By Sahej Marwah Feb. 05, 2021
For me, being hair-free was like an outfit accessory – I would only look good or “sophisticated” if my skin was smooth and glossy. When salons shut during the first lockdown, I stopped bothering about hair removal. It felt liberating to just be who I am.
If you asked me in January 2020 what my routine before an evening out looked like, it would go something like this: two hours of the morning spent in the parlour getting plucked like a chicken, afternoon at home washing and drying my curly hair perfectly like that of a poodle, and an hour in the evening shortly before my departure spent painting over every blemish on my face. I would finally step out without an extra strand of hair on my body and with not one strand of hair astray on my head. For me, being hair-free was like an outfit accessory – I would only look good or “sophisticated” if my skin was smooth and glossy. Fast-forward to February 2021, I find myself in a restaurant with hair on my calves, some sprouts above my lip, and my eyebrows au naturel.
Following the dictates of the first lockdown in March 2020, salons around the country were closed indefinitely on account of their not providing “essential” services. I could not imagine a year without hair removal back then. For most women like myself, it was important to be cleansed and polished like gold every month. But with life at standstill for what seemed like an undetermined period, I had nowhere to go and nothing to doll up for. That’s when I started thinking about all the years that I’d tell myself, “I’m doing this all for me.” But was I, really? Why have I been putting up with this scathing ritual for years now?
My institution to the world of parlours started as a 14-year-old who had to attend her cousin’s wedding. To me, it didn’t matter that I had hair combing my arms, legs, and armpits but it apparently did to everyone else who was peering at me with a magnifying glass. “Chadhti jawani” in this case referred not only to acne but also to sprigs of hair in the armpit and the bikini line. In contrast, my teenage male cousin was lauded for his stache – it was emblematic of adulthood. And for me? Another unrealistic beauty standard was set. I started thinking being “clean-shaven” was synonymous with being clean. Soon I had my entire closet divided into two sections: clothes I can wear without feeling ashamed and clothes I cannot. When I’m hairy, I only have access to one half of it. Any unexpected growth made me feel dishevelled and had me reaching out for long sleeves and jeans. The pandemic turned this obsession of getting rid of body hair on its head.
When my hair started growing out during the lockdown, the first month or so, it bothered me. I’d shave my legs and pluck my brows with a tweezer and then when staying in became a way of life, I hardly took notice of it. It was just a process that was taking place simultaneously, like breathing. There was no longer any fretting over the post-wax bumps or pre-wax scrubbing. My principles as a feminist had always been clear to me: To have the liberty of choice; to shave or not to shave. The pandemic has reinstated this.
I am proud that my frequency to indulge in hair removal has reduced drastically.
In a piece published in the Guardian on women who gave up grooming in 2020, Jaclyn Wong of the University of South Carolina, an expert in gender and attractiveness, says “The fact that women aren’t doing this beauty work is exciting to me, because it represents a disruption of how they normally comply with our society’s expectations of femininity.”
Waxing, shaving, epilating, whatchamacallit is largely a cultural burden inherited by women from generation to generation. I did not wax until 14 but my classmates in the girls’ school that I attended had been doing it since they were 11 or 12 years old, and they made it known. If they spotted someone with long weaves, they passed sly remarks. When I asked my mother why she wouldn’t let me wax, she would say, “Why are you in such a hurry to grow old?” Fair point. The arrival into this “adult” world was like a twisted quinceanera – my coming-of-age was a punishment.
I wish I could tell you that the last couple of months have brought a 180 degree change in this lifestyle. Unlike many women who’ve given up hair removal completely, I wax from time to time. However, what I am proud of is that my frequency to indulge has reduced drastically. I let myself wear dresses and shorts and tank tops with my hair peeking from underneath them but I no longer beat myself over it. I don’t run for the tweezer if I see an extra hair or two growing on my chin.
Unlearning is a lengthy, arduous process that takes place internally and externally. While it’s not the great war of our ages, I fight it within myself because I can no longer be controlled by a society that benefits from my misery. I refuse to let it hold the reins to my comfort. Little by little, this has been a process of reclaiming all the power that I had forfeited in my teenage years. I have started accessing the other half of my closet and wearing styles that may not be typically flattering. It’s liberating to just be who you are.
Ironically, it took a few months in confinement to make me realise this.
Sahej Marwah likes to have a finger in every bowl. She spends her time baking, writing, editing, podcasting, and pampering her cat. It's safe to say that she is now running out of fingers and is open to donations.