“Oh my god, I never noticed your arms!” a classmate of mine squealed, “You look like a werewolf! You’ve got hairy little werewolf arms!”
I was in the 7th grade, and the only thing I wanted to do with werewolves involved the hot ones from Twilight. It wasn’t the first time that my body hair had been laughed at, but I couldn’t say that I was used to it. I remember becoming acutely aware of my body hair in the 4th grade when a boy pointed out that I had more arm hair than he did. And he was right, his arms had a visible, but sparse, collection of hair that made my own look animalistic in comparison. This isn’t a particularly unique struggle—just go ahead and ask any girl who grew up hairy—but why was it so difficult to accept such a natural part of myself?
While nobody directly told me so, I knew seemingly instinctually that girls just weren't supposed to have more hair than boys. Not on their faces, not on their legs or armpits, and certainly not on their arms. After the incident, I observed that none of the girls in school, including the teachers, seemed to have noticeable arm hair. They had what my mom referred to as “peach fuzz,” a cutesy term reserved for those lucky enough to have so little hair on their bodies that it resembled the invisible hair on a peach.
It seems that once I was made aware of my beastly condition, I couldn’t seem to escape hairless women. Not at school, at the mall, in movies, on TV, and especially not in the old Cosmos I snuck from my mom. The ideal 2000’s girl was blonde, hairless, and effortlessly perfect—not the bushy-browed, frizzy girl with the dark, hairy arms that looked back at me in the mirror. It turned out that this “instinct” that girls weren’t supposed to be hairy simply came from absorbing the toxic, Eurocentric beauty standards that the noughties are known for. Even Shakira, Salma Hayek, and J.Lo, arguably the most iconic Latina celebs of the time, were both smooth as dolphins, sported paper-thin eyebrows, and fit right in with Britney Spears, Kate Moss, and Angelina Jolie.
Not even the women in my own family shared my burden. My mom had won the genetic lottery and got away with a few faint, wispy hairs on her arms, while the older women in my family had already been well-versed in the art of hair removal, opting for regular waxing or lasers. “Mija! Do you want me to wax this?” One of my tías cackled at a party, tugging at my arm hairs.
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The origin of society’s disgust with women’s body hair can be traced all the way back to Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, published in 1871, where he explains that body hair denoted “primitive ancestry and an atavistic return to earlier, less developed forms,” while hairlessness suggested “being more evolved and sexually attractive.” Conveniently, his theory only applied to women. Decades later, Darwin’s ideas gained traction in America. Female hair removal ads began and Darwin’s ideology resulted in Americans nixing body hair as “a way to separate oneself from cruder people, lower class and immigrant,” leading to its upper and middle-class citizens to use the presence of body hair as a tool to oppress and control women, particularly women of color.
With a history like that, it’s not hard to imagine how femininity became increasingly controlled and infantilized, telling us that we must shave, wax, laser, or pluck in order to be our most beautiful and feminine selves. Hair removal brand Veet’s "Don’t Risk Dudeness" ad campaign run in 2014 portrayed a beautiful woman revealing wooly legs (much to her own and others’ disgust) and transforming into a hairy man. “But I shaved yesterday!” the man cries in the woman’s voice, only changing back into her female self after she uses Veet wax strips. If a woman had even the slightest bit of body hair, she wasn’t a woman at all and would disgust everyone from sexual partners to pedicure technicians.
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In the 5th grade, after some tearful begging, my mom permitted me to shave my legs and armpits, but not my upper lip or arms—the things I got teased for the most. She explained it was because when you shaved, your hair would come back thicker and darker, a commonly believed myth. Desperate to rescue her daughter from being teased relentlessly for the caterpillars on her face, my mother turned to at-home facial waxing kits, eventually graduating to taking me to a professional who would strip my eyebrow hairs into submission. Both resulted in blood, tears, and flawless, clean eyebrows. And as for my arm hair? Bleach cream became my new best friend. Every month, I would endure about 10-15 minutes of burning, itchy hell until I was greeted by the sight of blonde wheat on my arms. Unless someone got close enough, it was hard to tell that I had any body hair at all.
