Yansu Tan
19 October 2022

My arms, limp from discomfort and embarrassment, were raised upwards. Inch by inch, they were covered by a clear, cool gel. Then I was blindfolded, and the darkness gave weight to the beeping sound and tingling burn of the lasering machine as it made its way from the back of my fingers, across my arms, and into my armpits.

When my mother took me without warning to the hair removal center at the age of 14, I was secretly pleased, even grateful. There was a darker strip of hair around my lips, which some boys called a “mustache” and laughed about. None of the girls talked about body hair with each other yet, perhaps partly because a desire to improve one’s outer appearance would only be seen as pretentious and superficial, given that everyone’s “look” at school was standardized by uniforms. I was relieved that my mother had recognized this desire in me, saved me the awkwardness of “the talk,” and was generously willing to pay. I felt special. “You won’t have to ever shave anymore,” my mother (who had done this before) reassured me.

Timidly, I listened to my mother inquire about the price. Upper and lower lip hair removals charged separately. The armpit-and-arm package offered a discount on the wrist and the fingers. Skin was cut in pieces and every piece was given a separate price tag. I looked down at my wrists and fingers, surprised to even see hair there as I was suddenly made conscious of it.

The anatomy of the hair is fascinating. The root, a white bulb, sits in a tube-shaped structure called the follicle, which envelops the strand of hair. You will always have the same number of follicles as the day you were born. Hair follicles are also one of the few structures on the body that can degenerate and regenerate. This is why laser hair removal requires a routine. The follicle is just as stubborn as you are trying to kill it as it is growing back at you. Like a plant, rooted in soil and nourished by sun, hair sows its seed on us, and we feed it in the same way as we feed the rest of our body. It seems almost too life-like, almost with a consciousness of its own, almost as if, lying perfectly still, I’d be able to feel its slow but steady growth, pushing, sprouting all over my body - my body slowly sinking, becoming one with the Earth. My skin is 22 square feet of soil, sheltering every hair and absorbing the impact of every blow, every burn, every fire set ablaze upon it.

So now my armpits, which used to be two flourishing bushes, became skimpy wisps of smoke. I stared at them, raising my arms high above my head. I thought about how my mother once explained to me that my hairiness was due to my excess of male hormones. At that moment, as I gazed into the mirror, I wanted the masculinity I was born with back. I thought, “give it to me!” because – though I felt guilty at being trapped in the dichotomy–the idea somehow gave me strength, strength to reclaim what was mine, what was only natural. I cling on to it still.

When I was on a call with my mother the other day, I intentionally wore a tank top and stretched my arms. Carefully, she reminded me of my unshaven armpits, to which I explained the beauty I see in them. She took me by surprise as she started laughing, telling me that my words were only “气话” (remarks made in a fit of rage) and that I was only there to “bicker”. She asked if I had been so stressed and busy that I neglected to shave and lost my temper. “It’s alright, one day you don’t want to shave; the next day you will,” she laughed. Those words cut deep, and I realized how the idea of a natural, normal state of being can mean such different things to my mother and me.

With every flash of light, the heat sizzled every little hair, and a microscopic pain slashed inwards from the end of every fiber into my every pore, where it lingered in an undefined space that was neither the surface of the skin nor deep in the guts, but between. And repeat. And repeat. And I think about every little pain that women have to endure. It’s only a little every time, but it repeats. It’s the menstrual cycle. It’s every order. It’s every muted voice. It’s every inch of hurt we endure and are told to let go. And repeat.