As an adult woman and a feminist, I often feel I should spend less time and money on rituals and products related to “beauty”: make up, hair styling, and hair removal. I realize that I am doing these things not just for myself and my own comfort, but to appease a culture where traditionally feminine standards of beauty reign, and where a woman’s attractiveness is a sort of currency, and where women are expected to be “presentable” or to look a certain way, lest they be judged or ignored. That said, most of us participate in these rituals anyway, modifications to our appearance that, particularly when it comes to hair removal, are somewhat secretive. We participate in these rituals, but we don’t want anyone to know, however obvious it is that very few of us have naturally hairless bodies.
In a way, for me and many of my dark-haired female peers, Jolen Crème Bleach epitomizes the secretive nature of body hair removal (or in this case, lightening). Jolen, a product first introduced in 1964 that has remained relatively unchanged in the years hence, is a powder-cream combination of hair-bleaching agent, typically used for facial hair, but applicable to any body part. Jolen does not have commercials or print advertisements. And while Nair and Sally Hansen and others have come up with similar products, it doesn’t really have an equal. It sits, in its plain-Jane green box, usually on a bottom shelf in a drugstore with other dated products—salves, bag balm, VO5 hot oil treatment—waiting to be slipped into a basket illicitly, hoping to go unnoticed by the cashier.
While women have become more and more comfortable sporting hairy legs and armpits, there’s something about facial hair that tends to give us pause. Julia Roberts made headlines for flaunting her armpit hair at the 1999 Notting Hill premiere—but would the media have been as accepting if it was a mustache she was accentuating? When my mother first showed me how to bleach my upper lip with Jolen, in high school, it was the first time I knew such a thing ever occurred, and I certainly felt I must keep it to myself. None of my friends, that I knew of, needed to perform such a strange and embarrassing ritual. And Julia Roberts never let on that she did it, either.
Bleaching my facial hair was the last step in my process of learning about hair removal—one of the many learning curves for a young woman in the name of “beauty.” As a person of nearly 100% Irish ethnicity, I have always had very pale skin and very dark, thick hair (my brother got the red-headed gene, which brings its own obstacles). As a girl growing up in the small-town Midwest, this look was not particularly “in”; in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, fake tanning was the rage, and Jennifer Aniston’s trademark blond highlights and stick-straight strands were the agreed-upon beauty standard of my high school. And, always, our bodies were expected to be hairless.