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?