illustration by lisha zhong for varsity

I began to remove my body hair at the age of 11. My first waxing appointment was painful but the lady ripping off the thick, black hair from my legs and arms kept repeating “beauty is pain, sweetie”. This was exactly what I began to tell myself when I got my upper-lip threaded at the age of 12, my eyebrows done at 15, and laser hair removal at 17. Beauty, through all of this, became so closely associated to pain for me, but a pain that I was expected to endure. Of course this expectation was one society had held for me, like it still does for all women, but more dangerously, I held this own expectation from myself.

“You’re taught to believe that normal is synonymous with ‘western’”

The hair removal adverts with women shaving their already smooth legs along images of women with glossy, pore-less bodies disseminated across TV and on Instagram were detrimental for how I viewed my own. Even worse, was that I never saw anyone from my ethnicity on any of these platforms, and no one appeared to be struggling with the issues I had. Recently, even with celebrities embracing body hair by growing it out for months to then get a faint layer of blonde or light brown hair on their legs and arms only, reinforced the abnormality of my own body. When you’re taught to believe that normal is synonymous with “western”, then anything that isn’t seen explicitly on fashion models and Hollywood movie actresses isn’t considered normal. In this view, being a South Asian girl wasn’t considered normal.

Previously, I never spoke of my insecurity, especially in the years I schooling in England, because that would mean admitting that I had hair to begin with. By changing in the toilets rather than the girls’ changing rooms and never tying my hair up, I made an active effort to hide any trace of it. That is why spontaneously wearing shorts, skirts and crop tops was a luxury I did not have the privilege of experiencing, and by missing out on these little things, the idea that I wasn’t normal set firmly in my head. I was one woman of colour, who believed insecurity around body hair was a problem that only I was facing. When friends remarked how “disgusting women have hair on their stomach”, and I would laugh and agree, because not doing so would classify me as that “disgusting woman”. I already believed I was one, but I kept this self-deprecation to myself.

“Having to fit into such moulds and standards is expensive, physically uncomfortable and futile.”

After a decade of regularly waxing, epilating, shaving and threading my entire body in the comfort of my own home, with professionals to help, coming to Cambridge was a genuine source of anxiety. Most feared not fitting in, or struggling with work, but I was worried about how I would maintain my hair removal routine on a student budget with minimal time. Despite my efforts and some progress in accepting that a lack of South Asian representation in western media and social media did not mean that my body hair was abnormal, I still struggle to embrace it. With time and an incredible group of friends, who enabled me to be open about my insecurities and shared their own, I realised that my thick, black body hair was a source of anxiety for not just me, but most, if not all, South Asian women.

The open, relatively uncensored environment of Cambridge allowed me to finally start a dialogue with other people who felt equally anxious about not fitting into western beauty ideals. It dawned on me that multiple generations of women somehow failed to make themselves believe that the hair they grew on various parts of the body was normal. One of these women is me. I still don’t have enough confidence to embrace it, and continue with long, painful hair removal procedures in my room on a regular basis. I still flinch when someone touches my arm if it’s not smooth and prefer not to wear shorts and skirts because of the multiple ingrown hairs and razor cuts that still mark my skin. But I don’t want to dismiss the progress I have made. I accept that I have hair, that I do remove it and that it does bother me.


Mountain View

The lost tongue: Rediscovering Urdu in Cambridge

That lady telling me that “beauty is pain” and all the women who echoed her are wrong. She should have said that “western beauty standards are painful”, which they are. Having to fit into such moulds and standards is expensive, physically uncomfortable and futile. As a Pakistani woman, I never will fit into them. My body hair isn’t western, it isn’t blonde or light, but thick, dark, and everywhere. The slow journey of coming to believe that this is also normal is underway. It may take years or I may never reach a place where I’m comfortable with it, but I think the most dangerous thing is for us to never address it. So after many years of believing that hair is a sign of ugliness, I can finally now acknowledge that one can be beautiful with body hair as well. Now it is about trying to make that ’one’, me, and to see myself with a kind vision, which is inclusive of my South Asian ethnicity and all the strange, unique beauties that come with it.