting' for having hair on her legs. It's cruel to demand that one gender spends their entire lives removing hair, while the other is celebrated for their hair growth. Look at the freedom men have to grow full and luxuriant beards. They call it "fashionable facial furniture," as we're running into corners to pluck errant hairs that we are told are not feminine.
I've always found it wrong that funding for gender realignment only includes enough money for six to eight sessions for facial hair removal — although maybe that's not surprising, seeing as how the whole process is part and parcel of a patriarchal, sexist system.
Recently my energy levels have been really low, beyond the tiredness that being freelance, over 50, and busy often makes me feel. My clinician has tracked this through exhausting blood tests and Q&A sessions, which feel forensic in detail, to a testosterone deficiency that can occur in post-operative trans women. There is not one simple answer to tackling a testosterone deficiency in trans females; issues can occur around hirsutism, the idea of which sends me into a spiral of having to juggle my actual health concerns with the dysphoric feelings of being beset with beard growth. It feels like I need to have a grown-up analysis of my hormone levels and hormone types but I'm fearful that might result in the sort of unwanted hair growth that society describes as stigmatizing and abnormal.
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I sometimes wonder what it would be like just to let go of that fear. It's not irrational — it's a very real fear, rooted in deep-seated notions of what we as women (all women) can and cannot be, of how we should present to the world, and what we become if we fall below those standards. The furore caused if a woman lifts her arms and reveals underarm hair, the apparent shock on teenage boys' faces when, having gorged on online porn, they realize that vaginal smoothness is a job and that women — surprise, surprise — grow hair all over.
Surely, 50 years on from the symbolic burning of bras, we can be honest about hair growth and be kinder to women who currently shave, pluck, wax, zap, and dye theirs to uphold the cruel notion that we are smooth, and that those who aren't belong in the modern day equivalent of those circus shows where women with beards are targets for public ridicule. What most men don't realize, I think, is the constant pressure this puts on so many women. If they did, I suspect that at least a few wouldn't ask: "Are you smooth down there?"