My forearms are a little on the hairy side. They've been that way for as long as I can remember. Being a dark-haired girl, the hairs on my arm are particularly visible against the backdrop of my pinkish-white Irish skin. Growing up I envied the smooth, tan arms of my peers whose skin was just dark enough to disguise bumps and blemishes and whose hair magically lightened in the sun every summer. Although I was deeply self-conscious about it when I was young, I managed to convince myself at an early age that my dark fuzz wasn't that noticeable, and somehow sustained that belief for several years.
Then one day when I was around 10 or 11, a boy a few years younger than me offered a helpful suggestion: "Your arms are hairy" he noted, "you should shave them." It appeared that he had also received the same memo I got that beauty = hairlessness for women.
I remember the moment so well. It happened during the homework period of Madame Carole's after school program and we were working at one of the back tables in the school library. I was wearing an ill-fitting khaki button down with puffed sleeves, which, looking back, was a much greater aesthetic crime than my hairy forearms. I stood there for a moment digesting my shame, which miraculously turned into assertiveness when I told him off for making a rude comment about someone else's appearance.
I attended grade seven at a mid-level private school; expensive enough to ensure that the usual contingent of kids from wealthy families was well-represented, but affordable enough that I was always in good company as a middle-class girl. Out of all the possible friends I could have chosen in my class, I managed to pick the child of a diplomat and the child of financial executive to be my two best friends. They also happened to be tall and beautiful, while I rocked my signature short-and-awkward look. During the summer before grade eight, one of them decided that we should all attend a modelling camp being put on by a local talent agency. High on peer pressure and Teen Vogue, I thought it was the best idea ever and immediately initiated the parental persuasion campaign I knew would be required to get permission to participate.
What ensued was the most uncomfortable, please-read-between-the-lines-because-I-can't-say-what-I-really-want-to-say-without-offending you conversation I have ever had with my mother. It retains that dubious honour to this day.
Here's why: She didn't want me to go because she knew that I was not -- and still am not -- fashion model material. My mother was aware how cruel that world can be to girls who do not fit a very specific mould and she didn't want her little girl's heart and self-esteem to get crushed. She also knew that my lack of model attributes was particularly obvious when I stood beside my two leggy, clear-skinned best friends. But of course she couldn't say any of that, at least not without doing some of the heart and self-esteem crushing herself. So she danced around her point, hoping that her pre-teen was skilled enough in reading between the lines to understand what she was saying.
"I just don't think it's a good idea" she said, attempting to put her foot down, silently pleading for me to drop it. "But why?" I asked, unsatisfied with her answer. "Well, you know Natalie from church? It's going to be a lot of girls like that, sweetie." Natalie-from-church was a statuesque red head who looked like an adult as soon as she hit puberty and turned heads as she walked up the aisle to take communion on Sundays.
I knew what she meant, and I knew that she was right, but the desire to fit in is a powerful force in a 12-year-old's life, so I pushed and pushed until she gave in and signed me up. I can only imagine how worried she must have been dropping me off on that first day.
One day, towards the end of the week, we were practicing make up application in the dressing room at the studio. One of the agency's models was teaching us how to replicate the looks we saw in magazines. I don't remember her name, but I do remember thinking that she was absolutely beautiful and cool as hell. As I watched her pull brushes from her belt, swipe them in eyeshadow, and bring her hand up to each girl's face, I noticed something that made me do a double take.
She had hairy arms, too. A model with hairy arms.
As I sat there watching her apply makeup to girls way too young to be wearing eyeliner, I realized that I could be seen as beautiful, too, hairy arms and all. Her hairy arms opened a world of possibility for me; even if I never wanted to become a model, at least I knew now that it was possible. The world was now my oyster.
That trend, started by the model with the hairy arms, has continued to today. As I walk through life, I meet more and more women whose very existence reveals a new possibility for my life that I never knew existed.
When I was 16, I met Anna, who showed me that, if I let them, my passions could take me around the world.
When I was 19, I met Carlie, who showed me that being a leader does not mean I have to tone down my femininity.
When I was 20, I met Heather, who showed me that starting a business didn't require a degree or years of experience. Later that year I met Erica, who showed me that I had skills that people would pay for.
When I was 22, I met Renee, who showed me that motherhood and entrepreneurship are not fundamentally incompatible. Jennifer, a respected non-profit executive, reinforced that point for me the following year when she brought her baby up on stage during a talk.
Just by being themselves and living out loud, these women gave me permission to be, grow, dream, and expand my conception of what it means to be a woman. Just like the message I received from a young age that female beauty = hairlessness, women are constantly inundated with instructions -- both explicit and implied -- on how to be, live, and look. But the beautiful flip-side is that one chance encounter with someone who makes you believe otherwise, even just for a second, can change that personal narrative forever.
That is why visibility projects that showcase women's experiences are so important, initiatives like Public Radio International's Across Women's Lives vertical, new feminist content publisher Femsplain, the Harnisch Foundation's #NotJustAStat campaign, and Dream, Girl, the upcoming documentary on female entrepreneurs.
As the saying goes, "You can't be what you can't see" and that goes for everything from models with hairy arms to women with big entrepreneurial dreams.