Archive | January, 2014

To Shave or Not to Shave Pt. II: A (Quite Literal) Exploration of Waxing

9 Jan

As promised, I’m back to continue my musings on my newfound obsession with hair.  Last week, I stuck to a general overview of all sorts of body hair, from the kind on your face and head to the sort on your legs.  However, this time I’ll be venturing into parts less known and even less talked about: the hair between your legs.

*True story: while writing this post in a popular coffee shop, a man came up to me. Our conversation went thusly:“What are you typing away about, sweetheart?” “I’m blogging!” “Oh?” He leaned in a little. “I like your scarf. Are you a fashion blogger?” “Nope! I’m writing about bikini waxes!” He choked on his coffee and I returned, quite satisfied, to my work.

Although you can get away with discussing shaving and waxing of innocuous body parts like eyebrows in polite conversation, pubic hair maintenance is a don’t-go-there kind of topic*.  You might as well mark it with a jagged, red X and write “Here be dragons” next to it (or at least “Here be landing strips,” “Here be vajazzling,” or any number of the bizarre things people do with their, er, lettuce groves**).   This made me insatiably curious, as taboo conversational subjects tend to do.  What kind of wax was used?  How much did it cost?  What was it like to be a salon technician and spend all day peeling hair off of people’s crotches?  Who that I knew got bikini or Brazilian waxes?  Was a bikini wax a gateway drug into harder stuff, like full-body waxing?  How did you avoid the awkwardness of stripping off your clothes and baring everything for a stranger?  What did the damn thing feel like?  And, most importantly, what compelled people to pay other people to apply hot wax to their genitals and then rip it off?

**I wondered a good deal about what to call the area to which a bikini wax is applied. The technical term would be ‘pubic region,’ but that sounds so unfunny and medical that I decided to call it a bunch of different things, some of them just as silly as ‘pubic region’ is dry.

I resolved that I would not leave Spain without answering this question.  And indeed, dear readers, I carried through on this resolution so that I could tell you all about it.  Here follows one woman’s maiden voyage into the waxing salon.

I had spoken with my friend Sarah, a waxing veteran, about my plan of attack.  She agreed to come with me as moral support – and potentially physical, should I be doubled over in agony.  Together, we chose a salon near the center of Valencia.  I strutted up to the counter, trying to look as if I had done this a hundred times before.  “I would like a wax,” I said in my it’s-obvious-she’s-not-from-here Spanish.

The man behind the counter pulled out an appointment book.  “We have an opening at 7:00.  Where?”

“On my…um…” It was only now that I realized I didn’t know the Spanish phrase for ‘bikini wax.’  I gestured at my crotch as if I were directing a plane to land there.  “Here.  I want it here.”

The man gave me a (justifiably) weird look.  “All…right.  We’ll see you at seven.”

Sarah and I frittered away two hours in Starbucks.  I kept biting my nails and twitching, wondering just what I’d gotten myself into.  When we came back, we were introduced to Leticia, the waxing technician, a woman in her late thirties with dyed-red hair, impeccable eyebrows, and a businesslike demeanor.

“So…this is my first time,” I said, imitating a nonchalant tone.

She took my arm.  “Your first time?  Are you scared?” she said in Spanish.

“Uh…a little,” I admitted.

“Don’t be.  I’m very good at what I do.  Go inside and strip down to your underwear.  And call me Leti.”

“Cool.  Um, can I bring a friend?” I pointed at Sarah, who was hovering in the doorway.

I got my second weird look of the day.  “Is she gonna hold your hand?”

“Hoping we won’t get to that point, but maybe.”

Leti grinned and shook her head.  “Yeah, she’s fine.”  She ushered us in and closed the door behind us.

I glanced around the room.  There was a massage table covered with a sheet, a bureau topped with neat stacks of paper strips, and a metal tray full of waxing apparatus.  A pot of greenish goo bubbled sinisterly in the corner.  I took off my clothes and shoved them in Sarah’s direction.  “Oh my god.  Oh my god.  Is she going to make me take off my underwear?”

***An awkward anecdote to add to this pile of awkward anecdotes: in Spanish, the word ingle means ‘crotch.’ The word inglés means either ‘English’ (as in the language) or ‘Englishman.’ When Leti asked if I wanted my ingle done, I tried to assure her that, sadly, I had no Englishman for her to wax.

“Probably not,” said Sarah soothingly, and patted my shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  You’ve got this, girl.  Go lie down.”

