“You don’t get it,” Rachel told her mom, “Nora’s legs are like, really, hairy.”
Rachel and I were 12. We were best friends. Together we rode the traumatic waves of middle school, searching for something concrete to grasp onto so we could understand ourselves a little better. Nora’s hairy legs became our misguided emblem of purpose.
“Maybe Nora doesn’t want to shave yet,” Rachel’s mom reasoned. She stood by the kitchen sink, a little concerned, as Rachel and I did our homework nearby.
“But she really needs to,” said Rachel, as if the stakes involved somebody’s death rather than our disapproval. “Like, it looks gross when she wears tights. You can see her hair through them. Why isn’t she embarrassed?”
I chimed in: “Yeah, she should be embarrassed.”
For one whole month, I had been shaving my legs every other day. Nobody told me to shave; no girls coerced me into it, the way Rachel and I were scheming to bully Nora. No one person demanded I maintain a strict care-of-self routine, nor did anybody look at me in disgust when I sported my legs, lightly sprinkled with fuzz, at the 5th grade pool party. I just knew it was time. When I saw the hair on my legs, I stopped feeling attractive. I no longer looked like the girls I admired in movies, advertisements or even the cool high school students in my town.
And so one afternoon when my dad wasn’t home and my mother was on the phone downstairs, I sat in the bathtub, stole one of my mom’s razor blades and grazed it over my shins. I watched my tiny, blonde hairs fall into the tub and I washed them away. I did not cut myself once.
The following afternoon, my mother drove me to a piano lesson. I wore shorts and sat in the passenger seat. Nervous she would notice my legs, I slouched, pushing them towards the windshield.
My mother has always been blunt and to the point. She is a no bulls**t sort of woman and I love her to pieces because of it. I hated it as a teenager.
“Did you shave your legs?” she asked me, accusatory in tone.
“I don’t know,” I responded. Seriously, I said that. It is the worst possible answer to give when questioned about an action you have clearly, demonstratively taken.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” my mom said, glancing at the smooth legs I was so proud of. “It will just make the hair grow back faster. Now you have to do that for the rest of your life.”
That information felt heavy, like I had swallowed a stone that sat unmovable in my stomach. For the rest of my life. I have to do this for the rest of my life? I hadn’t thought about that before.
“I just wish you told me,” my mother finished. I had contributed nothing to the conversation, unwilling to either defend my actions or deny them. I got out of the car and I walked down the curved driveway to Mrs. Vesci’s house. I felt bad. What if I had made a mistake?
A month later, I sat in my friend’s kitchen with a shared goal: to make Nora shave her legs. At 12, Rachel and I knew very little about the ways in which our bodies were targeted and shaped by society to fulfill masculine beauty standards. We just knew that we wanted to be pretty and we didn’t understand why our friend Nora hadn’t made it her priority, too.
Rachel and I decided to approach her; we would ask Nora whether she’d thought about shaving. We wouldn’t push it. We’d just plant the idea in her mind like some weird criminal masterminds.
Nora was wearing shorts the next day. Ew, I thought, gawking at the thick hair that covered her legs. It disgusted me. I can imagine what I looked like – eyes-widened, jaw-dropped – because in 2010 I did not shave any part of my body. People stared at me like I was Fluffy, the 3-Headed dog from Harry Potter. I sort of loved it.
As I glared at her body disapprovingly, I thought about what my mother had said: “It will just make the hair grow back faster… you’ll have to do it for the rest of your life.” I thought about my own legs. I knew I regretted the choice I made: it was too soon, it was for the wrong reasons, I should have asked my mom first. Sitting with Rachel and her mother, I genuinely thought we were helping Nora. But now, looking at her wearing a pair of shorts without a care in the world, I knew we were not.
When the time came to approach her, I backed out. I told Rachel I wouldn’t do it. I honestly don’t remember what happened after that; I don’t remember if Rachel talked to Nora and I don’t remember when Nora finally started shaving her legs. I hope it was her own choice. Rachel and I drifted apart a few months later, and I eventually got a whole new group of friends who never talked other girls’ legs.
I’m ashamed that not only did I behave like a perfectly socialized child, monitoring myself to meet the beauty standards of the masculine gaze, but I also actively policed another girl’s body.
In Middle School I did everything right. I came home after school to have a snack and do my homework. I combed my hair and bought tight clothes from The Limited Too. I wore make-up. I did whatever necessary to be pretty – to be a girl. Nobody told me to behave that way; I just knew I was supposed to. Like most, I’ve spent the rest of my life unlearning.
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