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Shaved: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
I first shaved my legs in the fifth grade. Most of my girlfriends at school had already started shaving, and I was antsy to join that smooth leg club. The minute my mom gave me the green light, I raced downstairs to the bathroom and grabbed my sister's pink can of Skintimate and a spare razor and got right to it.

Those pink cans of shaving gel and Venus razors were my daily companions throughout middle and high school. I don't know whether it was the ingrown hairs, razor burn, or bumps on my legs that grew exponentially over the years, but by my mid 20s, I was a shaver no more. I started to pay less attention to the hair on my legs — but don't be fooled — the beauty industry still had me wrapped around its little finger. Enter: The era of the bikini wax.

This is also known as the beginning of the end of my journey with body hair removal. One time, the wax technician literally got out tweezers halfway through the wax to finish the job. I have no words to describe the physical trauma of this experience. But emotionally, it was certainly a wake up call.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

The hair we have on our bodies isn't just for show. Body hair is beneficial for our health, even though we may go to great lengths to get rid of it. Whether it's on our bellies, backs, brows or butts, hair can help regulate our body temperature. And it also prevents uncomfortable rubbing and chafing. But just because it's useful, certainly doesn't mean we just let our body hair do its thing.

Kristie De Garis
I think my relationship is like pretty fluid with my body hair. Sometimes I want to have it, sometimes I don't want to have it. But I definitely feel that there is pressure to remove it. And I try to tell myself every day that, you know, body hair performs a function that's beneficial to my body. So I think sometimes we actually can forget that.

Anita Rao
Seems like a lot of us have selective memory about the very functional role of body hair. Americans of all genders are spending time and money removing it. Studies show about 99% of American women voluntarily remove some kind of hair from their bodies, with legs and underarms at the top of the list. Depending on the method of choice, those women can spend $10 to $30,000 on hair removal in their lifetime.

Of course, the amount of natural body hair we have varies from person to person. But whether you have a few wisps or a full mane, chances are you've asked yourself at some point what you want to do about it.
Whether we care to admit it, we've been conditioned to believe only a certain amount of body hair is acceptable, when really the most normal — or at least the most natural — thing is to just let it grow.

Sharan Dhaliwal
There's a standard of beauty that we feel like we have to adhere to, especially as young women. That standard is a completely hairless body. It's very much just like a Barbie doll in many senses. You have to be "completely clean" as it was called when I was young.

Anita Rao
Sharan Dhaliwal is the editor-in-chief of Burnt Roti, a magazine about South Asian identity and lifestyle. She's written about her experience as an Indian woman coming to terms with her body hair and navigating racialized beauty standards.

For Sharan, like me and probably like a lot of us, her tangled relationship with body hair began at a pretty young age. And a combination of hormones and unwanted hair growth can make things challenging.

Sharan Dhaliwal
There's no exact age I can remember it happening, but I think I was aware of my facial hair first. Because my body hair, I tend to hide quite easily with trousers or long sleeves. And as a child, you don't really recognize that or think about that. But with facial hair, it's not something I could have really covered. So I think that when I first recognized it— and it was definitely, probably before I was even 10, that I recognized that I had excessive hair.

Anita Rao
Growing up with hair that you felt like was excessive, that made you uncomfortable — when did you start removing it, and how did that begin for you?

Sharan Dhaliwal
Yeah, so like my mom didn't let me remove hair for a long time when I was young, which actually affected my mental health quite negatively because of the influence of young people around me and the way they would treat me. So I would do it secretly. There were times where I'd be up in my room. I'd remove hair and go downstairs and just kind of like announce that I no longer have a beard. My mom would just be very shocked and quite upset that I did that.

But I think I did start removing it in my early teens. I didn't know what I was doing. Like, there were times I just shaved my upper lip or like tried to shave parts of my eyebrows and completely ruined my eyebrows. And it was just like a panic — it was a panic, kind of a need to try and attain this beauty that I thought I needed to attain. And so I would panic remove hair.