Leti knocked and entered a few moments later.  “Okay.  What do we want today?  A bikini wax or Brazilian wax?”***

Not a Brazilian,” I said, fervent.

She stirred the pot of goo – which was, as I had feared, the wax.  “And do you want any designs?  Hearts?  A letter?”

I briefly considered a ‘w’ for ‘why did I do this?’  “Er…no.  Just keep it normal.”

She began applying the wax to my skin in wide strokes.  “Do you have a boyfriend?”

I winced at the temperature of the wax.  “Yes.  Back in the States.”

Leti pursed her lips.  “Did he make you do this?”

“God, no.”

“Good.  Lots of men make their girlfriends do it here.”  She applied a strip of paper to the quickly-cooling wax.  “Ready?  It won’t hurt very much.”

I motioned for Sarah, who snorted and gave me her hand to grab.  I didn’t hold out very long, I thought.  “Grip your skin so it’s taut.  It hurts less that way,” said Leti.  I gripped.  She stripped.  It felt like one of Daenerys’ dragons from Game of Thrones had gotten caught between my legs and started belching flames while someone beat my nether regions with a brick.  I squeezed Sarah’s hand for dear life.

“See?” said Leti, grabbing the wax applicator again.  “That wasn’t so bad!”

“Right,” I gasped.

“So,” said Leti, brushing her angular, red bangs out of her eyes, “if you’re not doing this for your boyfriend, then why are you doing it?”

“So I can write a blog post about it.”  I tensed again, waiting for the rrrip of the waxing paper.  It came.  I tried not to whimper.

“Whatever makes you happy,” said Leti, sounding doubtful.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” asked Sarah.

“I did,” she said.  Her face fell.  “For three years.  But we just broke up.”

“That’s awful. You want to talk about it?” said Sarah, ever the therapist.

Leti did.  So we launched into a conversation about the reprehensible behavior of our various exes, especially hers, who had cheated on her.  I found it more than a little ironic that we were man-bashing (which is not a good thing to do, but you just go with the conversational flow when you have hot wax on your lady forest, trust me) while conducting the stereotype of ‘crazy girl things.’

By the time we had finished about ten minutes later, I had been denuded of a pretty big portion of what I normally keep around my southern soul patch.  Leti gave me a cream to apply to my stinging skin and left the room so I could get dressed.  I’m not sure why, since she had already seen way more than I show most people.  “Make sure to write something good about me on your blog!” she said over her shoulder.  (Which I have done, because she deserved it.)  Sarah and I left the salon a few minutes later, thanking her one more time.  Dusk was falling in Valencia, and the elaborate displays of Christmas lights in the main plaza were coming to life.

“So how do you feel?” Sarah asked.

“Better than I expected,” I admitted.  The pain was slowly seeping away.  “But Jesus, Sarah.  People do that on a regular basis?”

Which is, essentially, what I’m taking away from this experience.  Sarah explained to me that some people do it because they’re allergic to the metals used in most razor blades, or because their skin is so sensitive that shaving inflames it (which is her situation).  But for those of us who have no such aversion, I can’t imagine going back to the salon every three weeks for this treatment.    As I said in my last post, my feeling is that women and men should be free to do whatever they’d like with their body hair, and if that involves getting it all waxed off, then so be it.  However, I don’t like the idea of people doing it to conform to some standard of nether hairlessness.  The biological truth is that we grow hair down there.  Waxing will only remove it for a few weeks at most (oh, and have I mentioned that it’s agonizing?).  In addition, it’s expensive – I paid €15 for it, which is about $20.50.  If you wax once a month, which is less frequent than the recommended every three weeks, it adds up to $246 per year.  That’s a lot of money to pay just to keep your hedge trimmed.

I suppose this essay comes down to one question: would I do it again?  The answer: probably not.  Not unless I suddenly become an underwear model, an Olympic swimmer, or a porn star****.  Although I felt a little more like Adriana Lima afterwards, I also felt guilty about subscribing to typical feminine beauty expectations.  No matter where it grows, the hair we’ve got is a part of us.  I’m assistant directing the Vagina Monologues right now, and one of the characters says, “I realized that hair is there for a reason: it’s the leaf around the flower, the lawn around the house.  You can’t pick the parts you want.”  Or rather: you can, but you have to go to an awful lot of trouble to do it.  The kick-ass Balpreet Kaur, a Sikh woman who has a bit more facial hair than the average woman, also exemplifies the same notion in her reply to Reddit bullies when she wrote, “My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body.”  And with that in mind, I’ll take a leaf from Balpreet’s book – at least in regards to waxing.

