I'm sitting in the pale green doctor's office looking at my pudgy family doctor leafing through my results. I am 14 when my period fails to show up for six months. I am a virgin, so I can't be pregnant. My friend tells me I am the immaculate conception, but I fail to birth a saviour. The reality isn't a messianic burst of light; I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), meaning on top of getting a lot of cysts in my ovaries, I also will have more trouble conceiving, and have more hair growth on my body and face, known as hirsutism. My failing reproductive system correlates with my excessive body and facial hair as a result of hormonal imbalance. I start crying because I feel like a failed prototype of a girl, and the doctor continues staring at the papers, unfazed at the results—black eyes distant. I remember feeling the smallness of the room—the hardness of the walls closing in on me, and how alone I felt.
Being hairy can be lonely, but removing hair isn't lonely at all.
Everybody has the right to choose what to with their body, but in my case, none of this feels like a choice, and anyway, choice is a privilege. I went on birth control pills to vanquish any trace of hair from my face and body. In the matter of a month, the hair is gone. I receive constant praise for what people deem as flawless skin. Drake even hits on me back when he's still a budding Degrassi star, complimenting my smooth skin. But after more than ten years of being on the pill, even Drake's compliment means squat, and the side effects are becoming burdensome. I get off the pills. It's not an easy choice. It feels like I'm unleashing an ogre caged in a woman's body.
Let me tell you something about hair, being hairy can be lonely, but removing hair isn't lonely at all. The way we look at body hair and the way we treat it is as unique as the culture it lives in. The summer leading up to the doctor's visit I went to see relatives in Lebanon. My cousin almost immediately staged an intervention. Her house was emptied of the hordes of relatives usually crowding the rooms on this scorching summer day. The air filled with the irresistibly, deceptively sweet aroma of a candy store. In the kitchen, a small metal pot burned on the stove. Inside it, thick golden lava gurgled.
After my PCOS diagnosis, my mom racked her brain for what could have caused all of this hair. "There's an old wives' tale in Lebanon," she offered, "if you anoint your newborn daughter with the blood of a freshly killed bat, then you won't grow body hair." My mom and I laughed out how ridiculous it sounded, but with furtive stares, we both began to wonder how the stars of my fate might have aligned differently were I given the christening.
Read More: Saving Face: My Plastic Surgery at Age 13
Eighty-five percent of women remove body hair on a regular basis, and 99 percent have done it at one point. Charles Darwin's 1871 publication, The Descent of Man linked body hair on humans to sexual, mental, and criminal deviance, and America's revulsion of body hair on women is said to have fully formed in the 1920s. The obsession with smoothness starts before the West even got to it. Across the world, there is history deeply embedded in rituals and superstitions. Body hair removal has been around for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used razors made of flint or bronze. They used beeswax as we use wax today. As far back as ancient Greece, pubic hair was seen as uncivilized, and hair removal was a class identifier. Women would remove their body hair with pumice stones, razors, tweezers and depilatory creams. Look at the painting of Venus by French painter William-Adolphe in the 1800s, in La Naissance de Venus, and you'll see the goddess depicted with no pubic hair, or body hair for that matter.
Pubic hair was seen as uncivilized, and hair removal was a class identifier.
Back in my cousin's kitchen in Lebanon, the substance boiling to life was melted sugar. Lebanese women use it as wax to remove hair. Shaving is out of the question. It's rare to find a razor in women's home in Lebanon. Like many others, they believe slicing the hair will only make the hair grow back thicker.
My cousin gives me taste of the sticky sugar before we begin—a last supper. I am in my underwear at this point. She presses the warm wax over a part of my thigh and smoothens it over with her thumbs until it becomes a thick, gold film. With whiplash speed, her adept hands whoosh back. I hear the tear of hair being uprooted from my skin. I look at what was once crystal honey wax, now shorn with jagged hairs sticking out. I don't remember the pain when she first began. But as that once delicious Play-Doh-like wax inches towards my bikini area, the pain sears into my memory. We spend more than an hour shuffling from room to room because the heat from our moving and sweating was getting to be too much. The heat forces us to take the mission outside.
Now I'm overlooking the garden with firm, unripe green grapes clinging to the grates above me. Are they afraid of the scene unravelling below? Passersby see me, but in this small town, they're unfazed by the sight of a woman removing her hair. It is not taboo. I'm bending forward while my cousin is on her knees cursing the monstrosity of my hairy legs. The cutting blades of an Israeli helicopter slice up the sky. I panic. She quickly calms me, more concerned that she gets every last inch of hair off my legs. The noise peters out, and I continue staring at the green grapes.
