I first discovered the work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo as an impressionable GCSE Art student, delighting in her subversive image and national pride. However, her iconic monobrow and visible upper lip hair always raised a laugh among British school children. And adults. A quick read of the articles and comments about the upcoming Victoria and Albert exhibition of her personal items show you that we haven’t come very far, if at all, in accepting women’s natural hair. Even the new Frida Kahlo Barbie doll, hailed by some as a feminist triumph, has had a brow tidy: the American toy giant Mattel has ignored the conjoined brow of their Communist free-spirited subject.
Now a mother, two decades on, I’m planning a family mini-break for my two tots and I, joining our extended tribe for soft play and swimming, in the middle of a British winter. Hooray, right? But, oh my. Swimming means swim suits. I analyse my neglected wintry limbs; I examine the unwanted hair. I manage a leg-wax but delay the armpits. They’re too sensitive to wax, but too ugly to leave. I decide to wait until the night before departure.
I totally forget about my pits until I’m unpacking the boys’ things into the holiday lodge.
I’ve remembered all the kids’ stuff, but I’ve forgotten almost all of my own toiletries. I borrow a hairbrush from my sister-in-law, toothpaste from my dad and use the free ‘hairwash’ which leaves my long mane uncontrollably huge and knotty. But I have no razor. I risk my dignity by asking to borrow one. No luck. I’m pointed towards the shop. Our timetable is packed and with my little poppets clinging to me, popping off to the shops isn’t so simple, but off we trot to discover one crappy little overpriced razor. No fricking way. Time to rethink.
Book in for a wax at the luxury on-site Spa? No time or money for that. Instead, I try to conjure up Kahlo’s kick-ass pride: her hair as a badge of patriotic honour. I think of Julia Roberts’ 1999 red carpet jungle wave (my teenage self had no idea how brave that was). I think of Madonna’s artistic furry underarm statement. I recall repeated images of Miley Cyrus’s no-fuss armpit fuzz. If such global goddesses can put their hands in the air like they just don’t care, surely I can get away with a tuft or two of harmless hair?
Perfectly harmless. Every adult has underarm hair.
Yet here I am in a British holiday camp, surrounded by hairless bodies. I look at my own pale skin and thick dark tresses: a blend of my mixed Anglo-Indian background. I get a flashback to a school PE lesson, the cute boy from the year above sidles over and chooses to sit next to me. I squeal a little bit inside and feel my ego inflate. He looks straight at me and asks, “Why are you so hairy?” Perhaps the question is innocent enough, but my confidence collapses into the imagined abyss below. Somehow, I gather the strength to reply, straining to lift my large dark eyes from the floor: “I dunno. It’s just the way I am.” I’m so proud of that little girl, coping with the expectations of beauty yet I’m not surprised that she found a pack of Bic razors in the bathroom cabinet later that day.
My mum would have been sympathetic, flying the flag for a woman’s choice and body autonomy. She had grown up in a strict Sikh family where no hair should ever be cut, tweezed or shaved, just covered for the sake of respect and cleanliness. My mother had fought her own battle to reclaim ownership of her image from a religious patriarchy, fighting to be able to de-hair her legs or shape her eyebrows. She wasn’t going to stop me.
After years of waxing, I’m quietly proud that I’ve finally failed to prioritise hair removal.
Instead, I’m trying to muster Madonna’s bravado. But I’m too busy with the intense ritual of readying two little children and myself for swimming: undressing everyone; squeezing us into lycra; tugging up swim nappies; organising dry clothes and wet shoes; wrestling with locker doors; trying not to lose my excited barefooted children to a slippery tiled floor; struggling with wristbands; dealing with emergency wees; cajoling us under regimented showers; blowing up arm-bands; finding the kids’ pools… two, three hours pass by and I totally forget about my pits. Nobody cares. Another day passes and I’m blissfully too busy to remember again. Three hours in a spa with my two sisters-in-law: I forget again. We have buckets of fun and that’s all that matters.
Home again. Summer still feels like an age away. I long for hot weather, but the pressure to de-fuzz gets to me. I’d love to be able to wake up, like a man, on an unexpected sunny morning and pull on a vest and shorts. I long to have the year-round Cyrus swagger, two fingers up to beauty standards. Admittedly, since motherhood/marriage/my thirties, my ego is stronger than ever and my attitude to hair removal is gloriously relaxed. A quarterly leg wax and a light tweezing seem to suffice. But despite all my self-assurance and thirst for rebellion, I’m still that embarrassed little girl, now a dab-hand with wax-strips, who just wants to fit in.