“I don’t care—just make it even,” I said to my mom. She turned the clippers on. As the first tufts fell onto the towel draped over my shoulders, I did my best to keep my eyes trained ahead. About an hour later, it was over. My mom used my phone to take pictures of the back of my head. As I looked at the photos, I couldn’t help but find the vision of dark, buzzed hair against the nape of my neck grotesque.
In the months preceding the clipper cut, my hair had undergone a good deal of non-salon-grade transformations. During the first, I’d tied it into a ponytail down my chest and had my girlfriend lop off over a foot just above the hair tie. My hair, which had long hung well past my waist, now came up just below my shoulders. The chop left me with wildly irregular strands, several of which hung many inches below the rest of my hair like rogue tentacles.
One day, about a month after my mom had evened it out for me, I glimpsed my hair in my mirrored closet and thought, Maybe it could use a little touching up. I grabbed a garbage can and parked in front of the closet. As I snipped away, I reminded myself not to go overboard. When I set the scissors down, I was proud: My hair, already short, now had an even more compact quality to it.
Taking matters into my own hands was refreshing. The few flaxen-haired hairdressers I’d visited during my teenage years had prophesied, with caution, that due to its texture, my hair’s tendency was to appear “bulky” when cut too short. Sitting in front of the mirror a decade later, I completely disregarded their warnings. It’s perfect, I told myself once I’d cut it just above my jaw. I also told myself this cut would be the last one, at least for a while.
By the time I’d reached pubescence, I’d familiarized myself with a vast array of at-home hair-removal techniques. Shaving, waxing, creams, tweezing: If it was accessible to me, I was interested in trying it. Throughout my adolescence and teenage years, my go-to hair-removal tool was my father’s Schick Quattro razor. Though I considered this a shameful secret until I met my girlfriend, I also found some vindication when I saw an ad that featured women desperate for the ever-elusive “close shave” clandestinely borrowing their boyfriends’ razors.
During the nascent stages of my painstaking journey to hairlessness, I wondered if I wasn’t some sort of aberration. Though it was clear by my Assyrian father’s furry knuckles and once wool-like mane that my hair was of paternal inheritance, curiously, my dad’s mother and sister were missing the facial and body hair that had plagued me since before I’d reached double digits.
At family dinners, I’d stare in absolute confoundment at my aunt’s perfectly smooth arms. They recalled, for me, the sights I had every day of my girl classmates whose bracelets, when sliding down their wrists as they raised their hands—uninhibited by pesky brown tufts along the way—looked all the more delicate against their seemingly poreless arms. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was not of them: either the women in my Iraqi-born family or the girls in my class.
When I started a new school at age twelve, I was determined to escape the old, hairy me. No longer was the New Me going to be taunted for having a “mustache” or be “mistaken” for a boy for having hair in places most other students didn’t at our age. I liked the way my long hair looked. However, my refusal to cut it was rooted in a surreptitious, though still aesthetic, motivation: By effectively covering my hard-to-reach back hair, it allowed me to wear tank-tops and swimsuits without shaving. Though I’d by then experimented with removing my upper lip, leg, and armpit hair, my arm hair continued to cause me great distress, always giving away that I wasn’t truly as girlishly smooth as I should have been.
Stare as I might, I couldn’t detect a single hair follicle on the forearms of my woman relatives. What in the hell was their secret? Fed up with the time-consuming and painful processes that were Nair and at-home waxing kits, I quickly adopted shaving as an all-around hair-removal tactic. As my father’s razor cut through the tresses on my arms like a sickle through wheat, I told myself the new me would be like the other girls. No one would ever confuse me for anything other than girlish—and it’d all be because of how perfectly manicured I’d keep my face and body.
When my mother saw my arms, she was shocked. Both her parents were Greek, and she’d taken after her all-around-fair, hairless cat of a father. Nonetheless, she’d always been sympathetic to my desire to self-groom. Shaving my arms, however, was apparently a different story. “You can’t get rid of it by shaving,” she told me. When I asked her why, she told me my arms would eventually wind up looking like my dad’s face.