So, although I respect every person’s decision to do with their hair what they want, as I wrote last week, I don’t believe I’ll be engaging in any more wax-related bush-whacking, jungle-weeding, hen-plucking, or any of those other ridiculous euphemisms.  I’ll save my time for other things, like fighting dragons in Skyrim and reading McSweeney’s Internet Tendency articles until I pass out.

Read Pt. I here: To Shave or Not to Shave: The Cultural Aesthetics of Female Body Hair

****Hi, Mom!  I hope you’re not reading this!

The Game

6 Jan

Another one of the entries I wrote for the Library of Virginia’s “The Dark Side” contest, a challenge to capture a moment in 1,000 words or less.  This one was inspired by a photograph of a storefront window in downtown Norfolk, 1915.

Harry C. Mann (1866–1926)
Schreier & Son Window Display, Norfolk, Virginia, 1915

“Oh,” said Dorothy, the small slope of her nose inches away from the shop window. “Oh. That’s my new favorite. Look at the lace along the edges of the bodice.” The perfect, pink circle of her lips fell open. “How much do you think it costs, Martha?”

“Every dress becomes your new favorite.” Martha kept one hand on the small of Dorothy’s back as if protecting her, or maybe holding her back. “And what does it matter? You already have five dresses for every occasion I could think of.”

“Play along, won’t you?” Dorothy caught Martha’s thin fingers in her own. Even at the end of the day, when the sun had set and department stores lining Main Street were flicking on their new and brilliant displays of electric lighting, she still reminded Martha of a sunbeam. “You’re smiling. You don’t mean it after all.”

“Of course not. I’ll play, if that’s what you want.”

Dorothy slipped her elbow into the crook of Martha’s arm. “Oh, good. What do you think of that one, then? The one with the empire waist and the cream silk bustle…”

They wandered down another block this way, Martha riveted by the dove-like cooing of Dorothy’s voice. She imagined what others would think, seeing them: two women in shirtwaists with fashionably tight sleeves, masses of neat curls piled at the nape of the neck. They could have been cousins – Dorothy the younger one, Martha a little older, taller, and plainer – out for an evening walk before supper. Thomas, Martha and her husband’s chauffeur, had parked by the edge of the street in their Model T. The car was still new enough that strangers eyed it with envy, but old enough that her husband didn’t fuss over it as if caring for a baby.  Thomas eyed them protectively every few minutes from beneath the gleaming black hood, then returned his attention to his cigarette.

“Did Edward come to see you today?” Martha asked suddenly.

Dorothy’s smile spread across her face slowly, like ripples in a lake. “Are you jealous?”

“Of course I’m not, I-”

“Well, he did.” Dorothy sighed. “Mother thinks I should marry him and have done with things.”

“And what do you think?”

She pursed her lips at a Thalhimer’s display across the street. “I think I don’t understand how you did it. Married John, I mean. Had William.”

Martha fussed at a few dark ringlets of Dorothy’s hair that had fallen loose. “It’s not  so bad. There’s much worse out there than John. And William was – is – a gift.”

“Oh, he’s darling. I just can’t imagine…marriage.” Dorothy broke away from her grasp then, pressing herself against the window of Schreier and Son. “Look. The one with the roses at the bust. That’s my favorite. Promise I won’t change my mind.”

“You’d look lovely in it,” Martha agreed. She stared at the way the electric lights brought out the russet streaks in Dorothy’s hair, her breath in her throat. “Should I buy it for you?” she said, feeling like a glass someone had filled until it overflowed. “Tomorrow, when they open?”

“Yes,” answered Dorothy. She stared at the mannequin’s shadowed eyelids, her posed arms. Something had lit up her eyes. “Can I ask you something else, Martha?”

Martha felt herself flushing. “Anything, of course.”

“Let’s imagine going somewhere else.  Away from here.”

“What?” She glanced back down the street. Thomas was still waiting for them, his head in his hands.

“We could go to California. Or Paris. Or Argentina, even. Somewhere for people who -”

“But you’d have to give up all your pretty clothes,” said Martha, desperation coloring her tone. Her voice sounded rusty and old.

“Play along, Martha.”

“I’m too tired.”

