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Billie razor campaign
Billie razor campaign, photography Ashley Armitage

Despite body positivity Ruqaiya Haris is still disgusted by her body hair

Mainstream representations of body hair are changing, but Ruqaiya Haris hasn’t yet been able to rid herself of internalised notions of beauty, particularly as a South Asian woman

From Ashley Armitage’s advert for razor brand Billie - the first of its kind to feature women with body hair as opposed to the usual silky smooth hairless pins - to Nike’s campaign earlier this year that featured Nigerian-American singer Annahastasia with her arm raised to reveal a small patch of hair on her armpits, mainstream representations of body hair are changing. A result of the viral body positivity movement, more and more women are starting to embrace their natural body hair and brands are following suit.

Of course, it is inspiring to see women who don’t just love themselves in spite of their body hair, but actually, love how they look in their natural state. I feel struck by the sheer courage and self-belief it takes for anyone to reject a social convention that is so intensely and relentlessly thrust upon us. Yet truth be told - I can’t help but still feel disgusted by the sight of body hair on women.

For generations, media representations have normalised the homogenous image of hairless women. Through these portrayals, we seem to have been conditioned into accepting that a woman’s natural state is to be smooth-legged and bump-free. While the movement to embrace body hair has certainly helped alleviate some of the stigma surrounding it, the focus so far has typically been on thin, white bodies, with the hair itself being confined rather inoffensively to small patches on the legs and underarms. Beard hair, sideburns, monobrows, moustaches and navel hair on women are often absent from the landscape of desirable hairiness displayed on social media today, which can be alienating to women who have a significant amount of body hair, whether as a result of PCOS, being trans or just belonging to certain ethnic groups.  

Though the policing of women’s bodies is a universal issue, when it comes to matters of body hair it’s a particularly complex issue for women of colour. When I was about six or seven I remember being taunted about my moustache and thick monobrow by older kids. It was the first time I became aware of ‘conventional’ standards of beauty by the fact that I was not fulfilling them. To avoid being the subject of ridicule I withdrew into myself. I would avoid standing too close to people who could see my facial hair, didn’t make much eye contact and would try my best to avoid direct sunlight. I found it difficult to feel confident in social situations, and struggled to perceive my own femininity or feel attractive to boys.

This was not just my experience alone. I remember distinctly that it was mostly South Asian and Middle Eastern girls at school with visible body hair who felt the most pressure to remove it. Light hair against fair skin seemed markedly less offensive in comparison, and most of the white girls I grew up with only bothered to shave their legs from the knee down. Seeing their furry blonde thighs, unshaved and unbothered, I became acutely aware from the onset of puberty that the onus on me to remove my body hair would always be far greater as a South Asian girl with thick, dark hair. 

I was desperate to start experimenting with hair removal and began shaving and attempting to wax at the tender age of 11. But I was only able to start feeling more comfortable and confident in my body after I had convinced my mum to let me get laser hair removal on my face at around 12 or 13 and on my legs soon after.

The pain was excruciating, like tiny electric shocks burning my skin. My hair follicles were thick by genetic design and were not going down without a fight. But I persevered. So while other girls were going shopping and hanging out at Starbucks on a Saturday afternoon, I was biting into towels and fighting back tears in the quest for beauty and a sense of inner peace. But when I began to see the hair growth start to drastically reduce, I instantly knew it was worth all the pain and it totally transformed my confidence. 

That said, whilst the results were gratifying as the hair reduction was significant, they were not permanent and I have since had to have various courses of laser hair removal, as well as tedious evenings spent waxing and shaving during the years in between. I am currently undergoing my full body laser hair removal which cost just over £2000 and I pay for it in monthly instalments. Every six weeks I go to the salon and lie there like a beached whale for two hours, getting zapped pretty much everywhere except for the hair on my head in the hope that one day I will finally be rid of my body hair completely and never have to think about it again.

Of course, I recognise that body hair positivity is important, and I hope it allows a lot of young girls to love and accept themselves in a way that I wish I had been able to. But for me, being confronted with images of body hair is not only a reminder of a particularly low period of my life; it is still very much an ongoing (and physically painful) part of my life. I don’t feel as though I will ever be free from these internalised notions of beauty and femininity that are etched so deeply into my psyche, so whilst it is empowering to see images of women embracing their body hair it can also be triggering - and a reminder of how body hair and women’s beauty standards will always be racialised. Perhaps it’s easy to embrace your body hair if it was never really weaponised against you.

It also feels surreal at times that the same beauty culture that made me loathe my own body hair is now telling me, rather forcefully, that I must embrace it. It made me feel unworthy of self-love for having body hair in the first place, and now makes me feel as though I have failed at self-love again because I haven’t yet learnt to accept the hair I was always taught to hate. Self-love sold to us by corporations and through social media makes self-acceptance seem so easy when reduced to a superficial Instagram post. But true self-love requires a lot of work that perhaps many of us aren’t yet willing or able to do. At this point in my life, what I am willing to do is continue down this path of hair removal, as it makes me feel happy to be smooth and hairless. And that’s ok, too.