A Tale of Two Hairy Arms in America

Last year, I was with a friend of mine at Ulta, a cosmetics mecca. She was browsing the eyebrow products, her bright green eyes scanning products that cost more than my monthly student loans.

An Ulta employee approached us, and asked if she was looking for anything in particular.

“I don’t know,” my friend said, “my eyebrows are just so thin, but I don’t want them to look fake, you know?”

The employee nodded sympathetically, then led her off to a section with eyebrow products that cost roughly the same as a Tesla. He left her there to ponder, and then somehow wandered back to me.

“I’m guessing you’re not looking for eyebrow products?” He asked.

I raised my eyebrows. “Why’s that?” I asked.

“Well, they already look amazing,” he said. “What do you use to fill them in with?”

“It’s called ‘Being Mexican,'” I replied dryly.

“Really? That’s the shade? What brand?” He responded thoughtfully. “Is that Urban Decay? Because they really do look really amazing.”

I’m not going to lie; I do have pretty fantastic eyebrows.

But, along with eyebrows to die for, I inherited hair on just about every other surface of my body. My lovely eyebrows, for example, used to spread from temple to temple. That’s right, with absolutely no break in between.

It’s as if I was dipped in some sort of magical hair pool when I was a baby, but unlike Achilles, the person doing the dipping dropped me all the way in because I even have hair on my toes.

I have learned to live with the majority of my body hair. I wax my eyebrows. I shave my legs and armpits roughly every twelve hours, and I shave my arms about every three days.

Yep. My arms.

I have had a tempestuous relationship with my arm hair ever since elementary school. I remember a girl in first grade (she was hairless, of course. Like one of those odd, wrinkly cats) reaching across our desks during coloring time or whatever, and petting me. Like one pets a rabbit.

“Furry,” she said, gently stroking the longish black hairs that covered my forearm. I wasn’t sure how to react, so I just bore down and colored harder.

During the summers, I would stand patiently while my mom would wipe me down with rubbing alcohol. As I got older I realized that as I played outside, the sun bleached my arm hairs so that they were less noticeable.

By winter, of course, I was playing more inside and therefore, my arm hair would take on it’s natural hue.

When some white, hairless mole rat kid would make fun of it, I would ask my mom about why I had such hairy arms. “We all have arm hair,” she would say, showing me her dark, but sparse forearm hair.

It wasn’t until I was about 14, and in Mexico, that the shaving began. My aunt, who barely counts as an aunt because she’s only nine years older than me, dragged me to a salon for some reason I can’t even remember.

I sat sullenly on a stool while a hairdresser friend of hers tittered around her, gossiping about my cousin’s upcoming wedding.

Being that I was in a part of Mexico that reaches roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun during the summer, I was wearing a tshirt. I reached up and scratched my upper arm nonchalantly, and in that moment, the chatter stopped.

I looked up to see my aunt’s friend looking at me. Well, looking at my arms.

She reached down and grabbed my forearm and extended it over the little tray with scissors and those cheap black combs.

Mira,” she said, holding my arm as if it wasn’t attached to me. “Look at all this.

“I know, right?” My aunt responded from her swivel chair. I looked helplessly between the two of them, wanting to yank my arm back but also not wanting to be rude. They had already mentioned my accent in Spanish; I didn’t want to give them more.

Turns out my arm gave them plenty.

“I could get the clippers for this,” the hairdresser said, laughing. She still had my arm extended across her little tray like a dissection specimen. “The heavy duty clippers, anyway.”

She finally released my arm, but I could still feel her fingers gripped around it as we pulled into my grandmother’s house, as I jumped in the shower, and as I ran my razor down the length of my arms.

I have been shaving them ever since. And it’s not all because of my aunt and her friend that had inhaled so many toxic perm fumes to remember how to be decent human being. It’s also because I felt that it was one more thing I could do to try and fit in this society. Women in the western world are supposed to be a lot of things these days. Powerful. Independent. Sassy. Confident.

Nowhere on that list is “swarthy, with an armful of hair that would make a pirate blush,” or, “the ability to play a genderbent Wyatt Earp with sideburns.”

Even Wonder Woman was hairless in her latest movie. Those boots would not have been as sexy, society tells us, if thick black hairs had been spilling over the tops of them. Those sweet arm cuffs she wears would not be cute if hairs curled around them like climbing vines.

Even if Wonder Woman had some body hair, she’s white. That gives her some leverage. If she was allowed to keep her leg hair, they’d call her a revolutionary.

If I tried to grow out my leg hair and then wear a skirt like Wonder Woman, I’d be deemed unprofessional. My brown skin already gives potential employers a second to hesitate; I can’t try and push my luck.

Author Scaachi Koul, whose book, One Day We Will All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, I swear, is written about me and my family, sums this issue up nicely. She writes, “‘(W)hen you’re a brown girl…you have to fight extra hard for white people to consider you attractive,” she says, ‘If you are a bushy, brown lady with a weird name and thick haunches and broad shoulders, you’ve got to work really hard to figure out ways to be cute.'”

Koul goes on to write about the complexities of wanting to shave because it makes her feel better, versus not wanting to shave because it gives in to societal, white beauty standards.

Like Koul, I want to stop caring about my damn arm hair. I’m an advocate at my school for body positivity and acceptance. If I had a student tell me she/he was embarrassed about their body hair, I would tell them, honestly, that they are beautiful and above all of the stupid beauty standards.

And yet, I tried to grow my arm hair out this summer. I was in Maui and I decided that enough was enough. I was just going to grow it out and walk around with it like some follicular success story.

I lasted about two weeks. We got back home, and my tan started to fade, making my little fuzzy black hairs a tad more obvious. I found myself out in public, feeling like every hair was a beacon of ugliness. For someone to see and think that I was even more of a foreigner than they thought. For someone to think that I don’t take care of myself as much as they do.

I made it about a week in my hometown, then went on a mini vacation to an even (if you can believe it) whiter city. I had woken up that morning in a cute little vacation home, and all I could notice was the stark contrast between the white sheets and my dark hair.

Before dinner that evening, I stood in the shower, razor in hand.

You’re okay, I thought. You can go out to dinner with arm hair. 

Then I dragged that stupid purple razor down the length of my forearm and felt relief rush through me like a drug.

I quickly shaved the rest of my arms, feeling like I slipped a bit more into place with each stroke.

I’m not happy I did it. I’m not happy that I felt like I had to do it. I haven’t shaved again since that evening, but I can’t promise that I won’t again. I feel that little hitch of anxiety when I think about showing up to work and extending my Brawny man like arm out to my new principal (more on that later).

I want to accept myself wholly. But it is a struggle that I, and many other women of color face, especially in the work force. What do we have to shave (literally) from our true selves to be seen as acceptable? As beautiful? As professional? As capable?

A lot of hair, it turns out. Also, we end up shaving various words and intonations from our ways of speaking. We shave out parts of our stories or backgrounds that the majority may find different or uncomfortable.

It’s too much. As the new school year looms, I find myself looking at ways to put the metaphorical (and literal) razor down, and raise my voice up. I want to be an advocate for my students, to tell them to embrace themselves for everything that they are. If they are happy with themselves, that’s what matters.

For me, for now, I feel most capable, acceptable, and comfortable (different from happy, trust me) with shaved arms and fabulously strong brows.

I hope that changes. It needs to change.



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