Tag : body hair

April 20, 2020 by

Waxing Nostalgic

In 2014, my friend Tess and I went to see a comedy called “The Other Woman,” starring Leslie Mann and Cameron Diaz. Its jokes were dumb and obvious, and although the film was written by a woman and purported to be about the power of female friendship, it was insultingly sexist. Its biggest selling point was its apolitical mindlessness; it had no original ideas, and we didn’t want to see anything that might have made us think.

As a bookish, half-Jewish woman—the earnest daughter of a second-wave feminist—I rarely wear makeup and always wear glasses (not to look smart, but because I need them to see). I have worn the same pair of comfy Gap sales-rack jeans for the last four years. The fanciest outfit I wear on a regular basis is a black sweater dress over black leggings. Tess, though, is a glamorous platinum blonde with a multi-colored wardrobe—a real-life shiksa goddess.

We met in a graduate writing program. Most of our classmates were writing about big, sad, serious subjects: rape and murder and mental illness. Aside from a vague ambition to write, I didn’t know what I wanted. At the time, I was mostly writing long, boring, pointless essays about an ex-boyfriend. I was deeply anxious. Tess was sharp, confident, funny, and vibrant, a bracingly irreverent writer with an eye for indelible details.

There was a scene in the movie about waxing. The sad, aging, sexless wife played by Leslie Mann had to be tutored in proper feminine hygiene by the sexually sophisticated Cameron Diaz character. Afterward, I said something about how I could totally relate to the Leslie Mann character. I rarely waxed or shaved or did anything at all to my hair “down there.” I have paid for a bikini wax maybe twice in my life, both times before family trips to Florida.

Tess was stunned. Then she laughed. “Oh my god!” she squealed incredulously. “But you sleep with MEN!” I shrugged. “I’ve never had a complaint,” I said. It was true: I’ve always slept with men who don’t mind pubic hair or would find it too disgustingly patriarchal to tell me if they did. Feminists didn’t do that sort of thing, I thought. And besides, the handful of times I did wax, it felt weird: unnatural and uncomfortable, like I was extra-naked in an upsetting, exposed way, not a sexy, fun one. But I was embarrassed to realize what an out-of-touch weirdo I was. According to Tess, every woman our age (we were around 30 at the time) got bikini waxes.

For a week or so I worried that my OkCupid dates were secretly revolted by my unmodified body. Then I decided that I didn’t care. Maybe some guys were grossed out, or at least surprised, but that didn’t have to be my problem. Who had the money for such nonsense? Who wanted to walk around with an itchy vagina for weeks in between appointments? What was pro-woman about paying an immigrant lady $2 an hour to apply hot wax to your genitals?

Waxing never became a regular part of my life. But sometimes I remember Tess’s reaction to my innocent revelation and smile.

When I was younger I signaled my feminism by opting out of gendered conventions: I resisted shaving my legs (but ultimately caved); I tried not to obsess about my diet or weight. But now I can see that, oppressive grooming habits aside, there are ways in which Tess is the better feminist: where I am weak and afraid (of anything new, of minor changes to my routine, of traveling alone) Tess is bold and adaptable. Alone, she has visited countries where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. She has published one book and is working on the next. She knows how to get what she wants. What you do (or don’t do) to your body hair says something about you, but not everything. 

Raina Lipsitz writes about politics and gender for The Nation, The Appeal, and Jewish Currents, among other publications.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments

April 20, 2020 by

My Mother’s Unshaved Legs

There’s an age at which you start noticing the things about your parents that are embarrassing. The fact that your dad will say something and your mom will then burst into song, triggered by a single spoken word; the noise he makes when he clears his throat; or the way she eats a piece of chicken with her fingers, down to the bone. 

This is how it was with my mother’s unshaved legs. One day, I didn’t even notice the thin hairs, almost camouflaged by her freckles, and the next day I was mortified. 

My mother—the primary breadwinner in the family—was not like my friends’ mothers. She did not attend school plays or drive carpools. My mother had been a teenager in the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement. She was in 11th grade when, inspired by the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, she stopped shaving her legs and armpits, and started to go without a bra. 

By the time she was a student at Bryn Mawr, the bra was back on and the armpits were smooth once more, both for practical reasons. But the legs remained unshaven. It was just easier that way, and anyway no one really noticed. 

Until I was 13. At 13, my friends had started shaving their legs and plucking their eyebrows, and my own body had taken a new shape, curvier and softer, more like my mother’s. A combination of the hormones, anxieties, and social tensions that are the hallmarks of the teenage years also conspired to cause in me a deep dislike of my own, ever-changing body, and thus the hatred I felt for myself manifested itself as embarrassment at my mother’s benign choices. 

“I’ll never be like her,” I always told myself after slamming the door in the aftermath of a mother-daughter argument. 

But when I was 18, I made a big decision to be just like her, and accepted admission to Bryn Mawr College. Bryn Mawr was a haven for individuality. With physical distance between my mother and me, I felt closer to her than I had during high school. I learned to accept her differences. She would never be the mother who attended school events, but she also never shied away from hard conversations—whether about sex, drugs, or leg hair—willing to answer my questions with love and care. She taught me that sex is natural and good, especially with someone you love; and that if I can’t have a conversation with my partner about sex, then I’m not mature enough to be having sex. She taught me that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, and that being grounded is better than being dead, so I should never get behind the wheel of a car if I’ve been consuming either. And she taught me that people will always judge me for my choices and my appearance, but if I’m confident in the choices I make, I can hold my head up high. 

One day, in my early thirties, I looked in the mirror and for a brief moment, I could have sworn I saw my mother looking back. Randomly, I find myself erupting into song when a word triggers a familiar melody. After two children, my body has only continued to resemble my mother’s. Sometimes a full sentence will emerge from my lips and each word, each cadence, each facial expression, will mirror hers. 

In my third trimester of pregnancy, I stopped shaving my legs. Not because I was motivated by Betty Friedan, but because I couldn’t reach them. And then I didn’t start again, because I liked the feel of it better, and it was just easier that way. At some point, I learned how to be my own person, not in relation to my mother, but with her guidance. Because my mom had taught me that it was okay to put my desires for my own body above what others thought was acceptable. 

What I have learned from my mother’s unshaved legs is to be less judgmental of others, to live a life of my own making and, perhaps most importantly, to love myself. 

Talia Liben Yarmush is an infertile Jewish mother, TV junkie, and Oxford comma enthusiast. 

Continue Reading

  • No Comments

April 20, 2020 by

The Books that Taught Me to Love My Body Hair

When I begged my mother to teach me to shave my legs, I was nine years old. “Your body hair is normal,” she said, “And it’s not healthy to worry so much about it now.” That was easy for her to say. Her pale legs never had visible hair to my eyes, whereas my legs looked more like my father’s, and my older sister’s, legs descended from my father’s people, from women like my mustachioed grandmother. My legs were as pale as my mother’s, but the hair that grew on them was blacker than the hair on my head and filled me with shame whenever a classmate pointed or laughed as the playground grew warmer and shorts became the clothing of choice for the nine-year-old set. 

Still, she taught me as best she could. And she taught me to shave my armpits, while she was at it, standing in her three-quarter bathroom, with our feet raised onto the closed toilet lid. 

I remember this in the hazy way of memory with import but without emotion. It is not a happy memory, but not sad, either. It is simply a recollection of an event. The same cannot be said of the day my so-called “best friend” held me down on her bathroom floor and shaved my rear, laughing that I had “a hairy butt,” and that no boys would want to make out with me if I didn’t “fix it.” I was 12. 

The fact that hair grew anywhere aside from my scalp and my eyebrows was an offense, and even those hairs grew thick and unruly. During sleepovers, fellow well-meaning tweens attempted to pluck the hairs along the ridge of my eyelids, and I struggled not to flinch as my eyes watered from the pain. I wanted so badly to look like them, to fit in with them, to not be my grandmother’s child, not my father’s child. I wanted to be the blond-haired nymphs of storybook illustrations. I wanted to be the models in magazines. I wanted to be everything I was not. But I was a Jewish girl with mountains of unruly black curls, breasts and hips erupting from my body in unwanted rounds, thick- calved, short, covered in hair that felt as thick as a pelt, unacceptable. 

Just as strong as the memory of being shaved and humiliated is the memory of my first reading of The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, when I was 13. Early in those pages, a teenaged Morgaine lies nude beside a man, and he plays with the fine black hairs on her thighs. On her thighs! I had never believed that having such hair was allowed, let alone capable of being the source of desire. I had to set the book down and breathe for many minutes before I could continue. The hair on my body, that had so shamed me through my early adolescence, was supposed to grow. 

How was I to know this was normal? I had never seen a woman with hair on her thighs. In every trip to the beach or pool, every hypersexualized close-up in television or film, every Calvin Klein ad in a magazine, no woman had ever displayed hair on her thighs. 

I stopped shaving. I embraced my body hair. I was fortunate that this coincided with the Lilith Fair, and a world in which women appeared in new magazines with hair under their arms and on their legs. In my school and on MTV they were usually the source of ridicule, yes, but those women didn’t seem to care. I went to my first rock concert, Ani Difranco, and the women around me had hair on their bodies, and with the thickets of their armpits and shins visible, they danced in the grass without shame. When I slipped off my overshirt and raised my arms in the air, hair visible beneath, nobody flinched. Nobody heckled. I was simply a girl in a crowd of girls and women, still darker and thicker and hairier than most, but at that moment I was all I had ever wanted. I was just like any other girl. 

Puberty however, does not stop only because you make peace with some parts of it. As I neared the end of my teen years, the dreaded mustache of my grandmother began to make its appearance. I plucked, when I could tolerate the pain, and covered up with makeup when I thought I might be seen. I walked aisles of bleaching products, hair removal creams, women’s razors, and loathed myself both for wanting to try them and for being unable to spare the expense. 

And then a college professor assigned War and Peace. As I read, again I experienced that thunderclap understanding, of being seen, the awareness that my whole life I had been lied to about what was natural, what was beautiful, and what was real. Tolstoy described his ingenue, his lovely young romantic lead, as having a beautiful black mustache. 

Though my affection for both writers, Zimmer Bradley and Tolstoy, has been greatly diminished by learning the details of their deeply problematic lives, I still owe them my gratitude. That I came to a place in my life where the validation of men does not consume my self-esteem is thanks to these glimpses of bodies untouched by the modern expectations of sexuality. 

I could be a woman with hairy legs and arms, with thick brows and a mustache, and I could be beautiful. 

So when my daughters beg me to teach them to shave their legs and their armpits, I will teach them. But I will also read The Mists of Avalon and War and Peace with them, and walk before them to the pool with my legs covered in black hair, with the dark corners of my upper lip unplucked, despite their second-hand adolescent shame. 

For now, while they are small, I spin around after the shower, my towel barely obscuring my lumpy, short, puckered, scarred, frizzy, hairy, perfect body, and I say to them, “Doesn’t it feel good to know how beautiful we are?” 

Lea Grover is a work-from-home mother, writer, and member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau 

Continue Reading

  • No Comments

March 10, 2001 by

The Queen of Sheba’s Fuzzy Legs

Now when King Solomon heard that she was coming to him, King Solomon arose and went to sit down in a bathhouse.  When the Queen saw that the king was sitting in a bathhouse, she thought to herself the king must be sitting in water.  So she raised her dress in order to wade across.  Whereupon he noticed the hair on her leg, to which King Solomon responded by saying: ‘Your beauty is the beauty of women, but your hair is the hair of men.  Now hair is beautiful for a man but shameful for a woman.’  -The Targum Sheni to Esther, c. 7th Century

I stopped shaving my legs, on and off, when I was in college. It had more to do with laziness than with feminism; shaving just started to seem like a messy, time consuming chore in which I was no longer willing to indulge. After a while, my hairy legs started to grow on me aesthetically as well. My legs seemed bald and pasty when I got around to shaving them. After a while, this abstention became symbolic. In a small and gentle way, the hair on my legs marked my body as a body unafraid to play with gender, to break conventions, to get fuzzy. My father was horrified. It even says in the Midrash that women should shave their legs, he told me, because when the Queen of Sheba came to visit King Solomon, he would not be with her until her legs were smooth. Understandably, my father’s argument did little to convince me that my legs would be better off bald. But his comments did start me thinking about the Queen of Sheba, and I am not sure that I have ever stopped.

The Biblical Queen

Many of us only know the Queen of Sheba as the one-time consort of King Solomon, but commentators from a variety of cultural traditions have provided her with stories and legends all her own. These cast the Queen in a number of different guises — and while some are easier to identify with than others, she is always a complicated character and is always, always alluring. In fact, it’s surprising that her hairy legs first captured my attention, considering the many other interesting issues that have been associated with the Queen of Sheba.

According to the national epic of Ethiopia, the Queen of Sheba is the forebear of Ethiopia’s royal dynasty, and through oral tradition the Ethiopian Jewish community also claims her as an ancestor. Islamic traditions imagine the queen as part djinn, and in Jewish mysticism and folklore she is sometimes interchangeable with Lilith. In many of the most traditional Queen of Sheba legends, issues of gender, power, and identity are treated with unexpected frankness, offering insight into present-day conflicts.

So how did the Queen of Sheba become a hairy-legged djinni? These questions bring us back to the Hebrew Bible, which contains the earliest written accounts of the Queen of Sheba legend [I Kings 10-13 and Chronicles 9:1-12].

Our heroine in far-off Sheba hears of King Solomon’s famed knowledge and travels to Jerusalem to test him with “hard questions.” When the king answers all of the Queen of Sheba’s queries, and she sees the splendor of his kingdom. she is left “breathless.” They exchange gifts, and King Solomon gives her “everything she desired and asked for.” Finally, the Queen and her attendants return to the land of Sheba.

Like many stories in the Hebrew Bible, this brief tale leaves many questions unanswered. Where was this country of Sheba, ruled by a powerful woman? What were the “hard questions” the Queen asked Solomon? And of course, what about the tantalizing sexual subtext that is often read into this encounter? The text does say that the Queen was “breathless,” doesn’t it? What were those desires that King Solomon met so satisfactorily? You can almost picture centuries of exegetes rubbing their hands in delight, eager to fill in the blanks.

The Queen of Questions

In nearly all of their various formats, the Queen of Sheba legends give a gloss on power and otherness, on the relationships between the insider and the outsider. The set-up could not be more intriguing: Solomon, a male Israelite King and King David’s anointed son, is the ultimate insider. He has all the benefits of gender, class, ethnicity and lineage, and his power would seem to be uncontestable. But what would happen if he met up with his opposite — a foreign, heathen woman — who would dare to challenge his authority? This is exactly the situation that the Biblical text sets up for us and for centuries of Biblical scholars. The situation is so unlikely, so unthinkable, but — the Bible seems to ask us — WHAT IF?

Throughout various times and traditions, we see variant versions of this encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Generally, in the more traditional texts, the fact that Solomon answers all of the queen’s riddles is used to “prove” that the King is more suited for leadership. The Queen of Sheba, the presumptuous outsider, learns her lesson. She cannot withstand the wisdom and power of her “legitimate” opponent, and is dominated politically, intellectually, and sexually. In most of the texts, she is delighted by Solomon’s victory – she is breathless with praise for her adversary, relieved by the assurance that Davidic men really are more fit for political power.

And yet, nothing that has to do with the Queen of Sheba is quite that simple. She is a wily queen, after all, and more than Solomon’s match when it comes to “hard questions.” In the Targum Sheni to Esther, an Aramaic commentary on the Purim story, the Queen of Sheba’s riddles all have to do with paradoxes and complications that are as relevant to her own situation as they are to the abstract puzzle itself. What is “a cause of praise to the free, of shame to the unfortunate, a cause of praise to the dead, of shame to the living, of joy to the birds, of agitation to the fish?” asks the queen. When Solomon answers that flax can be all of these things, he admits that one substance can have many purposes. Flax can be food that sustains a bird; if can also be made into a net with which to catch a fish. Flax can be made into a beautiful linen garment for the rich, or a crude garment for the poor; it can be made into clothes for the living or a shroud for the dead. The only thing that is clear about the use of flax is that it cannot be pinned down.

Pinning down the Queen of Sheba is as complicated as defining only one particular use for flax. She is a woman and a foreigner, and yet she does not behave like the women or the foreigners who typically cowered in the face of King Solomon’s greatness. She is an outsider who acts like an insider. By challenging King Solomon and presuming to be his equal, she forces us to re-evaluate both of those categories.

The Queen of Sheba does not give Solomon any way to win her game of wits. By admitting that flax does not fit in to any one category, Solomon must acknowledge that human beings can also behave in conflicting ways, and that the Queen of Sheba can simultaneously be a woman, and a powerful ruler. Of course, if he does not admit this, he loses to the Queen of Sheba because he cannot answer her riddle.

As we learn from the Queen of Sheba, there are some competitions you can neither win nor lose. The world is just too fuzzy.

The Queen of Complexities

When I first encountered the Queen of Sheba stories, I identified with her completely. There was the Queen of Sheba, a fuzzy-legged woman like me, struggling against the male king who would limit her access to power and influence. I was the Queen of Sheba, engaged in a game of wits with the anti-feminist Rabbis who enforce unfair religious rules. I was the Queen of Sheba, struggling against the politicians and corporate leaders who create inequalities, support sexist laws, leave women on the outside.

But the Queen of Sheba is not easily owned – not by King Solomon, and not by me. Also linked with Africa and with blackness, the Queen of Sheba represents the cultural categories that our society continues to exploit, exploit, and push toward the “outside.” In a particularly Jewish context, the Queen of Sheba has been associated with the African and Middle-Eastern Jews who have been situated on the margins of the community, and are engaged in a struggle with Ashkenazic “insiders” for influence, power, and basic respect. As an Ashkenazic American woman, what is my relationship to the people who are even further on the outside? Am I the Queen of Sheba, as I had always presumed to be, or am I, in fact, King Solomon?

The Queen of Sheba is of the “wrong” gender and the “wrong” origin — the very embodiment of the outsider. And yet, as one might expect from such a slippery and complicated queen, she also reminds us that the relationship between the insider and the outsider can shift. At different points in our lives, in different contexts, every human being gets to play the role of the Queen of Sheba as well as that of King Solomon. In fact, we can well imagine the Queen of Sheba herself playing the “insider” in interactions with her own servants and subjects. Caught in the paradoxes and complexities of a fuzzy world, the Queen of Sheba too can be complicit in injustice.

In a world where our roles are always shifting, the encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon becomes symbolic of the very moment of struggle, the pivotal point at which we learn to secure power in some contexts and to share power in others. Being a Jewish woman — and an “outsider” in certain contexts — does not make me incapable of oppressing others, of supporting a system of hierarchies and inequalities, of pledging tacit allegiance to King Solomon. What is my relationship to the sweatshop workers who create the clothes that I wear? What is my relationship to the people who pick the grapes that I eat? In a fuzzy world, everyday choices are pregnant with significance, as monumental as the royal encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The Queen of Symbols And for me, the Queen of Sheba always leads back to fuzzy legs. My fuzzy legs are my tribute to a fuzzy world, in which categories of gender, origin and identity become blurred at the edges, fuse into one another, and cannot contain the totality of who I am. They remind me that I am never completely helpless nor am I ever completely powerful — the rules of fuzziness do not allow for absolutes. They remind me that I can be a cause of praise to the free, as well as a cause of shame to the unfortunate, and all at the same time. Through a world full of paradox, riddles, and hard questions, I travel on my own fuzzy legs.

Continue Reading

  • 1 Comment