Greek Cypriot writer Joanna Theodorou discusses the politics of thick body hair, and her personal journey with her own – from childhood to adulthood
I remember the first time I heard a comment about my body hair behind my back, “Hairy Mary! Hairy Mary!” I was about nine or ten. It was, of course, a group of boys at school. It was one of those insults that wedges itself somewhere in your mind and informs who you become later on. For all the times I’ve received a compliment for my thick, lustrous locks or my long lashes and full brows, I can recall just as many times when I had to hide my hairy hands from a stranger on the tube to avoid seeing the disgust in their eyes.
My mum had her first wax when she was twelve, but she knew I couldn’t wait as long, so a few months after the incident at school she took me to try it too. I kept my gym shorts on for modesty as the technician applied the sticky, brown hot wax on my child’s chicken legs. I felt it harden and shrink and then she expertly pulled it with a flick of her hand to reveal my skin silky smooth underneath, skin I had almost forgotten the olive colour of. I was so excited I couldn’t feel any pain. The next day at school all the girls wanted to touch my legs and ask questions. I relished being the centre of attention and doled out knowledge.
My next few times weren’t as smooth as the first. After the initial excitement wore off and my stubborn, dark Greek hairs began to resist the removal treatment I struggled much more with the pain. I’d be filled with dread for the entire day when I had a waxing appointment and can clearly recall a time when my legs were shaking uncontrollably and nearly buckling during a session because I couldn’t handle the pain. Still, I told her to keep going. The alternative; to be a twelve-year-old covered in body hair, was worse. When I walked out of the salon hairless, knowing I could wear what I wanted, I felt like lighter.
"I became addicted to the feeling of being hairless, dependent on the person I turned into when my skin was smooth."
Now, looking back, I separate my life into pre and post wax. I became addicted to the feeling of being hairless, dependent on the person I turned into when my skin was smooth.
In modern history the first hair removal ads can be found in women’s fashion publications like Harper’s Bazaar. In the 1920s, fashion trends saw hemlines rise and sleeves become shorter. This posed a problem with women’s bodies. Hair once concealed by clothing was now on show. And so, in “intimate talks” – as to borrow from the wording of these ads– the publication advised women to use the newly created Gillette safety razor “to keep the underarm white and smooth”, as was deemed attractive.
In the years that have followed, this norm has held in the West, bar the handful of times that a no-hair feminist aesthetic has spread among women. In the second wave feminism of the 1970s women started to look at issues that focus more on the self, such as sexuality and reproductive rights, or inequalities in the workplace. Women were encouraged to assert their position as individuals, looking back to the roles that they assumed during WWII and renounce the domesticity that prevailed in the ‘60s. This reflected immensely on their outer appearance with body hair playing an extensive part in this statement - the full, untamed bush being a signature of the era. In fourth wave feminism, a movement that has largely played out online, proponents of body hair like Ashley Armitage and Arvida Bystrom have been met with widespread criticism for posting pictures of their hairy legs and underarms, only to fight back by doing it again, and again. With Instagram, and hashtags like #LesPrincessesOntDesPoils (#PrincessesHaveHair) which sparked a wider conversation at the beginning of 2017 and most recently #JanuHairy, the visibility of role models with body hair has increased tenfold.
Of course, I wasn’t to know this when I was fourteen, the age I started laser treatments for my face and underarms, which I kept doing for a couple of years consistently. The process was incredibly effective but also unbearably painful, and while it’s said that after the hair weakens the process becomes less uncomfortable, I didn’t notice much of a difference except for the fact that I needed more time between treatments. At the same time I started waxing my arms too. She did my forearms first. But when she reached my shoulders I realised that my arms didn’t match the rest of my body. So I urged her on. My stomach and chest were also covered in dark fuzz; I had spent the entire summer stubbornly sporting a tankini, which wasn’t only a ‘00’s staple but also a necessity to cover my hairy body. I wanted it gone, all of it.
Moving from Cyprus to the UK when I was eighteen was one of the biggest culture shocks of my life in many ways. But a big part of it involved the price of hair removal treatments and having to let go of something I was doing so regularly for most of my life. Back home where waxing is embedded in the culture out of necessity, I’d spend a maximum of €75 (about £65 in today’s economy) to get my entire body waxed by reputable technicians in luxury salons. The same treatment in a salon of the same level in London would cost anything upward of £200 - almost four times what I was used to paying. Being in fashion school, for better or worse my appearance is naturally one of my primary concerns. Whoever I’ve spoken to that’s lived here their whole lives approach waxing as this sort of luxury that mainly entails doing your bikini line or a full Hollywood if you’re feeling fancy, maybe your legs too if you’re going away for the summer. For me, it was already a necessity, something I felt psychologically relevant on, and without it I knew I would have to wear cardigans in the peak of summer.
"To constantly have to fight who you are created this vicious circle of feeling unfulfilled and incredibly insecure."
Living in London on a student’s part-time retail income, it’s practically impossible to maintain a regular waxing schedule. On top of that, technicians here are not experienced with waxing certain areas like a woman’s chest or shoulders. I tried many reputable and expensive beauty salons and yet still had to deal with cuts from threading or terrible rashes on my back from having a strip pulled the wrong way. The worst by far was when a spa managed to leave me with purplish red bruises on the inside of my elbows and underarms. It’s not just the humiliation of having to lie there, half-naked, enduring the pain, it’s the realisation that this person who has bruised you for something that’s supposed to be their job will be getting handsomely paid for it. And the rising panic that this bruise might end up leaving a permanent mark.
These largely traumatic experiences collectively served as a wake-up call, since then I’ve tried to minimise my visits and result to alternatives – I now only shave my legs using olive oil instead of shaving cream as I found it prevents ingrown hairs. And after years of observing technicians perform waxes on me, I now know my way around with a Veet strip and can do my own ‘stache from the comfort of my own bathroom.
To constantly have to fight who you are created this vicious circle of feeling unfulfilled and incredibly insecure because of something that was essentially beyond my control. It’s led me to reevaluate the way I look at my body, this place that I’ve spent years curating, and stressing about and waxing to perfection. It’s led me to think about issues of trust and the people that I date and how I’m sharing something with them that is the source of my greatest insecurity. While I’m still learning to accept myself and how I look and explore my sexuality, even though I don’t have one consistent image of myself that I project to the world, I know that there’s still a long way to go. A huge part of this is due to the fact that mainstream media continues to represent this flawless, airbrushed image of what a woman should look like. In adverts, women are glossy and hairless. In porn, we view the female body depicted almost entirely as hairless unless it is in the fairly obscure fetish categories. Hair on the female body is one of the final thresholds where patriarchy has its grip nice and tight on women, so while we’re taking strides in the right direction in representing different bodies, through visible role models and various hashtags, an unshaved underarm just won’t do anymore. It can’t. The novelty of it has faded. We need hairy legs, or arms, or stomachs.