I was settled in on the couch after a long vacation. Clothes were put away, the moldering produce drawer purged. As a reward, I downloaded Mara Altman’s new book, Gross Anatomy, into my iPad. Mara’s a fellow short, hirsute, Ashkenazi Jewish woman whose Kindle singles and books share her thoughts and experiences with some intensely personal stuff. And they’re hilarious. Her latest is described as “an essay collection about what it’s like to operate the bags of meat we call our bodies.”
I swiped away, plowing through the prologue and hitting the first chapter, “Bearded Lady.”
Completely engrossed in her descriptions of tweezing, plucking, and lasering away hairs in an attempt to become smooth enough for a world accustomed to glossy Photoshopped magazines, my hand strayed to my chin. I stroked it absentmindedly. A sudden prickle interrupted my reverie.
I ran to the upstairs bathroom, turned on the vanity light, and twisted my head this way and that in the mirror to try to get a purchase on the errant hair. I thought I had it between my tweezer tips, but came away with nothing. I checked — it was still there under my fingertips. I grabbed again and again, until finally — satisfaction. I checked my chin. All seemed smooth. I went back to the book.
Mara dives deep into the physiology and psychology of hair removal, as she does with all of the topics in her book, from fainting to hemorrhoids. She explores hair removal in ancient cultures (complete with clam shell tweezers), speaks with fashion execs (their position is that no body hair is a good body hair), and tries to get her all-natural family on board with her hair removal obsession (and learns that her mother makes an exception for her upper lip hair). Even as she learns from an anthropology professor that hairlessness is associated with childishness, which is seen as more attractive — which yes is SUPER CREEPY — she keeps up the depilatory routine.
My awareness of my status as a hairy Eastern European lady came in junior high. I had a boyfriend — a tall, blond, French Canadian cellist. He was a grade ahead of me. He let me know, shortly after we started “dating,” that some girls in his class, tall blondes themselves, were jealous.
“They said, how did she get together with him? She has a mustache!”
Well thanks, junior high boyfriend.
My mother hooked me up with some Sally Hansen bleach the next day. And since then, every few weeks, I slather it on to keep the mean girls at bay. The hairs are still there though, thicker towards the corners of my mouth and thin below my nose. A blond mustache, just like the one Mara describes on her own face. Hers attracted the attention of a handsome waiter at a Mexican restaurant. Mine gives my kid something to pet and comment on in public places. (“Mom, you have a BEARD!”)
I’m not a fanatic about removing hairs other than the ones that sprout from my chin. I semi-regularly shave below the knee and a few other crucial places. My sister is trying to convince me to stop plucking my over-plucked eyebrows (I swear, a few years ago thin was in) so they can get professionally shaped, and even tagged me in a few inspirational Instagram stories where hairy forehead caterpillars are transformed into more shapely and socially acceptable hairy forehead caterpillars. I have hobbity toe hair, but that just seems like an unnecessary amount of upkeep.
Those chin hairs, though! I read Mara’s descriptions of exotic and intense hair removal experiences in Spain and India, and of the inherent hairlessness of some Southeast Asian women. She strapped herself to a wall in Spain for a waxing session, got burned by lasers in Bangkok, and had her whole face painfully threaded in India. My hand strayed back to my face. I checked to make sure I’d really tweezed out that one hair. Yep, still gone. How about the one at the top of my neck? Good, good. What about that jerk that shows up at the corner of my jaw, under my left earlobe?
I trotted back upstairs, prepared to contort myself in the name of — what? Social acceptability? Femininity? Self-love? — and pluck that sucker. Whatever I was doing it for, at least I was in good company with Mara, and most other women.
After all of her research, hair removal, and remorse, Mara eventually confesses her hairiness to her husband-to-be, who is predictably unfazed. And my husband and friends probably wouldn’t notice if I let those little hairs go wild. But I sure would.