Barely There

Jennifer Baker considers the ways in which hair removal rituals, begun in her tween years, have helped her achieve body acceptance and connect with her own desire.

Jennifer Baker | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,059 words)

 

Before things begin, Eliza and I share the normal pleasantries on the way to her room. She takes her leave soon after we enter, granting me privacy while I undress. The room is equipped with familiar items: cotton balls/swabs, gauze, tongue depressors. Like in a doctor’s office, there’s a cushy table covered with paper for me to lie on. Unlike the office of a medical professional, there’s wax heating that’s azure in color, molasses in texture, along with a paper thong in the middle of the table. There’s also mood music. A kind of subdued instrumental flows in the air.

***

Nair is pungent and medicinal, reminding me of the funk of a relaxer but even more distinct. As hair started to grow on my prepubescent body I asked my mom if I could join in her regimen. Clad in t-shirts and underwear we smeared goo the color of cotton candy on our legs and sat on the edge of the bed making sure none of it got on the furniture. It was cold upon application, then began to tingle. After the designated wait time, we did an imitation of a penguin’s waddle to the bathroom for washcloths to wipe off the gunk. Each swipe removed most of the hair but left patches we attacked with more Nair before resuming the position.

Hair growth and removal seemed the threshold to cross toward adulthood. This wasn’t told to me so much as revealed in the shows I watched, the magazines I peeked at. To this day Nair’s trademark song from the eighties — “We wear short shorts” — echoes as subdued mockery in my head. Spotlight on glistening legs, trimmed bikini lines, armpits with no evidence of my burgeoning curly cues, becoming more noticeable. To see women with hair on their bodies was to see them in the real world, not the universe many of us observed, especially bookish, television indulgent children like myself. Most of my classmates, the women on TV, the girls in books who never mentioned shaving yet always wore skirts and had good (read: unblemished, glossy, smooth) skin. This pointed to my own inadequacy. The traces of my mom’s beauty routine littered around the sink and atop the dressers we shared were no longer meaningless, they morphed into tools.

Hair growth and removal seemed the threshold to cross toward adulthood. This wasn’t told to me so much as revealed in the shows I watched, the magazines I peeked at.

After the first Nair session I took a moment to really see myself. I twisted and posed taking in the sheen of my skin, the lack of stubble. It was the easiest of transitions; I felt more visible, more feminine. It was as if the sense of touch was enhanced so I could better feel fabric on my bare legs, be it cotton covers or faded denim. I strutted around with this newfound appreciation, arching my feet as though I wore heels. Further inspection led me to reckon with my budding breasts, the nipples imprinting my training bra. Evidence of the growth spurt that suddenly created intrigue, not just to me but my classmates who’d mock my chest by sticking pencils down their shirts, creating cone bras reminiscent of Madonna while exclaiming, “Look I’m Jennifer!”

My mom had her arsenal: cosmetics, wax strips and tweezers, manicures/pedicures, new hairstyles. She applied foundation on the hottest of days even though it dripped down the sides of her nose. She often held an already sienna-spotted napkin to wipe away additional perspiration. Sometimes, beyond Nair, I joined her in these efforts of perceived femininity.

Pubescence came fast. At 12 I saw, felt, and smelled the changes. Anxious though determined, I graduated from depilatories to disposable razors. I was cautious before becoming assured as I slid the blade against the grain. I hardened up to the cuts, quickly wiping blood away as I progressed. Yet, within a day stubble appeared. Add up all the time spent in the shower, on the edge of a tub, legs lifted higher than usual, hunched over a sink. Add up the razor pile in your trashcan from one or two (or the ill-advised 10 uses), the price increase every year for a new iteration of the same thing — double blade, then triple, now quadruple. But this was worth it, right? This was the expectation, the norm, the price?