Dorothy put her hand to Martha’s face. “I’m nineteen.  You know what they say about girls who don’t get married, right?  Do you want me to be a spinster?”

She felt her body begin to warm. “I have William. And John.”

“John would remarry,” said Dorothy, careless.

“What would William think if he discovered that his mother had-”

“Shhh,” said Dorothy, gliding her fingers down Martha’s throat, playing at the sensible fabric of her sleeve before slipping her arm back into Martha’s. “We’ll walk some more, and think about it, and talk about it again when you take me to buy that dress tomorrow.”

Martha opened her mouth to speak, then exhaled the words into the cooling night air. They did not talk for several minutes. The heels of their shoes against the pavement now seemed loud and mechanically regular, like the clicking of typewriter keys. Eventually the thrumming of an engine crept up behind them, drowning even that noise.

“Miss Hartley?” It was Thomas, beside them in the Model T. He mopped his face with an oil-spotted rag, sweating even though it was October. His eyes flickered between the two of them. “It’s almost eight o’clock. Mister Hartley will be wondering where we’ve gotten off to.  ”

“Of course,” said Dorothy, and flung her arms around Martha like a little girl. It amazed her, sometimes, how Dorothy could change her whole character like robes to be slipped on and off. “Oh, what a grand walk! Drop me off on the way back to Martha’s, Thomas?  My mother will be waiting to serve supper.”

“Of course, Miss Wilson,” he said, shifting his weight back and forth. They climbed into the car, their noses filled with the stark scent of motor oil. Wilson put his hand on the gear and they began to glide down Main Street. The night was filled with the shock of the brightly lit windows. Martha turned her head to glance back at the dress with rosebuds in the window of Schreier and Son, but it was already a blur. She let her eyes close. Her fingers found the patch of seat next to Dorothy and rested on it, soft as the gray light of the morning that hadn’t yet come.

Hope you enjoyed!  I tried to include a few details about the time period while keeping the focus of the story on Martha and Dorothy (and their lady love, in case you didn’t get that, duh).

To Shave or Not to Shave: The Cultural Aesthetics of Female Body Hair

2 Jan

Let’s talk about hair, Nair, and everything in between.  (An idea inspired by No-Shave November that study-abroad forced by the wayside until now.)

Not only is November the time when my mother gets obsessed with hanging weird-smelling wreaths on our front door, as well as the peak of decorative gourd season, motherfuckers, it is also that strange month glorifying the men who put down their razors and let their beards grow free.  It has become what plenty of Americans know as No-Shave November, or Movember (a portmanteau of ‘November’ and ‘mustache’).  Some men do it in the name of cancer research funding, and some do it in the name of extreme beardliness.  When I was in Spain this semester, I joked to some girls in the UVA program that I, too, was going to participate in Movember.  Their responses all had the same underlying message: that’s weird.

That left a question stewing in my brain, one that I haven’t had time to really investigate until now: why?

When I googled No-Shave November to see what the Internet at large thought about the phenomenon, I noticed that the bigger the beard was, the more words like manly, masculine, sexy, awesome, and badass were used.  However, when referring to women who tried to join in alongside their beard-growing brethren, words like lazy, ugly, and strange were more common.  I discovered that last year, a popular Will Ferrell parody account tweeted the following:

fillwerrell

And I suppose I am late to the proverbial party, because yes, that was a year ago (and it’s January now, I KNOW), but that rubbed me the wrong way.

I am the first to admit that I’m not exactly slavish about sticking to a shaving schedule.  In the winter, I will routinely go months without letting a razor touch my calves.  The rest of the year, I shave when I have a moment here or there, meaning that I sometimes go out in the heat of summer with five days’ worth of fuzz on my legs.  I never bother with my thighs.  My boyfriend and I joke that it’s a national holiday whenever I shave both my armpits and shins on the same day.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel unfeminine when I glance at my ankles and see the hair I missed poking out of the legs of my jeans.  When I wear tank tops, I think twice before raising my hand or waving – when was the last time I shaved?  And I stay alert for any other stray growth that dares to show itself, mercilessly plucking my eyebrows every morning.  Sometimes, when I’ve nicked myself trying to eradicate the hard-to-reach hair on the backs of my knees, I think, I could be doing so many other fascinating things right now.  Like eating cheesecake.  Or sleeping.  Or singing into my hairbrush to Lorde. 

