I Shave My Face Every Day, But Why Does That Bother You?

Photographed by Anna Jay
There's a painfully relatable Instagram meme that always makes me laugh: When you're getting your eyebrows threaded and the lady asks, "Moustache, too?" Many women would be offended, as the replies and comments prove. But for lots of us with excess facial hair, the ritual of removal is as standard as a fortnightly brow tidy. (In fact, we're often pretty glad the threading lady did ask.)
Dr Zainab Laftah, consultant dermatologist at HCA The Shard, says that excess facial hair growth is also known as hirsutism and is prevalent among women for a number of reasons. "It can be a sign of increased production of, or an increased skin sensitivity to androgens, which are male hormones," she says. Dr Laftah pinpoints other common causes: polycystic ovary syndrome, certain medications and hormonal issues, such as Cushing's syndrome (where the body is exposed to high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, for a long period of time). "Hirsutism is not always due to an underlying medical condition, though," continues Dr Laftah. She adds that excess facial hair tends to be more prevalent among women of certain ethnic backgrounds, for example Middle Eastern, South Asian and Mediterranean women.
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As someone with polycystic ovaries and Cypriot ethnicity, I got double the amount of fuzz. That said, Cypriot culture is comfortable with the act of hair removal. I had my first full facial wax at 13 and it involved three beauticians in a Cypriot-owned salon in east London: one tended to my top lip and the other my sideburns, while another waited patiently to get to my brows.
There's a scene in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding which sticks in my mind. The family is getting ready for Toula's wedding when her brother Angelo lures them out of the bathroom with the promise of "fresh paklava". But there is no paklava. Instead, he's lying in wait to snap some embarrassing pictures. When cousin Nikki emerges from the bathroom, of course her top lip is covered in a thick blanket of white hair removal cream. Eighteen years later, I remember it vividly. Not just because the following exchange is pretty funny – "Oh, nice moustache, Nikki!" to which Nikki replies in her Chicago drawl, "Thank you!" – but because, at just 10 years old, it was like looking in a mirror. When Jolen bleach didn't cut it on my jet black 'tache, or simply turned it a dubious shade of yellow, removing it entirely with pungent depilatory cream was the obvious next step. Even if it did mean going to school most days with chemical burns...

Even among women, facial hair removal is not a topic of open discussion. It's almost a shameful secret that is kept behind closed doors, but openness around this topic will help break down the stigma surrounding it.

Dr Zainab Laftah
Nowadays, shaving and plucking my face is part of my daily routine, not because I deem it necessary to fit in with narrow beauty ideals but because it makes me feel so much better. Of course, you don't need me to tell you that getting rid of facial hair (or not) is a personal choice. Do it or don't do it; that's entirely up to you. But it's hard to ignore the shock and often repulsion that ensues when women say that they do remove their facial hair.
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Recently MAC refused to photoshop facial hair in their Instagram posts and razor brand Billie championed facial hair in their Movember ad campaign. There is lots of support for women who choose to embrace their facial hair. It is seen as empowering; a form of taking back control. So why does it feel as though there is a double standard for women who decide they don't want it?
Boyfriends and close friends have all been grossed out by my daily hair removal routine, and a quick whip round my friendship group and Reddit uncovers some similarly uncomfortable stories. "On a girls' holiday, my friend noticed me plucking my chin in the bathroom," Abbie* told me. "What ensued was an hourlong giggle-fest about my facial hair and how it was 'weird' and 'gross' that I have facial hair at all, and even more so that I pluck it." Abbie continued: "I'm old enough now not to care much about catty comments but not removing my facial hair really affects my self-esteem. I'm not saying I won't leave the house without having plucked or waxed that day but it really does make me feel a little more like me. I think that's okay, to be honest."

On a girls' holiday, my friend noticed me plucking my chin in the bathroom. What ensued was an hourlong giggle-fest about my facial hair and how it was 'weird' and 'gross' that, firstly, I have facial hair at all, and secondly, that I get rid of it.