***

I’m on the table in Eliza’s warmly lit room. Paper crumples underneath me with every stretch and angling of the leg to give this person armed with hot wax more access. Sometimes I’m shifted around for a clearer view, a spotlight shone there, right there. I feel lucky in Eliza’s care, when the sear of heat isn’t accompanied by anything more than a second or two of ache from the tearing. There’s still a heavy sting that vibrates under the skin. Fear takes literal root for each and every patch my esthetician tackles, sometimes in a hurry. This is one of those moments where anyone would more than likely insist on some TLC. This is the reason I stick with Eliza. She’s maternal in her methods. Caring. Prepared for the potential shriek or jerk. (Make sure you never jerk under the hands of an esthetician.) A good waxer could hear the beep of a cell phone message or the blare of a fire alarm and not be deterred in their practice. That’s the kind of person I want handling my in-between parts.

***

The sex talk, as it were, culminated in my mom tossing a book at me. I don’t remember the name. An illustration of two White children, a boy and a girl, adorned the ivory and orange cover. This thin title was meant to prepare teens for our bodies: how they grew, how they changed, what to expect. It was the type of book that included chapter titles like, “Touching Feels Good.” There were illustrations of our genitals. The girl’s was practically hairless, except for a tuft on her pubis. I was informed, as per the text, that boys and girls grew hair, but for girls hair removal would become part of our everyday life. For boys it was optional. Girls would want to get rid of that “unsightly” hair soon after its arrival. I had questions. Ones the reticent me of the time was too scared to ask and which my mother — through avoidance, encouragement to look things up, asking why I needed more razors — indirectly told me not to broach.


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At my elementary school graduation, we accepted a certificate signifying our move to junior high. There were no caps or gowns, but my classmates and I dressed up — most of the girls wore extravagant dresses reminding me of clothes saved for Easter Sunday, frilly with matching bows in the hair, while most of the boys wore clip-on ties. My outfit: a white blouse and black cotton mini-skirt that hiked up whenever I moved. My legs were Naired and cocoa butter shiny, thank-you-very-much. When my name was called I slid toward the stage in my flats to accept my certificate, while simultaneously tugging my skirt. My parents were in the audience, united in their pride and not much else, as they’d long since separated. As we left I overheard my mother say that some of the adults commented on how I looked in my skirt.

It was beyond my comprehension that some of these commenters, men many years my senior, looked at me and had the audacity to say these things aloud in an auditorium full of (their) children and other parents. Or that the women alluded to me being “inappropriate.” I thought I had encouraged this reaction, this ogling of my body by tucking it into clothes that didn’t fully cover me. As we left my elementary school for the last time, I continued pulling at my skirt, fully conscious of every move I made.

On the cusp of teenagedom I was somehow seen as a full-fledged woman. The summer before, my mom had bought me a cute pair of shorts, rolled up at the hem, a sapphire color with the Cross Colors emblem on a back pocket smack dab on my right butt cheek. And yes, my legs gleamed. A man with a gold tooth took a moment while strolling through the New Jersey Transit section of Penn Station with his friends to say, “Hello,” and smiled so I could spot the gleaming attachment to his front incisor. I was my mom’s height if not an inch taller. I smiled at him to be polite, not thinking anything of it. A year or so later, at graduation, I understood what was wrong when my mother ushered me away, pulling me out of the vicinity at a sprint. Once again, we didn’t discuss it. It was simply understood.

***

I’ve often said I have a high propensity for pain and a low tolerance for bullshit. But one of the worst parts of the process is the corner where hip meets thigh. I feel the tug at the root hardest here. As soon as the wax is slathered on Eliza places a mesh strip, holds it, and says “Breathe.” Rip! I gasp at the same moment her palm returns to the spot just made bare. “Alright?” she asks each and every time. The pain is incremental, but she checks on me, waits for me to give that slow nod and low “Um hm” before moving on.

***

Touching feels good. I’d known this before the book landed on my bed. In secret, over my underwear, in the dark, under the covers. Once in high school, the combination of hormones, insecurity, and scrutiny was enough to make me want to hide, rebuking all hair removal methods.

