Every woman carries with her the memory of when her girlhood began to diminish and her body began to change. This change is marked by that soreness and sudden sensitivity of your chest, the start of your periods and the hair that manages to spring from parts of your body you were yet to even acknowledge.
My mother instilled in me, from a young age, a strict NO SHAVING policy. She insisted I forgo the razor sat on the side of the bathtub and instead allow her to wax me, pluck me, epilate me. I have a distinct memory of her waxing my arm pits, telling me it “really isn’t that painful”, tearing away the wax strip from my pubescent skin and looking on, surprised by my wide-eyed horror and the sounds that were emulating from the bottom of my throat.
Waxing was put on the back burner in favour of the epilator. This small hand-held machine was not the same silent devil as the wax, it whirred and groaned and looked as if it had teeth. Tiny shark teeth ready to turn me into the perfectly preened show pony I was expected to be. I have a high pain threshold that in hindsight must come from my mothers’ determination to encourage me to endure all the most painful parts of the hair removal process. A true lesson in womanhood! It’s at this point that I need to thank Veet hair removal cream, after one attempt at epilating my bikini line, Veet saved me from experiencing such pain ever again. The razor still lay unused, my mother was happy. Win, win.
It strikes me that in the short introduction to this blog I have referenced four different ways, one brand specific, in which women can deal with body hair. The global market for hair removal is estimated to be worth billions of dollars and that is just in the US alone. We are not biologically tuned to reach puberty and develop a disdain for our bodies, we have millions spent on advertising to do this for us. Gillette made and advertised its first woman’s razor in 1915. 103 years on, I went to a summer BBQ and realised I hadn’t shaved my armpits for a week so borrowed my friends razor so that I could sneak off and do it in his sink. Good job Gillette.
As if navigating the strange maze of the female body was not exciting enough, we have pop culture and social media to confuse us even further. We have Ted talks given by the wonderful and brave Harnaam Kaur, shunned for the facial hair she began to develop due to PCOS and the pressures to remove it. She now proudly maintains her beard, a side effect of PCOS that drove her to suicidal thoughts. Her journey has been a tumultuous and difficult one, driven forward only by her own fierce self-belief and determination to redefine her personal identity as a woman. Kaur discusses the confusion surrounding the images that were offered to her though popular media of womanhood. Such images tend to be of hairless, sexualised, slim and tall, supple-skinned, long-haired young women. This is how beauty is portrayed in day to day pop culture.
Of course there are some exceptions. We see this in the latest stream of Frida Kahlo images. Her face can be seen printed on just about every piece of merchandise or clothing imaginable. As I write this blog there are currently 2.4 million posts on Instagram with the hashtag #fridakahlo, very few seem to display her artwork, most are a homage of some sort to her unibrow or sense of style. An exhibition currently on at London’s Victoria and Albert museum does a fantastic job of displaying her personal clothing and belongings, all these items are used to create an image of her, without acknowledging her work as an artist. Her sexuality and striking image seems to be put above her status as a brilliant artist. A recent headline regarding the exhibition reads, “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up review – forget the paintings, here’s her false leg”. In a society where female artists are still horribly under exhibited and under-appreciated, Frida Kahlo remains a good example of how looks (for women) are often heralded above substance. It would not be unfair to say her image has become more identifiable than her work. A positive take on this is that her image does at least encompass something the beauty industry, and society at large, usually recoils at: the unibrow. But we see how corporations that usually shun ‘hairy’ or ‘real’ women are now cashing in on Frida’s individual, self-made style, using ‘feminism’ as their buzzword. When the company responsible for Barbie Dolls decided to create a doll modelled on Kahlo’s image, not only did they abandon her paint palette and easel, they also opted to lose both the defining unibrow and upper lip hair. Thus removing from their product the defining features of Kahlo’s image completely.
The contradictions are frightening, and it takes a woman with resilience to look past these problems and take control of the way she wants to present herself. My mother only protested slightly at my desire to start shaving, it was more a sadness at me growing up than bowing to the pressure of societal norms. After all she is also a woman who has had a life time of being presented with these images, and she has crumbled under the pressure herself. We are lucky we have women like Harnaam Kaur, promoting their views and their image in the name of paving a safer pathway for the girls who come next. Frida Kahlo is also a positive role model for young women, though it’s important to be mindful of the way her image has been used and interpreted.
Harnaam Kaur, Empowerment through Confidence https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZcHSJSQyZs
‘Mexican court blocks sales of Frida Kahlo Barbie doll’ https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/20/frida-kahlo-barbie-doll-mexico-injunction, The Guardian, 20thApril 2018
Jonathan Jones, ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up review – forget the painting’s, here’s her false leg’, The Guardian, 12thJune 2018.