In second grade, I joined a co-ed Islamic school. I was happy to be around girls and boys who looked more like me. I was no longer the only Big Bird with awkward lanky bones. I could hide my untamed hair under a white cotton hijab. My chai colored skin was mid range on the spectrum of skin tones and my hairy arms and legs were covered thanks to our strict uniform.
There were instances, however, that made me feel extremely insecure about my body even amongst my “own people”. There is a scale in terms of hairiness in my Muslim community. You have those who are fair with hair – but it’s blonde, so nobody cares. Then you have those who have darker skin and dark hair so it isn’t as noticeable. You then have the hardest category – the girls with a medium skin tone and dark thick hair. The extent to which the hair shows can differ person to person.
When I was 10, I got picked on for being on one extreme of this scale. The hair on my arms – or rather – fingers – became the subject of scrutiny for my less hairy friends. I stopped wearing rings and bracelets. I stretched my long sleeves to cover the back of my hand. I was tired of being embarrassed. One day, I came home to find my older sister waxing her arms in the kitchen. “Can I try?”. I scraped the hot wax onto my skin with a butter knife. I pressed down a rectangular cloth strip with one swipe and pulled in the opposite direction with the other. It hurt. The hairless rectangle on my arm felt smooth and shined under the light. That was the first day I ever felt pretty. The black thorns jutting out of my honey colored skin needed to be removed in a regular fashion from then on. Eventually, the removal of body hair became as normal as showering.
In 7th grade, my boobs were non-existent, I was taller than almost all the boys in my class and my glasses and braces only emphasized my growing unibrow and moustache. By 8th grade, my moustache was comparable to my male counterparts in class. It was then that I started experimenting with bleach to address my “excess” facial hair. Just a dab in between my eyes, right where my eyebrows met and a line across the top of my upper lip. It stung. My eyes filled with tears as I stared at the clock waiting for 10 minutes to pass. When it was finally time to wash it off, I looked back in the mirror. Like an invisible marker, the bleach erased the unwanted characters off my face. “Oh wow, I can see your face now” my sister joked. As if making invisible the hair on my face somehow showed my real identity. I internalized this manufactured identity and ran with it.
Fast-forward to 11th grade. It was Friday night and we had a girls party to attend for my sister’s wedding. This was one of the few times my hair and all the flaws associated with my bare head were in plain sight. I brought out the curler, hair straightener and tried to do whatever I could in the 10 minutes I had to make my hair not look like a bird’s nest. The curler grazed the back of my ear. It burned. Only completing half, I pulled the rest back with a clip, covered my bald spot with my bangs and threw a dupatta back on my head. As I got to the party, my friend exclaimed “You look nice!”…I sighed and gave an excuse “I didn’t have any time to get ready, my hair is such a mess”. I found it hard to accept the compliment because I didn’t believe it myself.
Upon graduating from college, I was once again bombarded with parties. This time, for my own wedding. I was dolled up with make-up every week. The bright lipstick emphasized my yellowing teeth. The natural color of my teeth was pointed out to me by friends as a defect. I made an appointment with the dentist to undergo teeth whitening. I sat in a reclined chair, unable to move an inch for 2 hours. After the appointment, I drank a glass of cold water to help cope with the heat of the summer. It throbbed. The once soothing drops of cold liquid now icicles jabbing at the surface of my teeth. “All worth it” I told myself later, as I looked satisfied at the wedding pictures on facebook with hundreds of likes.
Years later, I am writing this post at my desk as a self-identifying feminist with chipped bright red nail polish at the tips of my unwaxed fingers. I will be giving a presentation to a room full of women tomorrow with my expressive, unwaxed eyebrows and bright pink lips shaping my discolored toothy smile. I’ll be sure to take a selfie. I still wax, do my hair and wear make-up – when I feel like it – for me. I have learned to tune out the societal murmurings that blemished the love I have for my body. The wounds of my damaged body are still healing and may never fully recover, but I try to be the best caretaker I can be. I now value the days where I feel healthy over beautiful. I have identified my own sense of style independent of the latest trends. I compliment the little girls I know on their skills instead of just their pretty dresses and accept instead of fight compliments from my own friends. The only type of woman I have to be, now, is the woman I already am.
Written by an American-Pakistani Muslim living in Singapore.