Coming To Terms With My Indian Body Hair
A few weeks into quarantine, I was as hairy as I had been since puberty, when I first realized my hair, like my skin tone, made me different. But for once, I didn’t mind.
I twisted to get a glimpse of my freshly waxed back in the mirror. It was red and covered in bumps. This was worse than when I burned it with depilatory cream in high school. Panicking, I dialled the esthetician.
“Put urine on it,” she said.
“Like…urine, urine?” I asked, grimacing.
“Pee!” she scolded, miffed that I was clueless about its natural healing powers.
I hung up the phone. A few minutes later, cringing, I dipped a face towel into a ramekin of pee, closed my eyes, and flung it onto my back.
That was six years ago, but I have been at war with my black body hair forever. Like most South-Asian accoutrements, my body hair is not subtle. And like the glitter falling off our bangles, it's everywhere. I’ve spent my life trying to fit in by taming it with creams, epilators, threaders, and waxes. Not even the pee remedy (which semi-worked, btw), could convince me to concede.
But that changed when COVID-19 stormed in this past spring. With salons closed, I couldn’t thread my eyebrows, sugar my bikini, or wax my arms. A few weeks into quarantine, I was as hairy as I had been since early puberty, when I first realized my hair, like my skin tone, clashed with the world around me. In lockdown, I was forced to finally confront the complicated relationship I have with my body hair.
I grew up in the Canadian prairies, 24 minutes away from White City, Sask., in another very white city with a small Indian community. The girls in my swim class had blonde hair that glinted prettily in the sun. Mine glared. They pointed at my legs. “Ew, you need to shave,” they sneered. I wilted, my navy one-piece suddenly skimpy. I asked my mom for a razor. “Why?” she quizzed, suspicious shaving was a gateway drug to failed math tests, boys, and alcohol. I shrugged, I couldn’t tell her it was worse, that I needed to exterminate my Indian-ness to survive seventh grade. After years of being ridiculed for having brown skin, that now had hair on it?!, I would try anything to feel safe inside it.
I asked my mom for a razor. 'Why?' she quizzed, suspicious shaving was a gateway drug to failed math tests, boys, and alcohol. I couldn’t tell her it was worse, that I needed to exterminate my Indian-ness to survive seventh grade.
In high school, hair removal became my secret weapon, but also my most shameful secret. I was terrified my friends would find the idea of me waxing my body so foreign, that they would label me as such. In my twenties, I was jealous of girls flouncing spontaneously into sex, I had to pencil it into my agenda in order to perform a full-body exorcism beforehand.
Once, I opened up about my feelings at a bikini wax. “Everyone has their thing,” the esthetician said, ripping off a strip of hair. “My boobs came in first.” I nodded, not wanting to diminish her pain even though she wasn’t acknowledging mine. My trauma was linked to racism and hundreds of years of colonialism. It extended far past my hair, to the jobs I didn’t get and the extra security checks at airports I did; to the Indian culture that still favoured fair and smooth-skinned women. Big boobs meant boys liked you, black body hair meant you were an “other” and they weren’t supposed to. And so I continued to prune.
But in quarantine, something changed. I live in Montreal, the epicentre of the Canadian outbreak. Huddled on the couch, I watched coronavirus cases rise. When I did dart out to the grocery store or pharmacy, I cowered from the people roaming the aisles around me, convinced they had the virus. Days and weeks passed, and I filled time crying, cooking, and watching weekly reruns of The Bachelor.
In April, hanging up on a family Zoom, I waved goodbye and noticed my arm hair. I had forgotten to shave; in the midst of a pandemic, it didn’t seem all that important. Two months later, I was doing YouTube Pilates in my underwear. As I lifted my legs in the air, I took in the view; hair had weaved its way through the landscape of my entire body. I waited for the familiar sick feeling to come, but it didn’t.
A few days later, I went for a run with overgrown armpits. New moms sat on stoops while couples sipped coffee on the sidewalk. For the first time, I didn’t feel like there was a spotlight on me. Insecurity no longer clung to me; instead, I felt protected by the skin I was born in. With life tasks divided into essential and non-essential, hair removal fell into the latter. And so suddenly I was liberated from it. The light dusting on my stomach and strays near my nipples had hung out with me when no one else could. They were a part of my heritage, as much as the Bhangra music and dance I loved so much. I smiled thinking about how my mom had black hair, just like her mom did.
The light dusting of hair on my stomach and strays near my nipples were a part of my heritage, as much as the Bhangra music and dance I loved so much. I smiled thinking about how my mom had black hair, just like her mom did.
My perspective had shifted, and slowly, the world’s was starting to. Black Lives Matter protests had taken over the streets, companies were being penalized for not practising diversity, and brands like Fair & Lovely, a skin-lightening cream were under fire for supporting a singular, Euro-centric standard of beauty.
When summer strutted in, I went to pick up sushi one day. As the sun beat down, sweat highlighted the fine hair above my lip. Did I have to keep my hair to prove the point that I'm okay with it, I wondered. Frowning, I felt pushed up against a new wall. I had spent years waxing to fit in, now I needed to do what felt right to me.
So I took my mustache on a social-distancing date and let my arm hair come along for the ride. But also, I shaved my legs and when salons re-opened, I waltzed into my Brazilian wax with a brand new attitude. I was here because I liked feeling smooth, and not because I cared about what anyone else thought about it.
I pointed at my quaran-bush. “I’m hairy,” I said, not sorry.
“Honestly, everyone is,” she replied.
“Right?!” I cheered.