When I was maybe 10, I was at the public pool with my pal. After a day’s paddling, I was putting my clothes back on poolside. As I pulled my shirt over my arms, I noticed a singular curly brown hair sprouting from my armpit.
Everything changed that day. I knew in that moment, I was becoming a woman. I was equal parts overjoyed, then mortified, when I noticed my mate had caught me twirling my new friend with my finger.
“Gross,” he scoffed. My cheeks flushed. Without a second thought, I pulled my shirt down and made plans to bid my hairy companion adieu that night.
I didn’t get rid of that single hair, at least not straight away. I wasn’t going to let a boy’s idea of beauty ruin my glorious womanly awakening. I’d leave that to the girls.
Just before my twelfth birthday, I had my first leg and underarm wax. I played a lot of netball, so my legs and pits were always on show in short sports dresses. I wasn’t allowed to shave, because my mum said it would leave me with unmanageable and ugly stubble, which I later learned was somewhat true given my thick growth. My dad always joked that I could use my newfound furry pits as a distraction against my opponents.
It started with a half-leg wax – I wasn’t ballsy enough to take on a full leg just yet – and within months, I was chipping away at the thick hairs sprouting round my bikini line. I remember the beautician asking on my first visit if I’d like my lip done too. That was usually a job reserved for my mum and a DIY kit of wax strips. I thought my mum was the only one who had noticed my moustache.
Mum said I should keep on top of my body hairs so as not to let them get out of hand. By this, she really meant that I should do everything to make the hairs cease to exist. If I needed any further proof of this, it would be when we started going to get laser hair removal together. I was 14.
Laser treatment was still new to the scene of grooming. The clinic was run out of a beautician’s home: there was a chiropractic bed covered in paper towel, and a laser consumed the space that could have otherwise been a small study. The laser was like a big office printer – I would lie down on the bed, legs in the air, waiting for the laser to heat up. The relationship formed between myself and the beautician during our monthly sessions was just like the ones I’d had with beauticians in the past: they tell you jokes about their lazy step-sons to help you through the awkwardness, and they give you reassuring countdowns while they mercilessly destroy your hair follicles. Instead of the sound of tearing skin, there are rhythmic beeps paired with the smell of burnt hair. I experienced pain in that room that I learned years later wasn’t normal practice in laser hair removal, but moreso, could have been avoided altogether.
Another sign of a failed experiment: my hair didn’t take long to grow back. About a year on, a patchy layer had sprouted from all the places I had maliciously attacked. Although these hairs were finer than I’d previously known, they still bothered me. Girls looked at my legs with puzzled faces in the schoolyard while we ate our lunch. On a surfing trip in year 10, one girl laughed at the flecks that poked out of my bikini bottoms, suffocating a recovering shrub of pubic hair.
Now, when my mum sees my bushy legs, she shrieks like a banshee.
“Are you really going out looking like THAT? You look a mess! That’s not natural!”
Ridiculous, right? How could something growing from me be unnatural? I could choose to resent her because my eyebrows have only just grown back again after six years, or because there are thin straggly strands where there once was a strong piece of me.
When I left school, I stopped playing netball, and I gave up the weekly torture that was shaving. I stuck to a wardrobe of long-leg pants at uni, afraid that my new peers would lay into me for my reluctance to maintain my body. This wasn’t the case at all. I noticed more women and femme people with exposed hairy pits in the summer. Suddenly, I felt free to do whatever I wanted.
Sometimes, when I go swimming at the public pool, I still catch myself looking down at my legs and wondering if anyone even cares what they look like. I still shave or wax occasionally, but I like to think that this decision is mine, and no one else’s.
Now, at 22, my hair validates my newfound queerness. I can move freely through safe spaces as my authentic spaces. This is my body. I have the right to change it whenever and however I want to.
My hair has signified many things over time. I look down and see dark detailed lines weaving around my legs – each strand makes me feel bold and unique. I feel safe letting the world see my hairy legs. My mum still questions me sometimes, but I’ve grown past the point of bothering.
There are lots of hair removal alternatives out there, and I think I tried just about all of them before I gave up. I’d love to say that now, I’ve let my hair grow as a defiant symbol of my proud feminist and queer beliefs, as a big F-you to the patriarchy. But that simply wouldn’t be true.
The reality is, I’m just existing. For generations, we’ve been told that it’s not okay to exist. Having body hair where it ‘shouldn’t be’ is part of a bigger picture, one where it’s not okay to just be who we are.
Now, I choose to be as I am. Sometimes, I like to shave my legs for a fresh start. Sometimes, I let it grow. Some days I wear pants, then some days I don a free-flowing skirt and flaunt my patchy legs to the world.
Every day, I chose to exist, in whichever way I decide.