Outside Hirsutism1 and at times pubic hair2, societal perceptions of women’s bodies include an absence of hair3, as we know female beauty and normative femininity is still overall represented and perceived through a hairless appearance. Representations overarchingly continuing to construct and maintain an image of a ‘fuzz free’ look as natural for women (Jenkins, 2017; Smelik, 2015; Fahs and Delgardo, 2011), and hair outside what should softly cascade from our scalps, as the invader to be plucked, waxed, shaved, bleached and/or lasered off.
Accordingly, even as representations of hairlessness are brought into question in the UK and elsewhere, with female celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Amber Rose and Madonna publicly embracing their body hair, hair removal products and methods continue to boom.
For the BSA (British South Asian) women I interviewed in Birmingham4, the mundane and routine act of hair removal that often starts in adolescence, is positioned as requiring continuous and dedicated labour across the lifespan, particularly when the focus is on visible facial hair (such as hair on the upper lip, chin, sides of the face and ‘excess’ hair on the brows). Thus, here I would like to tentatively start to consider why almost all the women I talked to felt there was no going back, for example, after the first pluck5.
For many like Shakeria Kathun6, there was a deep-seated anxiety and sense of bodily discontent over their unwanted ‘Asian hair’. It is this ‘Asian hair’ that Shakeria positions as particularly problematic compared to the facial hair that may materialise on ‘White and Black women’:
[…] Never use Jolen7, never thread or pluck your upper lip, eyebrows, or armpit hair, really any hair it’s better to wax, epilate or go have laser treatments – with most Asian women plucking, threading and using creams like Jolen makes everything worse. The hair comes back coarser and worse than it was, it can have you so disgusted but once you go down that path you have to keep going – and I’m not just talking from personal experience this has happened to dozens of friends and family. […] I mean my hair refuses to stay down, no matter what it’s back, it’s why I have so many tweezers at home, in all my handbags, for those emergencies […]
There was sense that for Shakeria and many of the others I talked to, their ‘Asian hair’ – its perceived and felt coarseness, darkness and thickness, if allowed to stay and re-emerge helped cultivate feelings of difference and unfemininity. They positioned the removal of facial hair where it was overly visible as a sign of ‘respect and care’ for their body, which in addition to other body/beauty work, facilitated the emergence and maintenance of a cosmopolitan, well-groomed and confident Muslim woman. Whilst mirroring the findings of other studies, my interviewees positioned a ‘hairy face’ as unfeminine and a barrier to good self-esteem. Consider, for example, Rhea Khandar’s8 words:
[…] the type of face hair that can be on, on Asians like me, means keeping it looks butch, unpretty, unclean, like I’m uneducated in how to take care of yourself […]. It doesn’t help you feel good when you look in the mirror, or you’re out and know it’s there, so how can I stop? […].
For both Shakeria and Rhea there was a sense of abject disgust as they recalled their own and others’ continued struggles to control and self-regulate the emergence of unwanted facial hair, along with weight, complexion and ageing. In the everyday, it is the body and the hair that protrudes from it, which is positioned as problematic – resistant to attempts to achieve and perform normative femininity, a key contour of which is the idealisation of whiteness.
Consequently, as Fahs and Delgardo (2011) assert, the racially coded nature of beauty discourse and ideals cannot be forgotten (Fahs and Delgardo, 2011). Women positioned outside the category of Whiteness, like BSA women, can be and can feel relegated to the bottom of the gender hierarchy – as they embody and try to enact naturalised European White paradigms of beauty, as depicted through both Western and South Asian culture. Leading to the feeling that once body/beauty work like facial hair removal has commenced, they have signed up to a lifelong commitment to continue to try and control/regulate their resisting bodies and perform normative femininity.
It is clear, that for the BSA women I talked to, hair is positioned as the invader and the enemy – unclean and anti-feminine – the emotional labour and potential trauma that can be associated with it, naturalised and positioned as an inevitable part of women’s lives. Yet the reality is that the way in which facial hair is viewed and treated doesn’t exist in a vacuum, rather the complexity of lived experiences and everyday practices must be connected to wider socio-cultural influences. Increasingly there is a need to problematise capitalist consumer society, its structures, and the global beauty industry, as they continue to both profit from, and reinforce the socio-cultural norms and ideals that exist around facial hair and beauty. All of which helps legitimate the disgust and disquiet facial hair is meant to bring women.
- Fahs, B. and Delgardo, A.D. (2011) The Specter of Excess. Race, Class and Gender in Women’s Body Hair Narratives. From: Bobel, C. and Kwan, S. (eds.) Embodied Resistance. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
- Jenkins, K. (2017) Musings of an unlovable hairy gorilla-woman. Available from: http://beautydemands.blogspot.com/2017/04/musings-of-unlovable-hairy-gorilla-woman.html [Accessed 23rdOctober 2019].
- NHS (2016) Hirsutism. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hirsutism/ [Accessed 23rd October 2019].
- Smelik, A. (2015) ‘A close shave: The taboo on female body hair.’ Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, Volume 6 Number 2, pp.233-251.
1 Defined by the NHS as ‘excessive hair growth in certain areas of the body. It’s a problem that mainly affects women’. Developing ‘in areas where men often have hair, such as the face, neck, chest, tummy, lower back, buttocks and thighs’, it is caused by an excess of ‘male hormones called androgens’ (NHS, 2016) or a rare genetic disorder known as hypertrichosis. ↩
2 Although I recognise the contemporary preference for having a Brazilian and other methods of removing pubic hair.↩
3 Increasingly this is also the case for men.↩
4 Interviewed 30 BSA women, who fell into one of the following 3 groups: Pakistani (family migrated from Mirpur), Bangladeshi (family migrated from Sylhet) or Indian Gujarati (twice migrated – India to Africa and then to the UK).↩
5 Of the 30 women interviewed, 4 said they have not attempted to remove any type of hair on their face – or because they for example have no ‘unwanted hair’ or they do not wish to touch that which is naturally there.↩
6 British Bangladeshi, 26 at the time of the interview.↩
7 A bleach cream that can be found on Britain’s high street.↩
8 British Indian Gujarat, 19 at the time of the interview.↩