When I was 12, my childhood crush was, in my opinion, the 12-year-old version of Zac Efron, albeit with a little (lot) more baby fat. I fancied myself quite the Gabriella, and for two years I watched him like all the other blonde girls in the class, waiting till he’d look at me. In Year 8, my teacher finally put us next to each other in History, much to my elation. I made funny jokes, helped him with things he didn’t know and soon a little bond formed. Yet this joy was not unadulterated, for whenever those weeks came where my school jumper wasn’t washed, or was creased, or was IN THE WASH, I panicked. Usually, whenever I pointed over to something in his textbook, I would pull my jumper sleeve as far down as it would go over my arms and hands, which naturally have dark black hairs on them. The weeks after I waxed weren’t a problem, getting out my smooth, hairless arms wherever I could. But the weeks where the timing didn’t match up… when my jumper wasn’t there, when my hairs had grown back. Those where the weeks I dreaded. I would sit in that hour-long History slot sweating, hoping and praying he wouldn’t see the thing that, in his eyes, would make me gross, unattractive… that would literally de-gender me. One week where I couldn’t fathom him catching a glimpse of my arm hair, I took my epilator, sat on my bedroom floor, clenched my teeth and turned the machine towards my arms, ripping out the long, fine hairs follicle by follicle, and feeling like I was going to pass out in the process.
The boy ended up liking me back, and we ‘dated’ for three BBM heart-filled months. When things ended, however, he became my bully. Him and his friends set their sights on the easiest insecurity and attacked. Chants like ‘cold and hairy’ to the tune of ‘Black and Yellow’ became custom, launched at me whenever I entered and left the classroom. ‘You’re so hairy’, ‘why are you so hairy?’, ‘you look like a gorilla’… it went on for a long time. ‘Boys will be boys’ I was told, and the comments received from the white head of year when I reported the bullying is a story in itself about the perils of growing up as a girl of colour in a school run by white people.
Fast forward to 18, and suddenly I became ‘exotic’, ‘beautiful’, ‘spicy’. I was dark and different, but in a palatable way. In the way that becomes sexualised and exoticized when it comes with a pair of breasts. My eyebrows were threaded, my hair was straightened, and though I told myself I’d stopped caring so much what people thought of my body hair, I still wouldn’t wear a skirt on those ‘bad’ days. My Year 8 crush, who had since been shipped off to boarding school, as well as some of those friends, ironically started to like me themselves. Despite the torment and the verbal abuse, I still liked him. Which speaks to the root of this piece. Why? I still wanted him to want me. When we started dating again at 18, when he told me he loved me and lost his virginity to me, I was caught in this awful space -between a sadistic validation and a resentment that I still needed it.
What does it do to a woman when she engages in relationships with those who have racially rejected her? With those who have othered her body, only to go on to colonise it? And what is at stake when talking about empowerment politics and body positivity when for your entire life those you are attracted to have been telling you that your body is gross and unfeminine, and yet when it is bleached and waxed, it is unreservedly desirable? At 23, I ask myself why just living in my natural body, without plucking and pruning and bleeding, is such an act of protest? Is seen as so radical and a gesture of great defiance and one I must explain and justify – rather than a happy acceptance of my body, just the way it is.
One day when we were packing up his things for university, I found his old leavers shirt. Funnily enough, amongst the bullying and name-calling, I hadn’t signed it. But whilst looking for my non-existent message, I found another one. It read “remember the hairy jokes”. A dull ache. He immediately cut it out of the shirt, but as I stood watching him snipping away with shame in his eyes, I wondered whether I should remember them too?
10 years later, I still do. They remind me that whether I like it or not, my body is a politic and my body hair is a battleground for so much more than I gave it credit for. And I am actually really proud of that.