I remember when I used to like thread my whole face on a daily basis in the morning before leaving the house. So I'd have to wake up half an hour earlier than usual so that I would have to go to that process before I could leave the house. And it was just this massive part of my life from such a young age, until, I guess, I hit my 30s. And there were other ways. I mean, it was before my 30s I discovered other ways of removing hair. But it was in my 30s that I guess my relationship with my hair changed quite a lot.

Anita Rao
How did it change?

Sharan Dhaliwal
Well, I think it changed when I came out. So I came out a few years ago as bisexual, and my relationships with people changed. And I noticed that a lot of my need to attain a certain beauty was to — and this was unconscious, I guess, to a certain extent — was to please a man. And then after I came out, and I started discovering relationships with women and non binary people, I found that I didn't have to do that. I didn't have to attain a beauty for those people. And that kind of shifted for me. That shifted the way I saw myself and the way I saw my own body.

Anita Rao
Like Sharan, my relationship with body hair looks a lot different now that I'm in my 30s, compared to when I first noticed it as a kid.
I can remember some awful run ins with Nair and upper lip hair bleach in the bathroom when I was a teenager. And I was in the same boat as Sharan. I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just hoping I didn't screw something up. And it's made me wonder what my adolescence would have been like if I had bucked the norm and tossed the tweezers entirely. A voice we heard earlier in the episode belongs to Kristie De Garis. She's a photographer in Scotland, and a few years ago she put this idea to her daughter: Ditch the razor and let it grow.

Kristie De Garis
With my daughter, we were actually thrown into conversations really early, because she developed body hair at a really young age. And also like me, she has very dark hair. And so she got a lot of comments from her peers. Also — and I know a lot of people didn't agree with this decision — when she was much younger, so like 8, 9, 10, 11, I didn't actually allow her to shave. I certainly don't think that you shouldn't shave. I shave. I have zero problem with body hair removal. I just wanted her to have some time and hopefully provide her with some like supportive space to consider that having body hair is also a legitimate choice, because I think as a female, it often feels like it's not. You know, if your child was being bullied because their peers perceived them as too big, you probably wouldn't encourage them to lose weight.

Anita Rao
I think that emphasis on supportive space is key. When you're older, maybe you get that support from a good friend or a romantic partner. And when you're younger and coming into your body, that parent-child relationship can be a game changer. My parents didn't shame me or my siblings about our bodies or body hair at all when we were growing up. And I am so grateful for that.

But it made me curious if this support was something they passed down from their parents, or if things look different in their own journey with hair growth. If you listened to season one of the show, you heard me talk to my parents about everything from poop to pornography. I decided to keep the conversations with them going. And I called them up for a chat about body hair.

Sheila Rao (Anita's mom)
I think I remember shaving my legs when I was about 13 or 14. I think I used my dad's razor.

Anita Rao
How has your relationship with your body hair evolved over the course of your life?

Sheila Rao (Anita's mom)
I've never had any problems. I've waxed my legs, mostly, waxed my legs. There have been times where I've let the hair on my legs grow, but then, yeah, I have felt uncomfortable having like long, dark hair on my legs. So yes, my overriding feeling is for myself to remove it. Totally.

Anita Rao
Why though? I mean, isn't it kind of interesting, like why do we have that association?

Sheila Rao (Anita's mom)
Yeah, I think, I don't know ... Maybe because products are encouraged, right? I feel like it's just like a societal influence. I don't think my mom ever said anything to me. I don't think I ever saw my mom wax her legs or do anything or shave her legs. I know that she did nothing. For sure.

Anita Rao
Dad, how about you? What do you remember observing about your own body hair growing up, because Indians are hairy folk. So as a hairier person, have you ever felt like self conscious or uncomfortable about being a hairier person,

Satish Rao (Anita's dad)
Fortunately, I don't have a lot of actual body hair, either on my arms or in my legs. I have some, but there are many men who have very thick bushy hair. I don't have that. This may be genetic, but it also could be, you know, an interesting herbal treatment that we were subjected to when we were very, very young. It was very interesting, because we would all have a bath with turmeric. Turmeric is supposed to have anti-hair properties. I don't know, I have not really gone back to check whether there is scientific proof and validity, but turmeric was used. I mean, that was the reason. It was told [to us] that this would both nourish the skin, make your skin healthy, and had some lessening of hair effect.

