“You look good,” my husband said, which is what I hoped to hear, but also didn’t, since I wished it didn’t matter, but it did.
I’d gone for a lip wax that day. This was the kind of female grooming I’d begun to feel more comfortable with in my mid-thirties, if not for the slight appearance boost that comes from having no visible facial hair, then at least for the solace of being reclined in a dimly-lit room, free from the urgent demands of my small children.
For the past couple years, I’d made the appointment every two months by which time I’d indisputably lost the plucking battle the hardiest hairs required. Every two months was also exactly one month past the point when my lip fuzz unquestionably demanded attention. By two months, my three-year-old began upwardly stroking my mustache at bedtime with a kind of bemused curiosity and with that, finally, I could tell myself it was time.
The cost for the lip waxing service at a local place that claims on its street-side sign to “Eliminate Stress” is $14. With tip, every visit amounts to about $18. I pay over $100 annually to be mustache free. And while a hundred bucks is not too terribly much beauty product-wise – there are tiny vials of lotion that go for quadruple that – still, it nags. A hundred dollars is our monthly budget for the reckless amount of dairy our two sons consume. It is a student loan payment. A good rain coat. It is at least twenty mosquito nets in malaria-infested areas of Africa.
And for what? To have hair that grows naturally from my face removed in a series of tear-inducing strokes. Hot sticky wax, lay it on, rip it off, snag the hairs out by their roots, repeat, repeat, until all that’s left is a mottled red angry space above the lip that hopefully settles peaceably enough into its newly bald state. But if I told you this procedure was something I dreaded, or even something I did not look forward to, I’d be lying to you beneath my gloriously smooth upper lip.
On the subject of waxing, my sister says, “It hurts so good.” Funny, because true. The pain flashes by quickly and what’s left behind, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, feels fantastic. Refreshed and red-lipped, I go home and my husband tells me it looks good and I think it does too. My son no longer rubs my facial hair cross current when I tuck him in for the night. I no longer feel like a mother gorilla. Nevertheless, I’m conflicted. The entire enterprise seems vain and silly and not quite a justifiable use of resources. What more evidence of my privilege does one need than the fact of my dedicating time and money to this? And yet ...
To wax or not to wax is a question that has long plagued me. This is likely related, at least in part, to where I grew up, northern Virginia, and the culture of looking good I was immersed in from a young age. By fourteen or so, I became a brand of self-righteous about all-things-beauty-and-grooming related that is particularly embarrassing to now recall. That my upbringing also provided a fair amount of contact with Southern grandmas who regularly used the creepy phrase “putting on one’s face” probably didn’t help matters much. Both the expression and the behind-closed-doors practice unnerved me. It was hard not to imagine a woman peeling back her face, adhering a mask. I’m not sure which of these images were more disturbing. What I knew with certainty was that the time all this fixing up required made me bristle with boredom and unveiled recrimination.
Add to this my critical attitude toward the girls in my suburban high school who appeared to spend more time applying eyeliner than reading anything. Watching them sit silent and statuesque in their straight-backed desks whenever a teacher asked a question made it all too easy to draw this conclusion: between a preoccupation with looking good and never knowing answers in class, there seemed to be an unnervingly causal relationship. Plus, all that examining one’s face in the mirror suggested to me an almost too-perfect metaphor for self-absorption.
Now firmly in my mid-thirties, whenever I find I’m getting into a tizzy about grooming or trite-seeming beauty habits, I try to remind myself of something Virginia Woolf, unabashed shopper, once wrote. “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have more important offices than to mere keep us warm. They change our view of the world, and the world’s view of us.” My conundrum about waxing is, of course, not directly related to clothing. If we’re talking self-care and self-presentation, however, it is undeniably on the spectrum.
Every woman I know has her rituals, the things she does and doesn’t do, grooming-wise, with reasons as rife with inconsistencies as my own. One friend does not wax her discernible mustache but spends a “fair amount of money” to dye the budding gray out of her wavy shoulder-length hair. She dyes it her natural color, a gorgeous sun-flecked auburn. So the dyeing is not natural, but the result is.
