In one of Alok Vaid-Menon's favorite photos of themselves for Subvrt Magazine, they're perched in front of a pink backdrop, wearing black platform boots and a matching, rainbow-striped crop top and skirt. With canary yellow eyeshadow brushed across their lids and electric teal cream coating their lips, they gaze into the camera and fluff up their curls with the confidence of a supermodel. But as happy and whimsical as that all sounds, for the 27-year-old transgender, gender non-conforming artist, it's actually brought a lot of negativity into their life.
In an Instagram post that's garnered more than 15,000 likes, Vaid-Menon revealed that the image (which they originally posted to social media last year) has led to daily hateful comments and DMs from those who take issue with Vaid-Menon's leg, chest, stomach, and arm hair being on full display. "People of all genders [tell] me that my body hair is ugly and that I need to shave to be more 'real' and 'beautiful,'" Vaid-Menon wrote. "Body hair has no gender! Facial hair has no gender!"
And Vaid-Menon is not alone. As the fashion and beauty industries move toward greater inclusivity, visible body hair is one area that continues to be intensely policed. In 2017, model Arvida Byström got rape threats after starring in an Adidas campaign with her unshaved legs front and center, and actress Lola Kirke received death threats after showing up to the Golden Globes with hairy armpits. Both of these instances led to conversations on social media around women and outdated beauty norms, which remains a necessary conversation to have. But by posting images of themselves like the one above, Vaid-Menon also wants to bring in the people who have largely been forgotten in this discussion: transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary individuals.
Vaid-Menon knows firsthand that among transgender and gender non-conforming people, who are often just as pressured to conform to the hairless beauty standard as cis women, this conversation around body hair and its relationship to gender expression is barely existent. Based on the kinds of messages they've routinely received from individuals inside these communities, they know that needs to change.
"I have many non-binary and transgender people telling me that I'm making the community look bad because I'm not trying hard enough," Vaid-Menon tells Refinery29. "The idea is that I'm lazy — that if you want to look convincing as a woman, then you should remove your body hair. But gender isn’t what we look like. It’s who we are."
There's an understandable reason as to why body hair has become such a divisive topic among transgender and non-binary people, as many fear that not shaving in a particular way might result in being misgendered, which could then lead to more serious consequences. "I don't feel like my gender depends on what I look like, but the world doesn't think that way," Vaid-Menon says. "People think that if they keep [their] body hair that they’re going to be misgendered, and that could also lead to violence. By conforming to this beauty standard, they can feel safer."
Vaid-Menon isn't trying to shame the individuals who do choose to shave. What they're aiming for is to encourage more transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people to talk about their personal relationship with their body hair, so a more accepting dialogue can form. "Across the board, we’re told that our worth is linked with our desirability," Vaid-Menon says. "Oftentimes, we think that trans people have transgressed all social norms and that’s not true. Trans people are all thinking about really toxic beauty norms, body hair included."
And so Vaid-Menon is starting this discussion where they know best: On Instagram, where they continue to fight the steady stream of negative comments to spread the idea that body hair doesn't exist for one gender alone. "I’m just really exhausted and tired of rehashing a really simple idea that we should allow people to own their own bodies and do with them what they want," Vaid-Menon says. "Body hair doesn't make us more masculine or feminine. It just makes us us."