I ignored the lumps of deodorant collecting in my armpits, refused to wear skirts above the ankle. I rarely wore shorts if I could help it, tolerating New York City summers in jeans, oversized t-shirts, and combat boots. My body was on moratorium. I didn’t want to observe it, nor did I want anyone else to. I was downright afraid of it. Fearful of the reactions my body would incur, and whether or not I’d be able to fend them off. The ogling of the body at once flattering and terrifying. My trepidation stemmed from not wanting to look at something I could confirm I did not like, especially if others didn’t like it either.

The work to straighten and style hair, be thin, to glisten quite literally from head to toe on a single mother’s salary in Queens, to be what others deemed desirable, felt like a losing battle.

According to my family I was too thin, thus food was pushed my way. Clean your plate. According to the books I read and shows I watched I was not thin enough. The magazines for kids my age, YM in particular, were a mind fuck. I could never emulate the girls, who looked like women, in those rags. And don’t get me started on how few, if any, appearances were made by girls darker than a paper bag or wider than Tori Spelling. The work to straighten and style hair, be thin, to glisten quite literally from head to toe on a single mother’s salary in Queens, to be what others deemed desirable, felt like a losing battle.

You do anything consistently enough, you get used to it. I got used to hiding as a chubby, dark-skinned Black girl with spaced out teeth and a Jheri curl. The Jheri curl encouraged Soul Glo mockery because who didn’t love Coming to America? The hair on my head was not up to par, and the hair on my body could not be controlled. It grew back too thick, too fast. I had stretch marks, tan tiger stripes on mahogany skin. I tucked myself into corners, wearing amorphous shirts and jeans larger than necessary, so I had to cinch a belt tight, giving no hint of the form that lay underneath. After begging my father for braces I was rewarded with them, along with the rainbow elastics decorating each tooth.

I knew it would take more than a simple stare or touch to get me pregnant, but what exactly was the upside to penetration, anyway? Freshman year meant classmates whose stomachs grew sizably, not only as budding women but soon-to-be mothers. Pleasure, via the book my mom had tossed at me, came with consequences. Masturbation was safe. It was invigorating. It was also something I knew I had to hide from everyone. During I didn’t dare look down. I didn’t want to weave my fingers through the hair growing there, unsure if it was too much or too little. What if, yet again, I was not in line with expectations? Lower half under the covers, head tilted to the ceiling, and eyes shut tight, I absorbed the wave before my whole body froze. Not viewing any inch of myself almost made it an out-of-body experience.

There were no kisses. Invisibility was achieved in the sense that I became a presence only when someone needed the previous night’s homework. I was the smart girl, the class president, the one who won awards. When we think of the convoluted binary, I was “one of the guys,” not, at a loss for friends but never at a point where I had suitors. It’s a weird dichotomy to be a respected nerd, yet also know that no one really understands the desire you have for touch, for appreciation, for being seen.

***

Before Eliza, and on one brief dalliance with another esthetician, I’d had my labia mashed like dough being stuffed into a pan. I’ve had strips removed in milliseconds with no warning, no preparation, and no lag time for the next position that felt the scorch of heat before the burn of tearing. “This bitch is going to rip my clit clear off,” I said to myself during those more tenuous sessions, praying to anyone who may have been listening to not let this end badly. After these horror sessions I would heal, but bet your ass I never forgot.

***

Senior year of high school, Billy Blanks’ new exercise fad helped me lose 40 pounds. The braces were off, Jheri curl a thing of the past, relaxer the present. It was, at least I thought, the metamorphosis of teen comedies.

My “coming out” would occur at senior prom. Eyebrow waxing would be the gateway drug back to hair removal and even visibility. I ventured deeper into Flushing to get my nails done after school one day. The money saved from my new movie theatre job allowed me to splurge on a manicure/pedicure. Afterwards, I saw the signs for a deal on eyebrow waxing. Why the hell not?