I immediately pictured my father’s perpetually gray-from-the-eye-sockets-down shadow. Though he was always clean shaven, the idea of permanently covering my forearms in a landscape of pepper frightened me. I resolved never to shave my arms again. However, the decision came with what felt like an insurmountable sense of dread: I’d have to reveal my true self to my new classmates.
Knowing of my trepidation, my mother arrived home one day with a quilted, white pouch with pink piping. “What is it?” I asked her when she handed it to me. “Auntie uses it to remove her hair,” my mother told me as I unzipped the pouch and pulled out a small electronic contraption. “Well, she used to. She doesn’t need to anymore.”
I examined the device. “How does it work?” My mother explained that it used dozens of interlocking tweezers to rapidly pull each hair from its follicle. “It sounds painful,” I told her. “But I want to try it.” When I did, it hurt so badly, I wasn’t able to get through more than a couple of inches of skin. I immediately became skeptical; had this devil machine really paved the way to my paternal woman relatives’ blissfully undisturbed hairlessness?
No matter how I tried, I couldn’t commit to using the thing with any regularity. Soon enough, my arm fuzz started growing in. “Do you shave your arms?” my seatmate asked me one day after observing my stubble. When I stammered an affirmative response, she continued, “Oh, do you swim?” I was blessedly grateful for the out, and at twelve years-old, I was shamelessly self-conscious and not, at least in the name of self-preservation, above lying—or what I saw as stretching the truth. “Yeah,” I said. I do love swimming, so it’s not really a lie, I told myself.
Soon enough, my arm hair had completely grown out. One afternoon, when I was still new and most of the students didn’t know my name, I raised my hand to participate in class. A boy sitting across the aisle looked at me, then at my arm. His face twisted into a frown. Our eyes met again, and he quickly turned away from me. Soon after, I took to faithfully wearing my school uniform’s fleece jacket in class, even on hot days. Though I couldn’t be sure what my classmate had been thinking during our wordless interchange, I believed doing so protected me from other encounters of the like—real or imagined.
When I was in my early twenties, a close friend and I each ended long-term relationships at around the same time. As a mark of her newfound singledom, she started getting Brazilian waxes, and it wasn’t long before she invited me along to get them with her. Despite being horribly ticklish—Sit like a butterfly, the tech would insist sternly as I attempted to clamp my knees together—I managed to endure three such waxes.
Soon enough, I started dating someone new, and though I’d by then long been publicly bearing my arm hair, I was excited about what felt to me an induction into Womanhood. This person was going to see me naked, and when they did, it would be sans the stubborn stubble that refused to become flush with the skin on my labia no matter how many directions I took the razor in.
The last time I saw my new person, he watched me get dressed in the light of the streetlamp that shone through the window above the bed. “You are gorgeous,” he said to me. I shrunk away. In an effort to lighten the mood, he grabbed my hand. “I’m serious! You should strut your stuff.” At that point, my body was as hairless as it had ever been.
We dated for three months. I didn’t make the shift right away, but in the year following our breakup, I decided to quit shaving. Over time, the hair on my underarms, legs, and stomach grew back out. Early on, I chalked up my abstinence from hair removal to my desire to be free: A little older and wiser, I no longer felt obligated, at least not entirely, to live up to a standard that had long been burdensome for me. Moreover, I was finally in a relationship wherein my body hair was celebrated. My girlfriend and I met on Tumblr, and I was immediately charmed when she liked a photo I’d reblogged of “feminine” stomach hair. I told myself my decision to grow all my hair out meant I was setting myself free.
But I didn’t feel free. As I entered my late twenties, I gradually started gaining weight. At first, I didn’t notice it. Then, my clothes began looking different on me. Soon enough, I was tearing seams and busting zippers, and eventually, a good deal of my pants and tops had ceased fitting altogether. Before long, my physical form felt to me like a loud presence I couldn’t escape. I was trapped inside of it, and it didn’t matter what those around me could or couldn’t see about the way it had changed.
When I looked in the mirror, I saw another new me, but it wasn’t one I had courted. I thought back to my erstwhile partner and his affection for my physicality. To ensure that my self-loathing for its new iteration was truly solidified, I told myself that all his affection had been based on a fluke—that I’d carelessly let slip away the parts of myself others had considered beautiful, and that I’d become a less interesting, and less worthwhile, person for it. For months after the relationship ended due to what I felt was a lack of consent in our sexual interactions, I struggled with the fact that I’d been in it to begin with. When I broke things off, he responded by warning me that no one could ever love me.