A nurse friend gets her eyebrows threaded and her hair dyed, from gray-streaked to ink black. She shaves her legs, all the way up, thighs and all, a task that exhausts me to consider. She does not, however, grow a wax-worthy mustache, so that frees up some time.
My former college roommate shaves nothing. She is a farmer and lives on the West Coast in a community of people who give little attention to grooming. Shaving or waxing would seem an almost aggressively strange act. For my wedding, after a fossil-fuel-consuming flight across the country, she shaved, to my dismay, her armpits. She said she didn’t want to draw attention to herself and this made me embarrassed for having the kind of wedding where that would be her concern. It also taught me that, for her, grooming is at least partly situational.
Another woman I’ve long cherished had her nose reconstructed in her thirties, a facelift in her late forties, eye work, a tummy tuck and breast augmentation in her fifties. In her sixties, she had updates to most of the face stuff, as well as permanent makeup. To my surprise, she finds lip waxing a waste of time and money and takes a disposable Bic to her upper lip.
Recently I was told by a neighbor who stays home with her kids that she tried to stop plucking and trimming her eyebrows because she felt it was a sexist, stupid waste of time and she had a 6-year-old daughter watching her. She lasted a week.
If I’m revealing grooming secrets, it seems only fair to divulge my own. I shave my legs, but only to the knee, and less carefully in winter, and not at all when I’m sick. Apart from the minimal shaving required to keep a swimsuit G-rated, I am relatively wild in the bikini zone. I used to get $15 haircuts, sometimes I get $0 haircuts (a friend trims), and more recently, I got a $90 haircut. My husband was aghast by this figure but lucky for me, he is able to compare that number with a figure from the past, a previous girlfriend whose short jagged 'do with dye job required semi-regular expenditures that started with a two and had three digits. I’m glad she is no longer his girlfriend, but thankful she once was.
The hair-in-all-the right-places women, I envy with a sort of borderline mean-spiritedness, the only comfort imagining they have intractable b.o. or hidden fat stores in hard-to-exercise places. I recently had a friend tell me, “Wow, your armpits shave so smoothly!” I have, naturally, envied the armpits of others.
Grooming to look good is, of course, not just a woman thing. It is also an animal kingdom thing. Gorillas pick. Birds lick. It is also a man thing. Men trim, buzz, clip. And although a salty mix of hair is typically more acceptable in its male incarnation than female, there are undoubtedly plenty of XYs who dye. It is, however, the comprehensive and health-hazardous quality to the beauty rituals that women, as an expected matter of habit, still do, in the US, in 2016, that concerns me. Hair dye potentially linked to blood cancer? Show me a handful of randomized controlled clinical trials before I begin to half believe you. Inadequately regulated wrinkle fillers may cause facial disfigurement? Oh, but it’s so worth it!
What also rankles is my knee-jerk, moralizing impulse about the whole thing, the part of me that wants to shout, STOP! We should spend our time on more meaningful things! We should teach our six-year-olds that if a little mustache grows on a woman, it ought to be accepted. Curls busting from a bikini, beautiful! Pit hair, no problemo! Just hair, in your pits. If men can walk around with coarse curlies sprouting from their bods and not be ashamed, let us ladies collectively retreat on the razor front. Ultimately, however, I buck against this voice because of what it amounts to: more rules for women. And women should do whatever they want to their bodies. Plus, can I really pretend to be oblivious to the way beauty lends power? Why not let women grab what they can of the stuff? In short, start raining on the beauty parade and you risk being just one more force holding women down.
The problem of what we do to look good comes down to a bunch of questions without, to my mind, obvious answers. What responsibility do individual women bear in changing what is considered “normal” for women in our culture? When does grooming constitute healthy self-regard and when does it become the opposite? At what point does normal self-care mutate into excessive concern for the regard of others, buying into oppressive cultural norms or reinforcing to the world’s girls that women should not have hair where women sometimes grow quite a bit of it? And while we’ve certainly come a long way since impaling ourselves with corsets, or dousing our legs in arsenic to get the hair off (yes, that was a thing), what, I wonder, would it take to stop associating hairlessness or lead-painted lips or foot-crushing shoes with looking nice?