Abbie*
Marianna has experienced something similar. "One of my best friends used to take the piss out of me for using Veet on my upper lip," she told me. "She always used to make comments about how she was glad she was fair and blonde, so that she didn't have to deal with dark hair like mine. It's something I think about every time I pick up a tube of the stuff!" For Andie, the shame comes from family members: "My facial hair is relatively fluffy and fine but that doesn't stop my mum from trying to scare me into thinking that waxing or plucking it away will either completely ruin my skin or make the hair grow back thicker and twice as fast. Obviously, I know that isn't true but it makes me feel as though the decision to remove my facial hair is wrong, silly or not very 'ladylike'."
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Dr Laftah agrees that societal pressure can leave women feeling embarrassed about their facial hair, especially if they choose to remove it. "There is a social perception that facial hair is associated with masculinity," she says. "Even among women, removing facial hair is not a topic of open discussion. It's almost a shameful secret that is kept behind closed doors, but openness around this topic will help break down the stigma surrounding it."
Dr Laftah reports frequently seeing patients with excess facial hair in her clinic, who describe low self-confidence, feelings of discomfort in social situations and relationship anxiety among resulting factors. "Studies have shown hirsutism can be associated with profound emotional distress, lower level of quality of life and depression," continues Dr Laftah. "Facial hair is normal but women shouldn't be chastised for choosing to remove it for personal reasons," she adds. "Men have the option of choosing to either grow their facial hair or shave it. Women should be permitted to practise the same right."
Interestingly, the practice of hair removal has deep historical roots. Women of ancient Egypt removed all of their body hair using sugar-based waxes and various natural tools. While it is true that changing fashion and the male gaze have had a hand in hair removal throughout more recent history, in 2020, many women have reclaimed the practice for themselves.
On recently discovering a new, "female first" razor brand, a friend sparked a discussion about whether shaving both body and facial hair can be seen as feminist. Of course it can. Getting rid of hair and advocating for women's rights aren't mutually exclusive. If anything, promoting the idea that women can choose to keep or get rid of their facial hair is liberating in its own small way. One new razor brand which voices this particularly well is Sunny. This tagline is the first thing to greet customers on their website: "To shave or not to shave. It's no biggie, is it? Prickly or smooth, it won't change the world."
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Though many women are made to feel embarrassed or even that they are wrong to remove their facial hair, it seems that there is an exception to the rule: when it is disguised as a shiny new beauty trend. According to Treatwell, app searches for dermaplaning have grown by an enormous 621% year on year. A popular treatment carried out by qualified facialists, aestheticians and dermatologists, it consists of using a sterilised blade or surgical scalpel to lift away dead skin cells. In the process, all traces of hair on the face are shaved away, too. The hair in question is almost always referred to as "super fine" or "peach fuzz". For those with thicker, darker, excess hair, though, face shaving isn't particularly trendy or cool. For many women like myself and Abbie, it's linked to our own personal wellbeing. That certainly doesn't give anyone the green light to criticise or mock.
While plucking, shaving, threading, waxing and epilating may be quick and easy, they often result in fast growth and blunt ends, which make hair appear thicker or feel uncomfortably stubbly. If you're looking for more permanent forms of hair removal, there are other avenues to consider. "Physical hair removal techniques comprise electrolysis, laser hair removal and intense pulsed light (IPL) treatment," says Dr Laftah. "Electrolysis is the only permanent hair loss treatment available and it involves passing an electric current into the hair follicle via a needle to destroy the hair follicle and hair root." This process can be time-consuming, costly and a little uncomfortable.
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Laser and IPL treatment, while not permanent, achieve hair reduction by targeting the pigment in the hair. "Through the process (known as photothermal destruction) it heats the hair follicle and disrupts hair growth," explains Dr Laftah. "Laser and IPL target the dark colour of hair, therefore work best on those with light skin tones and dark hair, while electrolysis is suitable for all skin types and hair colours." There are lasers, such as the Nd:YAG, which work a lot better on dark skin tones (check out the Black girl's guide to lasers). Cost will vary from clinic to clinic and multiple sessions are required for both laser hair removal and IPL.
Less technical, more affordable options include prescription creams that can be applied to help reduce the growth of facial hair, says Dr Laftah, while certain contraceptive pills such as Yasmin or Dianette, which have anti-androgenic activity, have been shown to help some women. "Other anti-androgen medications, for example spironolactone (an off-label blood pressure drug, often prescribed by experts to counteract hormonal acne in women) may also be used to reduce excess hair growth under the supervision of a dermatologist," adds Dr Laftah. Search the General Medical Council register to find a qualified specialist.
From dandruff to periods, it's obvious that there are plenty of "taboos" still to be broken in regard to women's health, wellness and beauty. While the conversation around facial hair and removal may be changing for the better, it's still firmly on the list.
*Name has been changed

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