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By Dipali Taneja
The first time I recall seeing body hair that seemed unusual or out of place was on a bus in London, when I was perhaps five or six. In my minds’ eye, I can still see a faint image of a woman with short hair, wearing calf length pants, and hairy lower limbs, hairy enough for my sister and I to notice, and for me to remember some fifty–odd years later. As far as we were concerned, our mother didn’t really have legs that impinged upon our consciousness. She did have feet, of course, and we would both prance around in her fancy slippers. She only ever wore sarees, and it was years before we realized that she actually did possess legs, and hairy ones at that. But our childhood in England had us idealizing smooth, nylon stocking clad, high heeled elegant legs. Mummy had smooth arms, with tiny golden hair, which was never a cause of concern to her or to us! The hairy legged lady was an oddity in our world. Mummy never needed to wax or shave her legs or underarms. Her lower legs were quite hairy, but were always concealed from view, as were those of all the desi aunties we knew. Of the few whom I remember, only one appeared to be very fashionable and made up her face regularly. The others perhaps used a dab of lipstick. No desi legs were ever visible to us!
It was only after we returned to hot and dusty Delhi and she’d wear sleeveless blouses in summer, that Mummy would remove her underarm hair. Sleeveless blouses were also quite radical then. Mum usually wore them only at home, to feel cooler. Neither one of my buas ever wore sleeveless garments. The next generation did, though.
One summer vacation I was startled to suddenly find a black clump in my armpit. I was about eleven or so, and had seen my sister’s sudden hirsuteness, so I was taken aback. It turned out to be a bunch of black thread, in one armpit only! I don’t know if my sister was trying to scare me, or how it managed to reach my armpit! Hair grew in at it’s time, at a reasonable pace, and was accepted as part of growing up. Teenage hairy leg angst found me secretly ‘borrowing’ Daddy’s razor, rather pointlessly: our school didn’t have a uniform, skirts were not mandatory, and knee-length lacy white socks were the height of school fashion! There were girls who had started depilating. For me college meant trousers and sarees and salwar kameez: we’d outgrown our childish skirts, though the sporty girls did wear short skirts and shiny smooth limbs. I had acquired tweezers, and managed to shape my eyebrows, which were not dark or overpowering in any way. I also wore glasses, which further concealed them.
A few weeks after our wedding, I began tweezing my brows, only to hear both the spouse and his sister telling me not to bother. That was the last time I took tweezer to brow, many decades ago!
As far as the spouse was concerned, romance did not require depilation. When our souls and hearts and hormones were in harmony, no physical attribute or its absence mattered in the least: surgical scars, hairy or hairless limbs, crooked teeth, fatness or thinness, all paled into insignificance.
The few surgeries I underwent required far more depilation than I ever wanted. The hair growing back was itchy and uncomfortable.
For me, certain garments, like swimsuits, skirts and sleeveless tops demanded depilation, for several years of my life. This has been the first year when I went to the pool with hairy legs and underarms, when I consciously decided not to bother to wax or shave or cream the hair away.
Why does body hair bother us? An aunt told us of using various flour mixes and copper bowls on tiny baby girls so that they grow up with hairless limbs and bodies. For how long has this conditioning of half the human race been going on?
My mother, even when over eighty, used to get very upset about the few tiny hairs she could see on her upper lip. As long as she was relatively mobile and independent she would occasionally have her upper lip threaded. When she was older and housebound, she had to make do with my reassurance I that there was nothing particularly visible.
I’ve decided to grow old as hairy as I am, and be as bindaas as my father, who had the hairiest ears I ever saw, and never once complained about them….
Dipali Taneja has a post graduate degree in Child Development from Delhi University. She is grandmother to three dogs and one young human. Her short stories have been published in the Onam special supplement of The Times of India in Kochi (in the Nineties) and she has been blogging at dipalitaneja.blogspot.com