Lying down in the back of the parlor, listening to water flowing from an illuminated pane of glass plugged into the wall, I tried to soothe myself in preparation. I hadn’t tried waxing beyond some attempts at Nair’s newest wax strip line. These ended horribly with my mother and me battling the honey textured goo on our calves. I figured the professionals were on the right track at least. The woman powdered my eyebrows and casually suggested “Lip?” Self-conscious enough, I agreed. As soon as she spread the wax above my lids, tears pooled in the corner of my eyes. I felt a burn long after. But when she held a mirror up so I could see the finished product, as oily as my face was, there was a difference. I saw it. My male co-workers at the theatre did too.

“Nice eyebrows,” one commented at our midnight diner session post-closing. He also seemed to have a penchant for shaping his own.

Once the pimples and puffiness of the area faded I saw it anew and admired myself in a way I hadn’t in years. Lilac dress, shoes, purse, and headband all contributed to my looking like a garden, but a cute one I would attest. In the shower I saw the curly cues swivel and collect in the drain. Prior to my mom coming home to help me with my make-up, before I glammed up, I admired the body in the mirror, or what of it I could see. I glanced at the triangle of hair between my legs before my fingers grazed the perfect arches above my eyes, considered the smoothness under my arms, on my knees, thighs, and calves. These were parts of me I didn’t mind seeing in the light instead of hastily rushing to dress myself in the evening, always with the risk of dried toothpaste on my chin or disheveled hair. I looked directly at myself and thought: I could get used to this.

***

“All done,” Eliza says with a light accent and fluttery voice that makes me think of a fairy in cartoons. She smiles and leaves me to dress. I find it funny that while she zeroes in on me down there she doesn’t stay for the undressing and redressing. Parts of me still throb, remain tender, but it’ll fade on the subway ride home. When done right, there shouldn’t be any discomfort or burning once fabric touches skin. In fact, the sensuality begins once I put my clothes back on, knowing what’s no longer underneath, anticipating the feel of cotton against bare skin, or skin on skin. The sole reason I put myself through this momentary level of pain is to increase my sense of desire, not the desire itself.

***

I spent 11 years with one man, a man I had revealed my lower half to on our first date, when he went down on me on a bench at the South Street Seaport. At a deli he bought a tablecloth, and I got each of us a Snapple. I was mute when he hailed a cab to take us from Midtown East to the Hudson. I remained quiet as he unbuttoned my jeans and pulled them down so they hung off one of my ankles, before throwing the tablecloth over us. My breath bounced against my cheeks and lips when I huffed under the tablecloth. We could hear passersby in conversation. The chipped paint of the bench pinched my bare ass. I was 20 years old. No boyfriend, just some failed attempts at dating and penetration. I had one orgasm with one of these men, while they’d had many. But with this man, on a bench at the very tip of Manhattan. I held in the pleasure he gave me, giving no sound but squeezing his shoulder hard when I felt myself on the cusp.

He didn’t care whether I was bare down there or not, he only cared that I made myself vulnerable to him so he didn’t have to open up himself.

As an “adult” I revealed myself to men, my wants and my body, without hesitation because they desired the latter. It was fast providing that thrill of attention, but also the illusion of being seen beyond the body. This man would become my boyfriend, then fiancé, then husband, and finally ex-husband. He didn’t care whether I was bare down there or not, he only cared that I made myself vulnerable to him so he didn’t have to open up himself. Within a week or two he proclaimed love that I sopped up quickly and hungrily, due to the dearth of it, fearful this was it, my one chance. The attention I’d never gotten before as a “desirable” woman was what I reached for most. I had craved it and pushed it away, and now the thirst was palpable to the point gallons couldn’t stave it off. I craved romance and orgasms; they didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. The steady pursuit of it with any man who showed interest was both dangerous and addictive.

