My Gender, My Body Hair, & Me
I want to be hairy to confirm who I am as a person, and who I am as a person compulsively removes my body hair.
The first time I pulled out an eyebrow hair with my fingers, I felt a surge of dopamine so strong, I cried. I was in my early twenties, in my then-girlfriend’s bed, trying to fall asleep after a night of being dragged to smoky warehouse parties. As a capital-I introvert with an anxiety disorder to boot, I hate most parties, but I would have done literally anything to keep my girlfriend from breaking up with me. Spoiler alert: She broke up with me. Before that happened, though, over the course of our tumultuous six months together, my eyebrows thinned and shortened. By the time it was over, I basically had cartoon villain eyebrows — short and always pointed down, like I was constantly furious. Three months later when I finally got a diagnosis of trichotillomania, my eyebrows were gone.
Trichotillomania is an impulse control disorder that causes people like me — and up to two percent of the population — to compulsively pull out our hair. For me, it’s my body hair. It started with my eyebrows, then slowly moved to every other part of my body, except my head. Unfortunately for me, my trich onset happened at the same time as I began to come into my own gender expression, which manifested as a desire to grow out my body hair.
For many queer people, body hair is a key part of gender expression. “I love seeing my strong calves, covered in my Italian heritage hairs with bright tattoos and a decent tan.” says Shelly, a 27-year-old photographer in Brooklyn, NY.
Many other queer people that I interviewed struggled with the fraught cultural implications of shaving and the desire to remove body hair. Abby, 24, a Latinx bisexual law school student, explains, “Historically body hair has been incredibly racialised, with a lack of body hair associated with whiteness, cleanliness, and civilisation. For me, it's been challenging recognising that I feel better about my body when I shave, while understanding that this feeling is inherently rooted in white supremacy.” When Abby removes her body hair, it’s for herself. “I want and deserve to make decisions about my body and feel comfortable in my own skin. That often means removing body hair.”
And for some, a mix of shaving and growing out is a way to express gender when words won’t do the trick. Lily, 23, shaves her legs, but grows her armpit hair, “I identify as a woman, but I do feel some genderqueerness. I don’t identify as non-binary or trans, but my body hair (as well as my short head hair) makes my gender expression feel right. It’s the little things.”
Two years ago, my body covered in three-day-old stubble, I threw away the razor I bought as a rite of passage when I was 12. This act gave me that same surge of dopamine that trich had given me years before. It felt meaningful to let my leg hair grow, to ignore my bikini line, to see if my armpits could grow more than seven strands apiece.
I remember the first time I wore a bathing suit with unshaven legs. I had been growing them out for a few months, and the thin, dark hair crawling up to my thighs made me feel deeply connected to my womanhood. The intersection of gender and queerness has twisted my brain for years — words like femme and butch don’t feel good to me, and though I’ve always longed for androgyny, I felt like a liar until I stopped shaving. I watched the hair grow on my legs, in my armpits and across my pubic bone — and I felt powerful and sexy and deeply androgynous. But, as my eyebrows lost their final hairs, my fingers had nowhere left to turn except the coarse thick curls scattered along my body. Despite my best efforts, I began to pull.
For many queer and trans people, hair removal is an essential part of their gender expression. Avery, 35, a trans woman in Philadelphia, PA, started shaving her legs and arms over a year before she started hormone therapy. “My facial hair is my biggest issue,” she says. “Right now, I have to shave every few days, but it used to be every day. Last year, I had laser hair removal, which thinned the hair, and now I’ve started electrolysis, which will permanently remove it.” When she started to transition, the first thing she did was grow out the hair on her head, “My body hair and I have always had a complicated relationship. And I was never allowed to grow my head hair out while I lived under my parents’ roof. Boys aren’t supposed to have long hair [in strictly Christian households].”
Once Avery started hormone therapy she was thrilled to see hair leaving parts of her body that felt too masculine. “The hair on my chest, my upper thighs, and my nipples just stopped growing. My skin is softer, and the body hair I have grows so much slower,” she says. She explains that her lack of body hair has been a big part of her passing; she lights up when she tells me that people see her and assume she’s a woman, even after hearing her low voice. It’s not just the outside world. “I look in the mirror now and I see a girl. I look in the mirror and I see myself.”
Though it’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to remove my body hair with intention, Natalie Venus De Hull (who uses they/them pronouns) could be the person who changes my mind. Natalie, 44, runs Sugaring Brooklyn, an all-gender body-positive safe(r) spa for hair removal services. They practice sugaring, an ancient process that uses a wax-like mixture of sugar, lemon, and water to remove hair from anywhere on the body.
“We focus on body hair curation,” they explain. “We have a good mix of clients. Some come in and want complicated designs in their body hair because that’s what makes them feel good, and some want me to take it all off — the baby porpoise pussy is a very valid look as well. We don’t pressure anybody into any decisions. We talk to them about what they want, prep their skin, and walk them through every step before we begin any kind of removal.”
I’m intrigued by the idea of purposeful body hair design, but I feel like my scarred-up trich body doesn’t deserve sugaring. So I almost scare myself when I blurt out, “Can I come to you even if I have trichotillomania?” Natalie laughs and says, “No way, me too!” We share a moment of quiet joy over our mutual vulnerability; then they assure me, “Of course, you can come in. We’ve been working on growing our skincare processes to fit people who feel shame about picking or tweezing. We want to create a space where you don’t feel judged, but rather one where we can help you with your skin goals. I even teach people how to pick in a way that’s better for their skin. If you’re going to pick, you might as well know how to do it right.” I basically cry my way through the rest of the interview.
Natalie’s goal is to create a positive, empowering, and accepting environment. “So many people come to us with dysphoria and body trauma, I think it’s really important to give them a ritualistic glorification of their bodies,” they explain. After we say goodbye, I sit for a minute and take in what I’ve learned. The way Natalie speaks about their work makes me feel safe; safe to not only wear my body hair how I choose, but to be in my body — even with all its hairless scars.
Today, I have less hair on my body than I did that day I threw my razor away. My legs are still hairy, but they’re patchy. My armpits are picked clean and my bikini line looks like it’s been waxed. I haven’t had eyebrows since 2017 (though I’ve got some great fake ones, thanks to microblading artist Saki Lee). And though I’m engaged to a woman and my style screams androgyny, I feel less like myself than ever before.
It’s a cognitive dissonance you don’t think about until you’re living inside of it. I want to be hairy to confirm who I am as a person, but who I am as a person compulsively removes my body hair. This cognitive dissonance does a lot to me, but mostly it leaves me feeling deeply embarrassed. I cannot control what I want to be, and it’s my own brain’s fault. I don’t know if I have a solution — or if there is one. If anything, I think I’m seeking permission for gender expression and body hair to be two separate entities, but I’m not sure how to break down a gendered dichotomy so ingrained in my brain. For now, I simply have to exist in the in-between.
This morning, I pulled on a pair of Wildfang boxer briefs that perfectly conceal my ingrown scars. I paired it with a Calvin Klein bralette with a thick band that tenderly frames my torso tattoos. I threw on a comfy pair of high-waisted shorts and a crew-neck crop top in preparation for work-from-home day who’s-even-counting-anymore. I spent the first few hours of the morning sitting on my couch, my hairy legs dappled in sunlight, my fingers too busy to pull.
For a few moments, I feel at peace. For a few moments, I can forget.
All interviews have been edited for length and clarity.