Anita Rao
So that was intentional. Like your parents were trying in some way to get you all to have less hair?

Satish Rao (Anita's dad)
Oh, absolutely. In fact, they would do it too. My mom was doing it. I remember my mom doing it much, much later on. In fact, probably when she was much older, I think she would still do that.

Anita Rao
Mom, I know that you have struggled a little bit or thought about hair growth in terms of facial hair growth in menopause. Tell me a little bit about that.

Sheila Rao (Anita's mom)
Oh, yeah, I mean, I have a fair amount of hair growth on my face. In fact, dad will say: Wow, Sheila, at a side view, you got a fair amount of hair! And I'm like: Oh my god, really? And then I do go, and I have my — it's quite painful, but it looks much more nice when I have it threaded or sometimes waxed. It's painful, but it's definitely worth doing.

Anita Rao
But don't you ever have moments where you're like: Why am I doing this to myself? Like why am I having my face threaded? Like, why is the world such a way that I should feel uncomfortable with having peach fuzz on my face?"

Sheila Rao (Anita's mom)
No, you know, I don't. Because I mean, for me, you know, I'm not really a person who does a ton of makeup and can hide or put [on] powder. So I have a very natural look. So, you know, I just feel it looks nicer if I don't have a beard and a lot of hair. Not a beard ... I'm exaggerating. But you know, it's, it's nice. So no, I don't ever think, you know, I'm pretty tough. So I'm like: Suck it up. Here we go.

Anita Rao
So that was the talk with my parents. But there's a bigger discussion we should all be aware of. In recent years, there has been an ever amplifying cultural conversation about body positivity and what it would look like to reject social norms around health and beauty that assume certain shapes and sizes are more ideal than others. But body hair hasn't quite entered the conversation. And I wanted to understand why. So I put the question to Sharan.

Sharan Dhaliwal
There is a lack of conversation around body hair, because I think it really does affect women of color a lot more than white women. And I think that's a big reason why, because it is so racialized. And so I think that's why the conversation hasn't progressed that far, and when you do see, I guess, representation of body hair in the media, it tends to be white women. And it tends to be like small blonde, wisps of hair represented, which most women of color that have excessive body hair don't really, I don't know, can't really relate to it. You know, it just it seems like another step backwards more than anything, because there's no real representation there. There's no real discussion about body hair.

Kristie De Garis
I'm mixed race, and I'm light skinned, but my family are from South Asia. And when I was younger, I was bullied a lot for having obvious, visible body hair. I mean, Scotland is a very white country. And I grew up in an incredibly white part of Scotland. So I really stood out for that reason. And I really saw myself as being abnormal, actually, through this comparison with white girls, despite for me and how I looked being an absolutely normal part of my heritage. And I see my daughter going through a very, very similar thing, this is 20 years on as well. I think that when white is very much the norm and especially when you're young you want to fit in. And I think for my daughter not being mixed race is just easier.

Anita Rao
There is actually a rating scale out there that doctors use to determine what is excessive hair growth on nine different parts of women's bodies. The problem is that it is based on the bodies and hair growth patterns of mostly white cis women.

These social and medical standards around femininity, race and the razor have been around for centuries. And no surprise, white guys in science are to thank!

Rebecca Herzig
It wasn't just that hair was linked to ideas about beauty or ugliness, but also around cleanliness and dirt and around racial hierarchy and racial supremacy.

Anita Rao
That's Rebecca Herzig. She's a professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College and the author of "Plucked: a History of Hair Removal." Rebecca says this glorification of whiteness and hairlessness was ingrained in science a long time ago.

