By Kelsey DeMelo
I found myself lying on a salon bed with beads of sweat dripping down my face as I had every single piece of hair waxed off my body. This was in preparation for my 21st birthday weekend, and the little black dress that I wanted to wear. I tried to distract myself from the agony with something—anything—but the pale-yellow walls and lack of décor in the salon offered no distraction. Not even the tune of “7 Rings” by Ariana Grande, which was cranked to an ungodly high volume, relieved me of any pain.
Every time my esthetician went to remove a wax strip, I flinched and dug my nails into the palm of my hand. The hour I spent trapped in that room having every inch of my body hair waxed, lasered and threaded off, felt like it was never-ending. At one point, I actually started to tear up.
“Beauty is pain, my dear.”
I can’t remember when those words were first spoken to me, but I accepted them without question. I assumed it was a consequence of being born a woman. At age 11, I was made painfully aware of my body hair when the boy I liked called me a sasquatch after glancing at my arm hair; and then again at age 12, when my friend ran her hand over the peach fuzz on my shin and told me she would teach me how to shave it off. It was such experiences that explain why I willingly drove myself to a salon that morning and allowed all my body hair and subsequently, a layer of my skin, to be ripped off with hot wax.
From a young age, girls are socialized to believe that body hair makes them unfeminine and that their success is tied to their appearance. The Girls Attitude Survey from 2016 found that 47 per cent of girls aged 11 to 21 say that the way they look holds them back in life. As a way to combat the failures we feel as a result of our appearances, we resort to excruciatingly painful processes of hair removal like waxing, threading, plucking and even lasering. And as we, women, continue to normalize the idea that pain is an essential part of beauty, we suffer even further by adopting unhealthy habits such as under eating and over exercising.
The idea of beauty and pain being inseparable became so commonplace for me that by the time I was 12 years old I was eating a piece of gum and a rice cake a day and running up and down my elementary school staircase during recess to burn it off.
After struggling with an eating disorder for three years and attending weekly therapy sessions, I foolishly believed that my unhealthy obsession with perfection was cured. But I now realize that no amount of therapy could reverse the narrative I swallowed as a young girl. I believed that without pain, beauty was not possible.
47 per cent of girls aged 11 to 21 say that the way they look holds them back in life
At age 16, the floor-to-ceiling mirrors in my dance studio taunted me. You couldn’t hide anything in front of those things. One afternoon, I realized mid-routine that I had forgotten to shave my armpits. I immediately bolted to the bathroom and dialed my mom’s number, begging her to bring me a razor from home so I could shave off the 4 o’clock shadow.
I locked myself in the bathroom of my dance studio for 25 minutes before daring to show even a fraction of my unshaven body in class. By the time I returned, I had missed two eight-counts of choreography and my instructor told me off for taking an extended bathroom break, but at least my body hair was in check.
Throughout my life, I’ve blamed those exact mirrors for a lot of my insecurities. My anxieties about my body image and my body hair always seemed to be more apparent in front of those mirrors. But now I can see now that they acted as a funhouse exhibit by showing me a distorted image of myself based on what I thought others saw of me.
In a society where magazines, ads and commercials are constantly showing women how to look, it is easy to normalize the sometimes dangerous lengths we go through to achieve those ends. But some women are making strides to show how beauty and pain are not synonymous.
Fitness blogger Morgan Mikenas stopped shaving her body hair about a year ago to promote natural beauty and to encourage women to do whatever makes them feel good. Her decision to break away from societal expectations has opened her up to a wide array of hate comments and bullying online, but for some people it could be much worse.
Although Mikenas is advocating for women, it is relevant to consider that she has a platform because she is already naturally beautiful by societal standards. Her white skin and petite figure give her a leg up on other women who may not have the same privilege she does. For example, removing body hair is not only a practice, but is also a safety concern for trans women.
As a result of the standards we have placed on women, trans women with hair are not just marked out as hairy—they become targets of abuse and violence because people view them as men pretending to be women. So, while it may be empowering to see women refusing to remove their hair, it is also not realistic to ask everyone to do so because it involves more than just throwing out your razors. Women’s expectations in relation to beauty are so much more than just personal preferences; they are the things that control your mental health and your livelihood as a woman.
If you saw me leaving the salon last weekend you would have seen a young girl holding an ice pack to her throbbing eyebrow bone and you would have noticed how awkwardly I walked to keep my track pants from rubbing against my painfully raw, red legs. You definitely would not have thought I looked womanly just yet; but by the time I put my little black dress on, burnt my hair with a curling iron and lathered my body in tanning lotion, I started to fit the picture of beauty a little better. And even though in my moments of weakness when I vowed to never wax my body hair again, I knew I’d be back lying on that bed in another six weeks, because beauty is pain, right?