Mere months later, I'd be alone in my room, on a chilly Fall day, popping my first prescription pill to get rid of this hair.
I would once look at the hair piercing through my body, across a sea of olive skin, and feel repulsion, hate, and fear; fear for everything that it represented, for all that it disrupted. I've been fighting this part of myself for years, and this one refuses to back down. All this hair, it feels, well it is, alive. I feel this body, all at once a part of me and yet not a part of me, moving and growing by some force beyond myself. Like every blade of grass uprooted, growing once more. And there it is, whether I like it or not, whether you like it or not.
Janine is a college librarian. We meet for the first time at a Starbucks in uptown Toronto. She hasn't removed her body hair in over two years. Her dark-rimmed glasses frame her bright blue eyes. Janine punctures this dull grey February day with color. She has stopped shaving, and has only ever waxed her bush twice. The first time was for her wedding day. She thought it would be a kind gesture. Otherwise, "The bush has always been there," she says, laughing, "in one form or another."
Recalling her second encounter with the Brazilian wax, Janine says, "It sucked ass." She had gone last November to an upscale salon. The fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time was playing in the room but she can't concentrate on it, not with the searing pain across her vagina. When she wants to distract herself from pain, like the time she got her tattoo, she closes her eyes and thinks about having sex. Now, legs sprawled, with hard wax on her crotch—she dreams of Oasis.
Oasis Aqualounge is a downtown sex club in Toronto that attracts singles and married couples looking for a range of sexual encounters. There is a dungeon, playrooms, a "shaggin' wagon," private rooms and rooms for viewing. Janine is heading there in two hours with her husband. It is her first time going, and there will be a hot tub.
I would once look at the hair piercing through my body, across a sea of olive skin, and feel repulsion, hate, and fear.
Back at the Ten Spot, inside a room with bright aesthetics and pink trim, the aesthetician powders her up to soak up any bleeding, then hands her a pamphlet. Among the list of precautions and warnings: "no chlorine for 48 hours." The Oasis' hot tub will be off limits lest Janine contracts an infection. She has to spend the night standing away from the glistening men and women stewing like potatoes in the bubbling water. She settles on dipping her legs in and keeps at bay from the action. Even in this liberal and progressive environment, with naked bodies weaving through dark hallways and dungeons, Janine notices most women's bodies are completely bald. There would be no action for Janine or Adam that night.
A lot of us equate bikini waxes with a preparation ritual before sex, and so did I. That's why I was a little surprised when I went to stay with an observant Muslim family of Algerian descent in France over the summer. There were four girls from their late teens to early twenties, all practicing Muslims, all virgins, but they all waxed their body, including vaginas, on a regular basis. When I asked my friend why she would subject herself to the pain of a FULL bikini wax, even though she was the only one seeing it, she told me it was a religious practice. In Islam, adult body hair removal is seen as a hygienic necessity. Hair removal for Muslims is said to be integral in their internal holy striving to submit to God. According to the Sunna al-Fitra—a code of personal hygienic ethics—hair around the genital region must be removed, and must not grow beyond 40 days.
Read More: I Feel Bad About My Nose
For Annie, who moved to London, Ontario from Pakistan when she was in Grade 6, the transition from a culture that looked differently at body hair wasn't an easy one. "I was teased a lot for my hair in Canada. In Pakistan, people can know I'm hairy and still find me attractive." Annie says she notices a certain 'don't ask don't tell policy' when it comes to body hair in Canada. Salons in Canada are also different than in Pakistan. Pakistani salons are everywhere, but they're cheap, and it's a staple of the community. "Here, if I'm getting a bikini wax by a white lady, she charges me extra to wax around my ass. If a brown woman is waxing me, she knows that just comes with the territory." She tells me in Pakistan, hair removal is as common as it is in Canada, but because more women have hair on the their bodies, it's not as taboo as here. "We always ask ourselves what's the first thing we'd do if we won the lottery, I'd get laser hair removal across my whole body right away."
I've been off the pills for over two years now. I wax myself or go to any number of cheap salons or home-operated businesses like the one at my sister's apartment. When I do, I look at my skin. I see the contrast of color, the bald skin next to the hairy skin, and I think about all the emotions I've felt throughout the years looking at it. I wonder about the countless other women who have all stared at their bodies and felt the same way, whatever culture, whatever race, who have all searched for beauty and femininity beneath the hair. Some have found it. For others, they feel it even with the hair. This ritual will likely not leave us for a very long time, if ever. Until then, we'll be in fancy salons, or in our rooms, alone or with others, across the world, doing it all again.