Rebecca Herzig
Even in the beginning, naturalist and natural philosophers were obsessed with differences between people based on body hair. I mean any of the early naturalist you could think of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, even Thomas Jefferson, who liked to do his own ethnological observations. They all wrote about body hair and racial differences, racial variations and body hair. But as science moved into kind of greater and greater authority and clout, certainly, body hair moved right along with it, and there became whole fields —dermatology being one — that specialized in standardizing what normal or excessive amounts of hair were and what appropriate treatments for so-called excessive hair should be. And that took off starting in kind of the late 19th century and really gaining speed and steam in the early 20th century.

Anita Rao
And Darwin played a big part in this of really kind of institutionalizing very particular ideas about what's normal and what's not normal in terms of the amount of body hair. And this brings us to hirsutism, which is a medical condition that describes hormonal imbalance and excessive hair growth. So tell me about the medicalization of excessive hair growth and how that came to be.

Rebecca Herzig
It all started coming together as science was becoming sort of professionalized and institutionalized in the late 19th century. So the first medical classification for excessive hairiness was actually a disease called hypertrichosis, which still exists, and which is just like it sounds, excessive "hyper" trichosis "hair." But the doctors who came up with the category and set about its standards were very explicit in saying which people should be considered falling under this category and which ones shouldn't. Men — people who they identified as men — could be diagnosed with hypertrichosis, as well. But a lot of their kind of discussions in medical journals were about where exactly the boundary lines are, and kind of difficult to call cases. And they were pretty clear there that their attentions were primarily focused on people they identified as women, people they identified as white, and people they identified as young.

And one of them was very explicit that that's because that's when they're marriageable. And that's when we care most about what they look like. And they were incredibly frank about that. And there were also quite a lot of studies in the late 19th century about whether excessive hairiness in women across races might be associated with higher degrees of "insanity," was the word they used — of mental health disorders. It was very much a part of the scientific discourse and connected to larger questions about normalcy and deviance.

Anita Rao
So much of it has to do with the gender binary and kind of our want to uphold it or position ourselves on one side or the other. And looking throughout history at the history of how we have removed hair over the years, I mean, how much of it has to do with maintaining this gender binary?

Rebecca Herzig
A massive amount, but I would go farther as to say that, what I concluded based on what I found is that, perceptions of body hair, treatments of body hair, those comments said between intimate partners, or out in public or in workplaces, I think these are foundational of how we constitute gender and race in the first place. One of the things that I found most fascinating about the whole subject is it's pretty easy for people to dismiss: "Oh, come on, you know, body hair, aren't there bigger issues right now? Isn't there a global pandemic?"

Of course these things are true but what is I think worth attending to is the way these seemingly little, tiny trivial daily things like what people do to their body hair or don't do their body hair, or what they say to one another about their hair and the way it kinks or is straight, and what have you, become part of these larger systems. And I was really interested in how these sorts of daily, seemingly new practices, add up into large scale structures and the way that we can intervene in them by, you know, intervening on these small daily ways as well.

Sharan Dhaliwal
I think it's a really slow, slow kind of unlearning. When I was younger, I would shave my legs, [and] if there was a tiny bit that I missed, I would have a panic attack and run home! Whereas now I would just go: Oh, well, missed a bit. You know, and it wouldn't affect me as much as it would have when I was younger. That comes through time. That comes through the way that you accept yourself and your body and how you sit in this world.

Anita Rao
So next time you're in the tub, getting the razor ready, make sure you're shaving for yourself. Just know that if you decide to add turmeric, the jury's still out on that one. And some folks say it actually promotes hair growth.

Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, make a contribution at WUNC.org. Incredible storytelling on WUNC's podcasts is only possible because of listeners like you.

Thanks to Kaia Finley and Charlie Shelton-Ormand for producing this episode. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Lindsey Foster-Thomas is WUNC's director of content. Our theme music is by Quilla. Thanks also to Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup: weaverstreetmarket.coop.

I'm Anita Rao on an exploration of our brains, our bodies, and taking on the taboo with you.

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