“Look at you, you’re a hairy ape!”
That taunt was as familiar to me as “Good morning,” when I was in grade school. I heard it from boys starting around second grade, and it soon inspired my quest to change what the universe, or at least genetics, had blessed me with: hairy arms.
To be clear, I wasn’t covered in hair from head to toe. There were no stray hairs on my chin or my chest; my back and stomach were also as hairless as most kids’ were. My arms and legs, however, were covered in soft, dark hair. I had come by it honestly—my mother suffered the same fate as me, so it ran in the family.
It wasn’t until those taunts began that I became aware of the offensiveness of this extra hair, but it didn’t take long for me to begin wearing long sleeves and pants as late into the spring and summer as temperatures would allow. I’d watch my friends come to school in tank tops and shorts, longing wistfully for that same freedom. In my mind, the hair on my arms made me less pretty, less female, and the fact that it was mainly boys who made fun of me only confirmed my suspicions.
I’ve spent most of my life surreptitiously glancing at women’s arms to see if they suffered from the same plight as me. Occasionally, I would see her, walking around with her hairy arms bare, not appearing to care at all. I would simultaneously admire and be disgusted by her choice.
As a child in the '80s, the choices for hair removal involved chemicals that itched and burned or tearing the hair out by force, which hurt like hell. I tried all of them. In the beginning, my mother insisted that if I wanted to get rid of my arm hair, bleaching it was the best option. Anything else would cause the hair to grow back in rough and spiky, not unlike how your legs feel a few days after shaving. Bleaching was the “gentler” option, but the itching and burning I had to endure at the hands of the bleach was pure torture. But I did it anyway.
At a certain point, the '80s brought the advent of the epilator, and my mother bought one for herself. I crouched in the hallway outside her bedroom door, listening to the little exclamations of pain that she tried to keep to a minimum. I was intrigued. When I expressed interest in trying out the torture device on myself, my mother told me to help myself, so I did. It had to be less uncomfortable than the bleaching I’d put up with. Naturally, I was wrong. It hurt like hell and I didn’t last an entire minute using it on my poor arms.
As I grew older, I took to using hair removal creams when the days got warmer. I would time the removal so that the regrowth wouldn’t happen at a time when I had to be around people. Eventually, to reduce the need to do it so frequently, I moved to waxing and sugaring. By then it was the '90s, and I was in high school, so I did it myself. I can tell you for a fact that I did a terrible job. My goal was always to remove as much hair as possible, but the pain usually prevented me from getting everything, so I was left with random patches of hair, which probably looked weirder than before.
In Western culture, hairlessness has been associated with female beauty, or at least of evolutionary superiority, since Darwin’s book, The Descent of Man, posited the idea in 1871. This, according to Rachel Herzig’s book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, is where the idea that hairlessness in women (not in men) first gained traction, leading to studies in the late 19th century to confirm the notion that hairiness was linked to deviance.
An article in The Atlantic delves further into the topic, but by the beginning of the 20th century, American women were trying all kinds of horrific methods to rid themselves of their body hair. I remember complaining about my hairy arms to friends; their eyes would widen and they’d jump to commiserate, showing me the sparse, blond hair on their own arms. “My arms are just as hairy as yours! You just can’t see it as well because the hair is lighter.” Well, yeah. That was kind of the point. If the boys can’t see it, they’re not going to make fun of it, right?
I’ve spent most of my life surreptitiously glancing at women’s arms, to see if they suffered from the same plight as me. Occasionally, I would see her, walking around with her hairy arms bare, not appearing to care at all. I would simultaneously admire and be disgusted by her choice. Why did she not want to remove her arm hair as well? What did she have inside that I was lacking, that made me feel such revulsion over something so insignificant?
There are some things worth obsessing over—the quality of chocolate, the sweetness of my kids’ laughter, finding the perfect spot to camp—but conforming to an impossible beauty standard that clearly means nothing to anyone else in my life was a waste of energy.
My obsession with the hair on my arms, and removing it, continued as I grew into adulthood. As I became more upwardly mobile, I began to go to a salon for sugaring because, according to those who sugar, it leads to permanency. I would get lazy during the winter months, but during the summer, my appointments were strategically planned out so that my arms would be hair-free for big events. When I finally met the man I was going to marry (who couldn’t have cared less about the hair on my arms), I created a special schedule for sugaring before the wedding. We planned it out months in advance so that the hair-free days would increase a little bit and I wouldn’t have those ugly spiky regrowth hairs coming in during our 3-day event.
What does it say that I had fallen in love with a man who didn’t notice or care about my hairy arms, and yet I was still obsessed with making them hairless?
In recent years, as laser technology improved and prices dropped, I began scouring the group discount sites for laser hair removal deals. I decided I would spring for the cost, treat myself in the hopes that it would be a more long-term solution. The only problem was that you couldn’t have laser hair removal while pregnant or breastfeeding. I was forced to wait for several years, as my two children came in quick succession.
Pregnancy made my skin too sensitive to wax or sugar, and once I had children, there was just no time to go out for a sugaring appointment. Little by little, I found myself too busy to notice, too overwhelmed to care about something as trivial as the hair on my arms. Postpartum depression, breastfeeding challenges, lack of sleep—these were things that mattered. I didn’t have the emotional energy to care about what my arms looked like. Hell, I was lucky if I managed to shower every day.
When I had finally stopped breastfeeding and had the time and the money to try out laser hair removal, I found myself not really caring anymore. Why would I spend that several hundred dollars on something that only I care about? My husband didn’t care. My kids didn’t care. Anytime I had brought up this insecurity to friends, they claimed not to have even noticed. Who was I doing this for?
In the end, I realized there are some things worth obsessing over—the quality of chocolate, the sweetness of my kids’ laughter, finding the perfect spot to camp—but conforming to an impossible beauty standard that clearly means nothing to anyone else in my life was a waste of energy. Women (and some men) spend thousands of dollars to appear to have less hair, and for what? To attract a partner? I don’t have to worry about that (at least not since middle school). In fact, looking back it seems kind of ridiculous to have been so strongly impacted by what those 10-year-old boys said to me all those years ago.
So why else would we do it? To look good on television or on stage? I don’t have to worry about that, either. To feel better about ourselves? I’ve decided there are a hundred reasons I can feel good about myself, and liberating myself from the need to be hair-free gives me time to just be. I still shave my legs, though. What can I say? Nobody’s perfect.
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
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