Over three years later, all I could think was that he wouldn’t have thought me worth his time, eventually, for how I’d ended up.
For most of my young life, maintaining my hair was my religion. Growing out the hair on my head while meticulously removing it from the rest of my body was ritualistic; something I did superstitiously. But it proved to be powerless against entropy. And when my life began changing in my late twenties, so did I—rituals and all. My mother entered an in-patient treatment facility for long-term heavy drinking my immediate family had been made privy to mere months before. At around the same time, my girlfriend began coming out to close loved ones as trans.
My father reacted with incredulity upon learning of my mother’s struggles with alcohol. In his mind, their life together—financial stability, a nice house, luxury cars—was ideal, and he couldn’t conceive of my mother interpreting it differently. When he realized that Alcoholics Anonymous and rehabilitation were not quick fixes—that my mother’s need to address the root causes of her drinking was part of an active, long-term process—he became sullen.
He regarded her decision to seek recovery as a biblical stroke of bad luck that had befallen him, that had ruined his life, and his response was no different when I told him my girlfriend was trans. “I really feel like I need to go somewhere, to get away” he said. “This is all too much.” I was unable and, more importantly, unwilling to soothe his dissatisfaction with how my mother and I had corrupted his construction of our family. After my girlfriend and I dropped my mother off at the facility, I didn’t speak to my father again for over a year.
When, in my mother’s absence, my dad’s parents and sister called, I put their messages through to voicemail. They had no idea what was going on with my mother, and, unable to get ahold of her, looked to me as her proxy. I was overwhelmed by the chaos taking place within my immediate family, and before long, I blocked their numbers. When my mother’s side of the family learned my girlfriend was trans, they were none too pleased. Despite how close I’d long been with my maternal grandmother, our separation wound up being as enduring as it was immediate.
Rather than the cozy nest I’d envisioned during our prior three years together, the home my girlfriend and I had only just begun building together became a strange island only she and I occupied. Messages from my once close-knit family felt like phantom whispers from the recent past: reminders I no longer belonged to my family, and they to me. As a result, I struggled to feel that these life changes were positive. Rather, they registered to me as hallmarks of tumult over which I had absolutely no control. Before long, I found myself stuck in an unyielding state of anxiety. For months after my girlfriend and I moved in together, I had trouble leaving our apartment without feeling ill from its effects.
At the time, my girlfriend, who was then out only to a few friends and family members, worked a demanding marketing job at an engineering company a couple of towns over. I stayed home, wrote, went grocery shopping, cooked, and cleaned far more than our one-bedroom required. In the early winter months, I’d look out at the dim sky. For all its blankness, it appeared ominous to me, its infinite whiteness straining against our bedroom window, threatening me to remain inside. Once surrounded by family and friends, I suddenly felt like no one could see me. On such mornings, I’d pull out the waste basket, set it in front of our closet, and, scissors in hand, endeavor to “fix” my hair.
I resolved to fix it numerous times, and each time I finished, I’d lean back and look at my reflection, certain I’d only made it worse. In those frantic aftermaths, I panicked: In an effort to achieve a small semblance of control—over my life, over the way people perceived me—hadn’t I only wound up molding myself into the physical manifestation of my own unwellness? I couldn’t help but feel I wasn’t really controlling anything—myself, and more importantly, my own perception of reality, included.
Throughout my life, I looked at my reflection with resentment for that which I wished wasn’t there; for my body’s refusal to adhere to basic feminine codification. I was possessed by the desire to subtract—to shape; to cleanse; to control. In some ways, I still am.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over my hair hang-ups. At this point, they seem to be part of my genetic code. Regardless, despite much back-and-forth with my facial and body hair, I haven’t cut my head hair in over a year. And right now, that’s a feat. At least, for me it is.
Christina Yoseph is an emerging writer and illustrator whose essays and poems have been featured in Entropy, Pithead Chapel, Plan A Magazine, Rogue Agent, The Rumpus, and more. Her artwork has appeared in Gay Mag and in forthcoming in The Bold Italic. She lives in California with her illustrator-musician girlfriend.