I stood next to the white lines on the pavement, looking down at my legs. Pointy black hairs stuck out like porcupine quills. I was embarrassed. I was eleven-years-old. Other girls in my fifth grade class had already started to shave their legs, bragging about it in huddled groups by the hopscotch lines.
In an overly large v-neck sweater, a shapeless plaid skirt, and doc martens, I would always stand at the edge of the group, feeling lost. This is when the taunting began. It was usually always the girls.
After switching schools in the seventh grade due to excessive bullying, I became friends with a group of girls. We often slept over each others’ houses, deciding what lip gloss color looked best, discussing which boys in the class we liked, what we wanted to be when we grew up.
I begged my mother to let me start wearing make-up, shave my legs, start going to school dances. I desperately wanted to be grown up–as a child, I never actually wanted to be a child. Being a child felt helpless, and after awhile, I knew the games I played were just games.
I vividly remember always watching my mother apply make-up before going out, mixing deep purples with golds, her cheeks shimmering like stars melting into wax. I was twelve-years-old when I applied a pink lip gloss for the first time. I discovered my lips.
Ever since, my fascination with fashion and cosmetics only grew–I loved to experiment as much as I could. I still do. However, there came a point where I could no longer go out without applying a fresh face of foundation, or shaving every inch of body hair that grew. I hadn’t learned to ‘bare it all.’
Up until a month ago, I would shave every other day like clockwork. Recently, I decided to let my hair grow out of a pixie, because I’ve never had long hair for over a year. I don’t even know what my face actually looks like with long hair. Unlike many women who dread the scissors, I yearn to change, to rebuild myself. As I began to grow my hair out, I began to wonder what the rest of my body would look like if I grew all of my hair.
My boyfriend mentioned a few times in passing that I should let my armpits grow out, that he found it sexy. I usually rebuffed him, laughing it off. Of course, I never thought it wasn’t sexy, and I certainly don’t care what other women do.
However, I had been shaving my legs, arms, and pits since I was twelve-years-old. I was raised to believe that’s just what women did. It never occurred to me to question it, even as I grew older and self-identified as a feminist. At this point, it had simply become the way I looked, the way I perceived myself as a woman.
So, I began an experiment. For about two weeks, I let myself grow the hair on my legs. At first, I hated it, because my legs became so itchy and my stubble reminded me of being eleven-years-old again. After about a week, my legs were fully grown. I discovered two things: I didn’t care and my boyfriend didn’t care.
While I knew that T. wouldn’t care if I never shaved or always shaved, it is always reassuring for a partner to be supportive. However, most importantly, I realized it didn’t matter to me all that much. Granted, I’m much different now at twenty-five, being that I’m independent, more self-aware and confident, and fully grown into my curves.
For the latter two or three weeks, I let my underarm hair grow. This was much more dramatic for me, as I almost never saw my body with it. It was strange–all of a sudden, I was a different kind of woman.
Women are often labeled based on how they look, and for all of my adult life, I was a “modern woman.” For once, I was allowing myself to be natural. While I never hated the way it looked or felt, I often felt undone. I felt messy, as though I had just come from the gym and didn’t take off my sweat pants. If I was alone with my boyfriend, just lounging around watching a movie, I felt sexy. Of course, it certainly didn’t hurt that T. would give me positive reinforcement by telling me not shaving my underarms was sexy.
Yet, if I was out in public, I was extra vigilant of covering my arms at all times. No one else could know. Why was I was comfortable in my personal life, not actually minding the way it looked, but in public, I felt ashamed? While I ended the experiment resuming my usual pattern of shaving my legs, arms, and underarms, I felt liberated. I no longer saw it as a necessity, but more a personal aesthetic I have grown accustomed to.
At this point, I am used to seeing myself relatively hairless, and while others may argue this is unfeminist of me, that my experiment failed, I feel frighteningly successful. While my aesthetic remained unchanged at the end of the day, I have peace of mind. I can honestly say I truly know myself; I have journeyed to this truth.
Joanna C. Valente currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is a part-time mermaid. She received her MFA in poetry writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Some of her words can be found in The Paris-American, The Atlas Review, El Aleph Press, decomP, Thrush Poetry Journal, La Fovea, The 22 Magazine, and other places. In 2010, she founded Yes, Poetry. Her ghost resides here. @joannasaid