The first time I thought about facial hair was in high school, when a boy, whom I considered a friend, informed me that I had more hair on my upper lip than he did. I didn’t do anything about it then — it had been enough of a fight with my mother to let me shave my legs, and even when I was allowed to, going above the knee was still always out of the question.
When I mentioned this to my friend Julia, whose family is Sicilian, she told me that her mother wouldn’t let her do anything about her facial hair, either. (She was once referred to as “Chia Pet” by the boys in her middle school.) “The people from the hairiest cultures don’t want you to shave,” she said, shaking her head.
By college, I had become a tyrant about getting rid of mine. I burned the hair on my chin with a chemical in an attempt to eradicate it and it had left a weird scab. At a gynecologist appointment at Student Health Services, my doctor said, “If someone’s hurting you, you can tell me.”
I’m not burning my face anymore, but I still work embarrassingly hard on a regular basis to make sure my upper lip and chin hair aren’t visible. When I saw the cover of Mara Altman’s Kindle single, “Bearded Lady,”, which is a photo of Altman with shaving cream covering her chin, lower cheeks and upper lip, I thought, “Oh, that’s supposed to be funny.” And then I thought, “Oh, that’s me.” (As I write this, I’m noticing that it’s time again to put that smelly, thick white cream on my upper lip again.)
“Bearded Lady” is about Altman’s confrontations with her own body and facial hair, and her struggle to remove it permanently. After a laser hair removal session in Thailand, she wrote, “I won’t pay ten bucks for a sandwich, but I could somehow rationalize spending one thousand dollars so someone could fry my face.”
Anna, a Jewish Midwesterner in her 20’s, told me that before she started doing laser hair removal, she “lived and died by my tweezers…More than once have I driven down a major road in my major city, dry-shaving my face in the rearview at 45 miles per hour.” There’s something really comforting about hearing the stories of how others deal with their facial hair, about the recognition that they have it, of how far they’ll go to make it go away.
At the end of my grandmother’s life, the grey hairs on her chin grew plentiful, and she no longer had the hand-eye coordination to remove them herself. When I visited her in the nursing home, I would routinely pull a chair up next to her and attack the hairs with tweezers. It turns out that my grandmother’s relying on me to remove her chin hair was an actualization of worst fears for the women I interviewed. Almost everyone reported creating contingency plans with female friends, pacts that ensured that, should one become incapacitated, someone would be there to prevent them from growing beards and mustaches.
But let’s pretend for a minute that, without being in a coma, without being marooned on a desert island where there are no tweezers, razors, Jolene cream bleach, or laser hair removal places, that we just stop removing our facial hair. “I’m going to spend years of my life pulling hair out of my face,” Esther from Chicago told me. “What else could I be doing with my time?” Some women are, indeed, choosing another path. Esther directed me to Jennifer Miller, playwright, performer and the director and founder of Circus Amok. Miller has a full beard and mustache that started growing in in her early 20’s. In an interview with Vox Magazine in 2011, Miller said of her facial hair, “I embraced the idea of it right away, and then had on-and-off relationships with it over the years… that it wasn’t always easy. I felt stronger and weaker about wearing it depending on what was happening.” In 2012, an observant Sikh woman took to the minefield that is Reddit to confront folks who attempted to shame her for daring to display her facial hair in public. (Sikhs do not remove any hair.)
My friend V. has recently stopped removing the hair on her upper lip and says that with the exception of family, no one has commented on it so far. “But I think there is this sense that I’m breaking the rules, and it feels very similar to the thinking of friend on a diet who says (while looking at me eating a piece of cake) ‘I wish I could eat a piece of cake.’ You can. I think the gut instinct is to challenge the outlier, rather than the rules themselves.”
I can’t remember my mother, who’s dead now, having facial hair. (Maybe she was a secret plucker.) The hair on my chin isn’t grey yet, it’s still thick and black, and every time I demolish it, I think about being a Jewish woman. When I took to the internet to find out what’s been written about Jewish women and facial hair, I found a lot of pieces about peyes and beards on Jewish men, and this guest post at Feministe by Shoshie, which explicitly talks about Jewish women and facial hair. What’s particularly intense about Jewish women with facial hair, she writes, is that “It plays into Jewish stereotypes about Jewish women being more masculine (loud, overbearing, whathaveyou) than their non-Jewish counterparts.”
About 10 years ago, I stopped shaving my legs and underarms, after deciding I was completely fed up, and frankly, creeped out by the expectation that I would return, on the regular, to being a pre pubescent girl. My leg hair isn’t very dark and there isn’t much of it. I don’t work in an environment where it could be considered unprofessional to show up with hairy legs. And I’ve managed to somehow not care if people notice that I don’t shave. But I can’t apply the same logic to the hair on my upper lip and chin. That hair makes me feel ugly, and yes, that sentence was hard to type.
Elena, who’s 28, spoke with me about the tension between feminism and hair eradication. “I feel really complicated about it,” she said. The simple honesty of that statement reminds me that I can feel ugly about certain things, and beautiful about others, and I can make decisions based on how I feel when I wake up every day and have to face the world, because I’m the one who has to be in my body, and in spite of what we’re told, there really is no right way to have one.