“Deep breath, okay?”
Nine-year-old me trembled under the bright light, and I gripped my mom’s hand the same as I always did to steel myself for a shot at the doctor’s office. The wax was hot on the corner of my upper lip, but Sharon’s pressure was light, delicate. As she applied the papery strip, I had to work not to curl my lip as I braced for impact. Then…
The pain of my hair separating from my face was powerful but brief, like ripping off a particularly nasty Band-Aid. I squeezed my mom’s hand as I winced.
“You okay sweetie?”
I gulped. It was bad, but not unbearable. “Yeah.”
“Do you still want to do this?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Only minutes later, it was all over. I went to the mirror, and with still trembling hands, I touched my slightly red and raw but now hairless and smooth lip as I stared at my slightly new reflection.
There are just certain things you feel like you have to do when you’re a 9-year-old girl and find the traces of a mustache.
It all started with the absentminded comment of a classmate. At nine years old, they’re often not trying to be mean. Things just come out like word vomit, but they cut deeply and cause instant and severe insecurity. The next thing I knew, I was talking anxiously to my mom in front of her bathroom mirror and learning that there were women who regularly got their hair ripped out. It’ll hurt, Mom said, but I feared the taunting of classmates more. My family’s dark and slightly unruly hair is a family trait passed down from father to son to daughter through at least three generations of Krandel men and women. That was tangible, something I could manage. But I refused to deal with childhood anguish that was easy enough to prevent.
And so I chose getting the hair ripped out of my face over the teasing of 10-year-olds. Once a month, my mom gave me a bag of s’mores-flavored Ritz Bits cracker sandwiches and took me to a small apartment with a red English phone booth in the corner so a woman named Sharon could tame the beast of my Krandel hair. I liked Sharon. She was kind to me and made me feel welcome as she applied hot wax to my skin and ripped my hair from its follicles.
As years went by, she saw me grow up through the tasks I gave her. When my legs began to separate themselves from my friends’ on the playground, she began working on those. When a girl in my fifth grade class sniggered at my hint of a unibrow, Sharon took care of it. In all the ways that my hair refused to conform to western standards of hairless beauty, she was there for me. She was my knight in shining armor, helping my classmates look over me in all the right ways and rewarding my monthly hour of discomfort with baby-smooth skin. She became my counselor. By middle school, I found myself looking forward to my sessions. I’d go to her newly opened practice and tell her all about my life as she tweezed stray hairs on my calf.
It was all too easy for this practice to become normal for me.
As I write this column, it occurs to me how ridiculous this all is. For more than half my life, I’ve spent kind of insane amounts of money to have my hair painfully and forcibly removed, and all because of this faceless perception that I was just supposed to. I’d spent my entire life around magazine ads of pristine models and chatting to my mom as she shaved her legs, never questioning that this was just how beauty looked. As a rather awkward kid growing up, I was terrified of my peers calling attention to me for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t wax to look better than my friends; I waxed to look normal. I refused to stick out like the black hairs on my lip. I waxed because I liked how I looked better, even though that was undoubtedly because I’d been coached from a very young age to feel that way. I waxed — and still do — because how I felt became inextricable from how I looked, because showing the world my “best self” meant making some changes.
That night after that first appointment, I found myself sitting cross-legged in front of the full-length mirror in my parents’ master bedroom as my fingers grazed over the now smooth skin of my lip. I turned around only at the sound of footsteps as my mom came into the room.
“What’re you doing?”
I shrugged. “Just looking.”
“Are you glad you did it?”
I thought back to the backhanded comments from class, to my fear of becoming the bearded lady of Blossom Hill Elementary School, and I nodded.
Mom smiled down at me. “Good, then I am too.” She joined me on the floor in front of the mirror. “I’m so proud of you, sweetie. You were so brave today.”
“It just hurt, that’s all.”
Her arms wrapped around me as she pulled me into her lap. “I know, sweetie. It sucks. But you wouldn’t believe some of the things women put themselves through for beauty.”