I Don’t Want To Pass My Hair Hang Ups To My Daughter
As a child of the 90s, I've got a whole bunch of baggage about body hair. How am I supposed to guide my daughter?
After months of pandemic-neglect, my eyebrows had literally started to brush up against my eyelashes, so I finally booked an appointment to get threaded. About halfway through, the cheerful brow technician caught sight of the photo of my toddler daughter on my phone screen-lock and said, “Oh, look how cute she is,” and then, peering at her eyebrows, added: “Bring her with you next time, I’ll help get those under control!”
I looked down at the photo on my phone resting on my lap. My 22-month old is beaming at the camera, mid-air from being hurled up to the skies by my husband, her beautiful prominent monobrow framing her almond eyes. It’s exuberance personified. I cannot express how much I love this picture.
I smiled at my tech in the mirror, looking at the two perfect arches she’d created on my own face. I wish I could tell you I clapped back with an impassioned defense of my little one’s beautiful brow, a Lizzo soundtrack of self-love and acceptance playing in the background. I mean, think all of those things. Instead, I just benignly smiled at the tech and sort of muttered in agreement.
But inside I was pissed.
My baby isn’t even talking properly yet, but here someone was suggesting that she get rid of her natural body hair. And for what? To look more beautiful as defined by our very specific socio-cultural, misogynistic norms? (Norms, it has to be stressed, that aren't solely Western; my brows tech is Indian, I’m Persian, and both cultures and the MENA/Asian region writ large has a long history of using depilatories.)
But then, wasn’t I tacitly advocating those same arguably outmoded ideals by getting my own hair removed? I was sitting in the salon, after all. Shouldn’t I be concerned about the modeling I’m setting for my kid? Did I just unlock a new level of parent-guilt??
Truthfully, I have such a complicated relationship with hairiness that I let my own body hang ups speak for me in the salon, instead of speaking the reality I want for my kid into existence. I was mercilessly teased in elementary school for having dark prominent hairs dusting all over my pale skin. I have relatively pale-ish skin for a mixed-race woman (though typical of a descendent of north-Iran) and I can often pass as Caucasian, but my dark hair usually betrays an “other” background. One of the bullies left a single-blade Bic razor in my desk when I was 10, with an accompanying note that said “You need to use this A LOT.” I was mortified and pretty devastated. Our school was majority white, and none of my friends had to suffer similar indignities.
For years, I pleaded with my mom to let me shave, but she refused. She was worried that anything I did would make my hair coarser — an old-wives tale that apparently isn’t true, but as a grown up when I pluck a single hair it sure feels like ten hairs replace it! I don’t blame her; my mom was trying to protect me from more harm, and she didn’t want me to have to change my body to fit in with a society, albeit a misguided one, that viewed women’s body hair as gross. But it was tough to walk around feeling honestly almost feline.
This was the 1990s, after all; laser hair removal had just gotten FDA-approved, Victoria’s Secret models reigned supreme in high-cut sheer thong underwear without so much as a wisp of a pube, and even Monica and Phoebe were influencing millions of TV watchers as they tried at-home natural “pain-free” waxing strips on Friends. And how many people are still regrowing the brows they overplucked back then? For kids like me going through puberty during this time, the vibe was very much that hairfree = carefree, sexy and necessary.
And I bought into it.
Over the last twenty-something years I’ve spent thousands — probably tens of thousands, if I’m honest — of dollars on ways to de-fuzz myself from head to toe to conform to those very ideals. I’ve tried waxing, epilating, threading, sugaring, shaving, creams, and lasers.
The obsession with smooth, hair-free skin is so ingrained in my psyche (and I’m sure the minds of many elder millennials) that when I was pregnant, one of the things I thought about early on was the labor and delivery room and the state of my pubic hair. This is not uncommon; apparently a lot of expectant moms experience anxiety around how they look “down there” when pushing a human out of their bodies, a feat so spectacular you’d think that they could have braids and tassels if they wanted to and everyone should shut up and deal.
But we don’t let body hair exist gracefully.
Remember when Julia Roberts graced the red carpet in a blood-red dress at the Notting Hill premiere in 1999? As she waved to fans in the crowd, her unshaved, long underarm hair was clearly visible. That an A-lister would dare appear so visually off-script was deemed scandalous. I was in high school and the headlines were lurid (the British press in particular were merciless). Part of me hoped Roberts’ act was a bold f-you to the establishment, impressing the gender normative idea that body hair on a woman — and especially an otherwise attractive woman — was a disgusting aberration. Roberts later told told Busy Phillips that it wasn’t some grand feminist gesture; she just misjudged the length of her dress when she was going to be waving to the crowds. (I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed — not that she had to have the weight of a cultural reversal on her shoulders, but it would have been cool if she had.)
But there’s reason to hope that things are changing. This summer’s British Vogue cover star is Emma Corrin, a gender fluid actor who you probably last saw in ‘The Crown’ as a young Princess Diana. Corrin is wearing a sparkly Louis Vuitton tank top, and giving a cheeky salute with their arm atop the front of a New York Yankees baseball cap, staring straight to camera. The most striking aspect of the entire image is Corrin’s armpit hair, which is just visible (blink and you might think it’s a shadow).
And Corrin is hardly the first person to abandon convention and go au natural. There have been several prominent ad campaigns in recent years with models identifying (or being labeled) as female displaying hair in varying degrees of excess. But the backlash they’ve faced has been more or less similar. Critical comments online accompany almost all acts of exposed hair, always deemed to be an unnecessary “excess” amount.
Thankfully there are a number of visible influencers who are trying to redefine our mass understanding of what it means to be attractive and worthy. For instance, I’m inspired by my friend Alok Vaid-Menon, an author and performance artist, who frequently TikToks and writes about self-love and acceptance outside of conformity to hairless norms that have no place governing our lives or defining today’s standards of beauty. I don’t feel the same freedom, yet. But I hope my daughter will.
One other thing that could change the game for future generations are more references to hair being beautiful. The publishing industry listened to Black women and parents, after a long-fought campaign to diversify a traditional mostly-white and male institution, and now there are so many fabulous books out there encouraging kids to embrace the gorgeous hair on their heads-which is amazing, necessary, and confidence-altering for an entire generation.
But I’ve yet to find any books encouraging acceptance of body hair, particularly facial hair, which feels like the ultimate taboo. And that is a gap in the market we could all push to have fixed. Because being able to wield our own power over our bodies, and self-governance feels precious right now, and not succumbing to societal expectations or pressures feels even more necessary.
So, what will I do if our daughter turns around in a few years and wants to get waxed? I’m honestly going to find it hard to deny her. My husband really hates the idea of us doing anything to her face. But I don’t think I’ll be able to let her go through the traumatic experiences I went through — the bullying was so rough. Instead, I’m putting my money on this new generation and hope that by the time my daughter hits puberty, there are ad campaigns, books and tv characters in all states of hirsuteness. And that I’m finally over my own BS about it too.
Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani lives in New York City with her 17 month-old baby and husband. She is a writer and Emmy-nominated television correspondent. You can follow her on instagram @caro_mt.