As women in a media-saturated society, we wage war on certain varieties of hair (legs, armpits, pubes, etc.) while spending hours encouraging other kinds (eyelashes, head hair) to grow.  Calliope, the narrator of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, tells us:

“Sing, Muse, of ladies and their battle against unsightly hair! Sing of depilatory creams and tweezers! Of bleach and beeswax! Sing how the unsightly black fuzz, like the Persian legions of Darius, sweeps over the Achaean mainland of girls barely into their teens! When I close my eyes and summon the fond smells of childhood, do I smell gingerbread baking or the pine-fresh scent of Christmas trees? Not primarily. The aroma that fills, as it were, the nostrils of my memory is the sulfurous, protein-dissolving fetor of Nair.”

We shave.  We pluck.  We wax.  We thread.  We bitch about it.  Then we get so used to it that we frown on anyone else treating ‘bad hair’ as anything other than negative.  The first time someone else cracked a joke about my shaving habits, I was fourteen and on the tennis team at my middle school.  One mid-September day, I was practicing my serve with a few other girls, soothed by the satisfying thwack of the ball connecting with the sweet spot on my racquet.  I raised my arm, another ball in hand.

“Elizabeth,” shouted the girl to my left, “when was the last time you shaved your pits?”

I stopped, mid-serve, and glanced at my armpit.  “Uh.” There was a faint shadow in the crook of skin.  “Two days ago?”

She giggled.  “You don’t shave them every day?  I do.”  By this point, all the other girls were watching.  I saw a few of them surreptitiously glance at their own armpits.

“I just, um, forgot this morning,” I said, blushing.

“Well,” she said sweetly, “hope you don’t forget again.”

Pictured here: the awesome Emer O’Toole, an Irish grad student who is gleefully proud of the fact that she doesn’t shave her pits.

In terms of the United States, shaving hasn’t been around for as long as we might think.  (In other locations, where Islam is predominant, it has been for religious reasons – but that’s another story entirely.)  Ridding the legs and armpits of hair only became widespread when hemlines rose and necklines plunged.  We can date that pretty exactly to 1915, when Harper’s Bazaar ran an ad featuring a woman with silky-smooth pits.  Now it’s hard to imagine a standard of female beauty that doesn’t involve removing some kind of hair.  In fact, it’s so ingrained in us that media outlets go crazy over it.  Mo’Nique’s legs made headlines in 2010 when she blithely told Barbara Walters that she didn’t shave.  Kristen Stewart was made fun of as a kid for not caring about shaving.  Julia Roberts showed off her luxurious pit hair at a 1999 event and people still talk about it today.  And St. Baldrick’s, an organization for which people shave their heads in the name of cancer, is getting bigger and bigger every year.  Yet women who participate always make a splash, precisely because they are not supposed to shave that hair.

So what gives?

As part of my newfound obsession with body hair, I started asking my female friends about what they did or didn’t trim, and when.  Without exception, they all shaved their legs.  A few of them said that their boyfriends wouldn’t want to touch them if they hadn’t.  One girl said that she shaved her armpits multiple times a day – just in case.  Another talked about getting her arms waxed.  Although most of the girls I talked to didn’t get bikini or Brazilian waxes, they expressed a desire to do so, if they had the courage and/or the money.  They did, for the most part, shave or trim their pubic hair.  Most of them also plucked their eyebrows, and plenty of them plucked their upper lips as well.  Many of them admitted to me that they felt ashamed, gross, or undesirable when they didn’t remove hair from certain parts of their body.

The point of writing this is not to say that shaving is bad.  The point is to say that maybe we should rethink our cultural attitude towards feminine body hair.  If men are able and even encouraged to leave their beards untrimmed, then why shouldn’t women do the same with the rest of their bodies?  In my opinion, an important step towards good cultural body image is de-fetishizing the absence of hair everywhere but up top.  If you want to wax off everything, including your eyebrows and the hair on your head, good on you.  If you want to leave your legs as hairy as a wampa ice creature’s, that should also be fine.   Bottom line: if you see someone else’s body hair and you  think it’s weird, don’t mess with it and don’t talk smack about it.  Worry about what’s growing on your own skin.

After all, as a very wise woman once told me, “You do you, girlfriend.”

Side note: I hope that the NSA, should they be watching, is amused by all my Google searches of “beautiful hairy armpits.”

Join me next week, dear readers, as I brave the salon to find out what all this brouhaha over bikini waxing is about and then – yes – write about it.  UPDATE: read it here!

Oh, and a happy (hairy?) 2014 to all!