The Shame and Scandal of Indian Women’s Hair Follicles
I see my parlor aunty douse a standard-issue Q-tip in boiling, hot wax. Still reeling from my eyebrow threading, pain reverberating through my forehead and eyes watering, I don’t see when she inches closer with the tiny pink plastic stick toward my face. Suddenly, I feel my nasal endings on fire and realise that she has thrust the Q-tip into my nostril. Before I register this gross invasion of nasal privacy, she yanks it back out, leaving me afraid to take a breath.
My first ever nostril wax, without consent at that — is it really a thing people do?! — made me wonder if I, on top of all the hair follicles I am ashamed of, need to add another set to the list. Twitching my nose, perpetually on the edge of a humongous sneeze, I’m wondering how all the depilating began.
Body hair shaming wasn’t always targeted at women. With the early Egyptians, for example, it was a vehicle of class separatism; the presence of thick body hair was emblematic of being from a lower class. Over the years, however, body hair started being perceived as innately masculine and therefore, unfeminine.
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“I found that people perceived the woman with body hair as less sexually attractive, sociable, intelligent, positive, and happy than the woman without body hair,” psychologist Amie Braman writes in “Women and Body Hair: Social Perceptions and Attitudes.” “At the same time, they saw the woman with body hair as more active, stronger and more aggressive.” The presence of hair on females threatened to blur their sexual identities, as the hairiness was typically associated with masculinity, according to The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair by Karin Lesnik-Oberstein.
This notion is alive and kicking in Bollywood movies, which often depict a woman with a slight moustache as undateable, ugly and dirty, her appearance constantly portrayed as needing to be improved. Discourse around body hair in popular culture is only limited to discussing hair removal methods or as a weapon to shame women. Its only visual depictions are theoretical — think of advertisements for hair removal products, wherein a woman is usually shown running a razor along already smooth skin, lest anybody bristles at the model’s ‘bear-like’ appearance.
The ways in which women can get their body hair removed have exponentially increased, now including electrolysis and laser removal, on top of the usual standards: shaving, plucking, bleaching, waxing, sugaring and using depilatory creams. The cost ranges from Rs. 50 for an eyebrow threading at an unassuming beauty parlor, to lakhs of rupees in laser hair removal treatments. Even simple shaving implements, such as razors, are more expensive for women, than for men.
Thus soldiers on the vicious cycle of a capitalistic cosmetic industry that feeds off of women’s insecurity, while reinforcing it with their targeted marketing: The body hair removal industry is well on its way to being a $1.35 billion industry by 2022, with India and China leading in the Asian market, according to a report by Transparency Market Research.
It’s surprising that in the post-modern and (increasingly) feminist reality in which we exist, the body hair removal industry, which largely makes money off of women’s shame, is still flourishing. The way Indian society stands, systemic oppression of women’s bodily expression has now been repackaged and paraded around as women’s choice, revolving around the typical ‘I do it for me and not for anybody else’ rhetoric. One must ask, however: Why does it feel good to remove body hair? What is it about body hair that makes women not feel good when they have it? What is the elusive ‘choice’ based on?
Body hair removal brands have perpetuated the myth of the ‘choice,’ repackaging the act of hair removal in terms of women empowerment, thus masking the omnipresent tendency to induce shame, underneath. The latest Veet advertisements with Shraddha Kapoor, for instance, portray a strong, carefree woman who doesn’t think twice before dancing on the streets in a skimpy jumpsuit, or wandering off to play basketball in work clothes and heels — all the while, championing smooth, hairless skin. In a Gilette commercial, Deepika Padukone trains as a fighter, strength and badassery emanating from every ravaged hair follicle, until she (very abruptly) advises her work out partner to switch to a Gilette razor and get super smooth skin, in what can only be called a terrible transition. Brands have learned how to portray these women — the kind who are not to be oppressed by societal norms; they are too smart, too strong, too self aware to fall for cheap capitalistic tricks — in a way that belies their commercial purpose. It is their empowered choice to perpetually appear smooth and emanate a surreal glow. Alas, it’s only a facade.
In Dove’s 2015 campaign, ‘Choose Beautiful,’ the cosmetic brand tries to portray in a viral video that feeling beautiful is a choice. All over the world, they set up doorways, one that said “Average,” and the other “Beautiful.” They then filmed women deciding to walk through either door and at the end of the campaign, released statistics showing that most women decided to walk through the “Average” door, and thus, didn’t believe that they were beautiful. The message to women was clear: Choose to believe that you’re beautiful and — voila! — you shall be.
The problem with the message is that it simplifies the complex ways in which physical beauty is perceived and portrayed, to a mere issue of self-esteem. Women being hard on themselves and investing time and money into a societal ideal of beautiful has less to do with their own self-esteem, and more to do with the societal ideal informing that self-esteem. We can only think of ourselves as beautiful in the ways we see beauty being portrayed. Any physical trait, such as body hair, that doesn’t fit that ideal would automatically be considered ugly. Beauty is not a choice; it’s an incredibly rigid and narrow binary imposed on women that merely entertains the illusion of choice.
As Susan Bordo writes in “Focault, Feminism and the politics of the body,” “Normalisation, to be sure, is continually mystified and effaced in our culture by the rhetoric of ‘choice’ and ‘self-determination’ which plays such a key role in commercial representations of diet, exercise, hair and eye-colouring and so forth.”
The second wave feminism movement in the 1970s attempted to challenge this normalisation of hair removal and the association of femininity with hairlessness. The attempt, however, further divided the feminism movement by alienating the ‘traditional feminists,’ who deemed the flaunting of body hair by women as extremist and sidelined it from mainstream discussion. More than half a century later, women still seldom question whether the thousands of rupees, and what seems like eons of time, spent on body hair removal are worth it.
Even today, body hair on women is associated with perceptions of a certain kind of extreme feminism, and hasn’t entered the purview of the body positivity movement. While celebrities and popular culture have challenged this normalisation in a relatively recent body-hair positivity movement in the West, it has largely left out women of color.
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All the way over on this side of the world, where we continue to define beauty by European standards of fairness, the body hair positivity movement has not permeated Indian society, perhaps due to lacking a distinct champion whose influence is rooted in fame and glamor. Jameela Jamil, who is widely considered a disrupter of societal beauty standards, recently praised the brand Aerie for not airbrushing off her arm hair in a photo shoot. Yet, a brief glance at the photo won’t even register the presence of hair, which upon further scrutiny is glistening golden in the sunlight — a far cry from what most brown women’s arm hair looks like.
It’s not easy then, to be ‘Hairy and Proud,’ and roam the streets not caring what other people think of you. Rhetoric such as this can once again reproduce the divisive dynamic of the feminism of the ’70s, thrusting body hair positivity to the periphery of feminist discourse.
Feminism is all about the freedom to make choices. While a practice ingrained in society and intensely internalized by women cannot disappear at the first feminist call to be rid of societally imposed shame, it is imperative we start questioning the need to appear hairless all the time.
It’s not a choice if there is only one societally acceptable option.