A nurse practitioner who specializes in Women’s Health recently reported to me how often women apologize in the exam room for their pubic hair or spiky legs. Women, earnestly saying “I’m sorry” to another woman, in a medical setting, for body hair. This is unsettling to the nurse practitioner ... not because she doesn’t shave; she does. (And threads. And wears make up. And gets her nails done, etc. etc.) What is unnerving is how powerfully these apologies speak to the cultural expectation, not to mention the suggestion of intimacy. She is there to serve her patients’ health needs, not to be pleased or displeased by their looks. In fact, she admits that she and other health professionals probably ought to be encouraging women to grow their body hair. Remove it and introduce – with tiny open wounds – the opportunity for infection, the most hardy of which could result in boils and painful (not to mention scar-inducing) removals.
Still, if the whole world knew the potential infection risks, however statistically small, of shaving, the knee-buckling toxicity of nail polish, the disturbing concentration of heavy metals in lipstick, would that make women stop? From bound feet to corsets, neck elongation to stiletto surgery, vampire facials to facelifts, the story of beauty’s relationship to risk, if not downright pain, is long. If (insert whatever beauty habit here) gives a woman a boost to self-regard, as waxing does for me, it becomes very, very hard to stop.
The comedian Louis CK has a great bit about owning a way nicer car than he actually requires. (This relates, I promise.) He knows that a cheaper car would serve him just fine. He knows people on the planet are starving to death. He realizes that if he traded in his car for a less nice one, he’d have both a functional vehicle and a significant chunk of money that he could, in turn, direct toward feeding starving people. But he doesn’t get the cheaper car. He thinks about how he could do that, and then he keeps the nicer one. He points to the collective complicity of those of us who exceed our basic needs by opening up about his own.
Grooming past the basics of hygiene is another example of the charged but hazy line between need and want. I could take the hundred dollars a year I spend on waxing and in about five seconds make a list of forty-seven different applications of it that are to my mind, far more important than waxing my own lip fuzz. Same goes for the time expenditures of shaving, plucking, etc. But I don’t have any immediate plans to stop. In fact, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt less guilt about this stuff, more okay about it. Is this just middle-aged laziness, the cooling of my more radical young blood?
A big problem with solving this conundrum about what’s worth doing or not is that how we look, and how we feel, and who we are, and what we think and say, and how we act toward those around us are all messily intertwined. Aside from the insane time commitment and the caking on of carcinogens, I can’t seem to distinguish as clearly as I once could the difference between the “primping” I once condemned and my current instinct to remove, by whatever means necessary, the dark hairs on my upper lip. And while it’s immensely difficult to parse how much of looking good is culturally prescribed and how much is based on an internal compass, I do know that when I look better, I tend to feel more together. I stand taller, listen more attentively, speak more clearly. I’m more present. And in this way, looks aren’t superficial at all. If all our grooming practices in some small way change our view of the world and the world’s view of us, that is not such a shallow thing. Acknowledging this kernel of truth is, in fact, what finally gave me a toe-hold on an admittedly hazy, ultimately personal, “operating philosophy” on the grooming front.
The only way I can figure to balance my moral concern and my feminist concern and my humanity-in-need-on-the-planet concern and my landfill concern and my six-year-old-girls-of-the-world concern is to ask: Would I feel a little bit like hiding, either my whole entire self or part of my body, were I not to partake in a certain grooming/self-care/beauty habit? If the answer is yes, then I do, within my budget, the on-the-surface-silly-but-actually-quite-resonant grooming thing to not feel that way. I’ll keep waxing my lip. I’ll keep getting decent (though cheaper than $90) haircuts. In winter, or when suffering from sleep deprivation, I may address, through the application of makeup, the dark circles beneath my eyes. I admit this stance risks re-enforcing established norms because I’m not bravely challenging them. It also isn’t all that fun or self-celebratory. I feel like apologizing to my younger, more principled self. I also don’t think I should. This is what works, for me, for now.
Summer armpit hair, beware!