Except…it was still there. In the 7th grade, not long after I got called a werewolf, I decided that I was fed up and shaved my arms. I wanted to look like other girls. I wanted boys to like me. I thought it was the most liberating thing I had ever done in my little adolescent life! Over the years, I had grown accustomed to turning my arms inwards when I was in public, but now I could sit at my desk and have my arms proudly displayed in my short-sleeved shirts like everyone else. It was probably the first time I felt feminine and somewhat confident.
Unfortunately, no amount of shaving would make the hair fully disappear, which was what I truly wanted. I thought my arms were perfect, but ever so often I would get asked by classmates why my arms were so smooth. “You look like a baby,” one said. It turned out that the sight of naked-baby arms may as well have been a sign saying, “Hey look! I was so hairy I had to shave my arms!” Peach-fuzzed girls would scoff that they would never shave their arms, and they didn’t know why anyone would do it. They were so comfortable with theirs, unable to fathom that arm hair could, in fact, be dark and plentiful on a girl.
As a high school freshman, I was exposed to indie media and alternative culture through the internet and saw that there were different ways to exist as a woman. Some girls didn’t wear makeup, and some had wild, untamed hair, including on their bodies. Film portraits of women in dresses with fuzzy legs and combat boots, an artful shot of pit hair belonging to a doe-eyed girl, mouth agape—they made rebelling against the patriarchy look good. Eager to make my own feminist statement, I tried to quit shaving my legs, but found the experience to be itchy more than anything else. I shamefully welcomed my razor back.
I gained a small victory a year or so later when bushy brows came into vogue, and I gleefully stopped waxing mine–I always dreaded the pain anyway. All it took was some positive representation to make me (and others) see that extra hair could be beautiful, and I’ve never waxed them since. It was the biggest step yet to accept my natural self.
Yet, as I grew older, I still wasn’t brave enough to stop shaving my arms. Those aesthetically pleasing photos of Tumblr cool-girls were often limited to those who didn’t have hair on their arms to begin with. If I stopped shaving my arms, it wouldn’t be a cool political message like theirs, it would just be gross. I felt ashamed for being a “bad feminist” and continuing to shave my body, and found myself in my childish headspace again, wishing that I didn’t have any arm hair to begin with. The liberation I initially felt the first time I shaved my arms had long passed, and now felt more like a cage I had put myself into and couldn’t escape from.
Then, shortly after I turned 20, I stopped shaving my arms on a whim. I wish I could tell you that I agonized over the decision over several sleepless nights before boldly declaring that I didn’t care about what society had to say about my body hair, but the truth is that I just wanted to see what it looked like. After shaving religiously for 7 years, I decided why not?
Because it was winter, no one else but me saw my arm hair as it grew out over a few weeks. I realized that I didn’t mind it so much, but still tentatively asked a couple of friends what they thought. “Oh, I didn’t even notice that you were growing it,” one replied. As the weather got warmer and we began to shed our long layers, I prepared for men and children to run and hide when they saw my werewolf arms, but was instead met with…nothing? No one seemed to notice at all–to the point where I was almost upset! I felt like screaming, “I finally conquered my biggest childhood insecurity, you assholes!” but no one cared. It wasn’t 2009 anymore.
This isn’t some manifesto about how you should toss your razor into a volcano and ghost your waxing lady (unless you want to) but rather encouragement to accept yourself and love the skin you’re in. I still shave parts of my body because it’s simply more physically comfortable for me, but I no longer feel pressured by society or anybody in my life to get rid of my hair. I get to decide what I want to do because my body doesn’t belong to anybody else. Even though no one else cared when I stopped shaving my arms, I’m glad that I could finally accept and love myself after years of hating my body.
About the Author:
Natasha is a first-gen Mexican-American student at UNLV pursuing a BA in English Literature. A creative in many fields, her dream is to inspire others through writing and art, and hopes to write and illustrate a children’s book series one day. Outside of school, she is passionate about fashion, A24 movies, Sailor Moon, animals, and banana crepes.