THE BLOG
09/25/2015 03:36 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2016

I Don't Shave Because I'm a Woman. I Shave Because I'm Brown.

Nadya Agrawal

Hair is an intrinsic part of being South Asian. As a second-generation North Indian, I have grown up with religious and cultural ceremonies centering around hair. For example, in parts of India the family gathers to celebrate when a baby has his or her first haircut. Hair is even given by some as an offering to the gods, following Hindu custom.

And it's literally all over our bodies. It sprouts out of uncomfortable places, thick, black, and, if left alone, soft. It's not hurting anyone, and yet we employ an arsenal of tools -- razors, wax, tweezers, and middle-aged brown women with thread clenched between their teeth -- to keep it in check.

Our thick and plentiful body hair is probably one of the easiest ways to distinguish South Asians from other people, besides skin tone. South Asian body hair is so pervasive I even began shaving my legs at the height of the post-puberty shame-fest that was 7th grade. Sitting in P.E., my scrawny legs sticking out of my over-large basketball shorts in all their awkward glory, I noticed once again that I didn't look like other girls. Where they had gentle blond fuzz that floated imperceptibly over their pale skin, my new growth was dark and obvious. So I went home and hacked away at it like an angry gardener discovering weeds among her violets. I came back to school with shallow cuts and a sense of belonging. And even now, about a decade later and in the age of Beyoncé-mandated feminism, I still spend hours removing all of my visible body hair.

To date I have tried everything short of lasering off my hair. I've shaved, waxed, threaded, plucked, and on and on. I've only resisted lasering this long because 1. it's mad expensive and 2. I imagine it's a lot like that scene from Goldfinger where James Bond is seconds from death by laser to the gonads, only there's no escape. But I tell myself it's because I don't care that much about my hair. That's a lie. Obviously.

Miley Cyrus and Madonna recently made headlines with their exposed armpits; both brandished their pit hair like a weapon against anti-feminist dissenters. Miley even dyed hers pink as a further clap back against prescribed definitions of femininity. It's worth noting here that both Miley and Madonna, besides sharing raunchy aesthetics and names that begin with the letter M, are humans of the porcelain-skinned variety. So while they reject the status quo, they're going somewhere I can't follow.

Largely, the new feminist standard is very "you do you." As in: Do what you want and be yourself, especially if that means rejecting beauty standards. And yet, going out with hairy legs and pits means I get a lot of unwelcome attention. It's not just stares that make me uncomfortable; it's cringes, dirty looks, muttering, and a very pointed repulsion. I can't make my body hair look like a trick of the light, like my white friends can, and dyeing it would require bleaching it and introducing chemicals I'd rather not have on my skin. I can't reclaim my body hair in the way some women I know can, because even if I tossed my razor I'd be too self-conscious about the looks I was getting.

Today, when out-and-out racism is a huge issue, my grooming habits are not a simple style choice or preference. My brown brothers have the same problem. In our post-9/11 America, racial profiling and hate crimes have driven many South Asian and Middle Eastern men to shave off their beards and cut their hair out of fear. Doing so often entails rejecting their cultural and religious responsibilities, but it is the cost of blending in. Even now, brown men with turbans and facial hair are being attacked and assaulted. So while man buns and beards are becoming the paradigm of modern male fashion for non-brown men, Muslim and Sikh men can't always participate without endangering themselves.

Getting rid of our hair may not be the bravest thing we can do, but, speaking for myself and the other brown people who choose to remove their body hair, it makes us feel safer. If I have to sacrifice a lofty feminist ideal to feel more comfortable, I'm going to do it. It's not a perfect solution, and I hope one day I won't feel unsafe just because my body hair is visible. But until then, I'm going to keep tweezing, plucking, and waxing my way to acceptance.

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