We rarely see that scene in movies: cue woman running frantically to the shower to examine hair between her legs, on her chin, under her arms before proceeding to shave with different razors while praying she doesn’t cut her labia as she irons out “the situation.” It’s comical to watch, though I can tell you firsthand it’s frustrating to think your body is an oddity. When I took my clothes off, whether alone or with a partner, I was often shrouded in darkness. Most times fear was still apparent, but the hand-on-body, skin-on-skin tingling set things in motion. A voice with bass saying “you’re so soft,” not only turned my partner on but me as well. After my divorce the compliments (and my pursuits) continued, “You’re so smooth,” “I love how soft you feel against me.” I offered my body and they didn’t stay. They used what I offered before hiding again, be it briefly or for the long haul.

***

When Eliza left her spa I started testing out new estheticians. After a three-year relationship with one, it’s hard to willingly jump into another. The constancy of Eliza was a balm. With each appointment I made, I got on the phone, a seemingly archaic gesture in the age of the world wide web, and asked many questions to try and suss out contenders who might have the “Eliza touch.” When I found out she was gone I won’t say I freaked out, but I won’t say I didn’t. Cue first-world problems. Consider that when you find someone who takes care of your body in a way you don’t always do for yourself, it’s one of the few reliefs you can rely on to make an appointment for a procedure you know will be 20-plus minutes of pain before the pleasure ensues.

***

The time between divorce and a fulfilling sexual relationship would be two years, occurring a year after the paperwork was finalized. The first few times my lover and I got together, I kept my clothes on, wearing a skirt or dress for easy access, but not visibility. He asked me to take it off and I hesitated, not ready to be seen post-breakup, post braces (again), post … what else? I thought I owned my body now that I was single, in my early 30s veering toward mid-30s, but I still feared sharing it. Hairless or not, my dark skin was riddled with insecurity.

His head tucked under my skirt attempting to pleasure me. Him saying how beautiful I was over and over again. Him asking me to give as much as I would receive. While sex with anyone new is awkward at first, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be enjoyable. We wanted to see each other again, but for me, something was missing.

“You have to tell me if something is wrong,” he texted me when I fumbled in my message that, you know, I guess, I just… I dunno, wasn’t feeling it and, well, I had yet to have an orgasm. The shock of this declaration was felt via text by the speediness of his response along with the amount of question marks.

“Why didn’t you say anything???”

Because I wasn’t taught to, or rather, hadn’t ever thought to. Wasn’t the feeling leading up to it enough? The residuals of our last meetup the night before, the stubble already pushing through my epidermis, the softness of my skin he got to enjoy yet I didn’t fully enjoy against him. No, it wasn’t enough and I deserved more. What needed to change was how I saw myself. This change wasn’t so quick as it was needed, to be steadily realized as I loosened my limbs when I shed my clothing. Not so much hiding as in full view. “Smooth,” “sexy,” and all those other adjectives that come into play the more I let myself see it, the way I wanted to be seen. By the fifth meeting, I told myself the lights should be on. I nervously stood in front of his massive TV, unsure what to do with my arms — at once by my side, then behind my back, my body emblazoned with the glow from the Yankee game playing behind me, for him, and me, to see.

At the time I still met with Eliza. Her voice made me think of warm tea, soothing at one moment, and appreciated as you feel yourself shaking off the cold of the room, or the impending doom assumed to be on the horizon. After our appointments I went home to take in the results. I stood in my room alone. Hairless in some areas, not in others, stretch-marked, bare. I wasn’t an anomaly.

How do we unlearn what’s been ingrained? Slowly. This was me. I made myself stare at the body I hid from for so much of my life. Realizing when pain or expectation wasn’t an ongoing result, it was easier to find the pleasure and not regret the process.

* * *

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, contributing editor at Electric Literature, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and editor of Everyday People: The Color of Life–A Short Story Anthology (Atria Books). You can find more info about her at jennifernbaker.com.

Editor: Sari Botton

* * *

Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine