By Scaachi Koul
It was in junior high when I first noticed that the other (read: thinner, prettier, whiter, blonder) girls in my school didn’t have arm hair. Then I noticed that the women in both American films and my mother’s Bollywood collection had bare arms as well. Even my female cousins, all ten to fifteen years older than me, had smooth, hairless arms. Even my mother’s arm hair was comparatively thin and sparse. They were all like soft, supple babies. By 13, my olive-skinned arms were sprouting dark black hairs.
I thought I was getting away with it, too. Leg hair removal felt unavoidable, and socially required, but I figured arm hair was okay to take to the mall. I was wrong. “Why do you have that?” a male classmate asked me when I was 13, pointing to my arms. “You’re hairier than I am.” I was also meaner and more likely to punch someone in the face, but I didn’t reply. Instead, I sheepishly pulled my arms back into my sweater.
For some women, femininity is signified by full lips or long hair or giant, heaving breasts. For me, it’s signified by a lack of arm hair. Women don’t always want to look like real women, we want to look like the things we think about when we think of women:sprightly creatures painted with rosy pastels who smell like jasmine and know how to calm a crying baby. Women are supposed to look soft and glowing, as if someone slathered Vaseline over the lenses of your eyes.
They don’t have arm hair, but I did.
Later that same year, I decided to test out a new razor on my arms. I wasn’t going to do all of it—no, that would be too obvious to anyone who knew me. I also didn’t want my mom knowing I was insecure, something she would then make me talk about, asking me questions like, “Why are you feeling like this?” and “Shouldn’t you be more concerned about your math mark?” Quiet, Mother, I have a budding insecurity complex to feed.
I shaved off a small patch of hair on my forearm. Small enough to see but not big enough to notice from across the room. And it was glorious. Underneath all the unsightly dark black hair was the softest skin I had ever felt on myself. I was glowing and tanned and tender. It was proof that beneath the mess, I could be pretty. I had a shot. Maybe a boy would like me now.
When I went to school the next day, that same boy zeroed in on my patch of hairless skin. “It’s probably going to take a long time to get rid of all of that.” He called me out on my insecurity, so I had to choose. I could get over it, or I could keep this up and admit that I wasn’t strong enough to get over it.
My arm hair has been untouched since, partly because I don’t think I should feel lesser- than because of it, but mostly because I’m lazy. Besides, I have better things to do. Real, concrete, consequential things, like watching RuPaul’s Drag Race for 12 straight hours and eating my weight in Bugles.
Years later, I’ve settled with my arms. Still, it’s easy to feel uncomfortable when standing next to some cute hairless girl with peach fuzz on her shoulders.
Two months ago, a stranger bumped up against my arm at a bookstore. My dark hairs stood on their ends, attacking his forearm. I panicked, suddenly feeling ugly and uncomfortable and awkward, worrying he’d notice. He looked up and smiled. “That’s a good book.”
I’m still sort of glad that’s all he said.