A thank you note to Jolen Crème Bleach

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.

Thankfully, I never joined in the tanning-bed frenzy, though I was tempted each time spring sprung and I first wore shorts to school, where non-friends and friends alike couldn’t help but note how in need I was of a tan. The paleness by itself, however, I could handle (to quote Emma Forrest, one of my favorite authors of then and now, “I aspire to the pale and interesting, bride-of-Dracula look”). But ever since fifth grade, my dark hair—on my legs and face, especially—had been in the back of my mind. In that terminally worried way of the pre-adolescent, it would whisper me awake in the middle of the night—you need to start shaving. Along with: you need to start wearing a bra and what happens when you get your period? I’ll never forget the first time it happened, as I unassumingly sat in the school library with my fifth-grade class: “You need to shaaave,” the girl next to me said, drawing out the long “a” for effect. “Oh, I know,” I replied quickly, shaking my head as if to say, who can find the time? I let the insult sting me for days, finally asking my mom to show me how to shave.

Years passed before my next foray into hair removal, my showers taking upwards of twenty minutes as it was due to the slow, methodical, and nick-ridden shaving routine I had yet to perfect.  Next came eyebrows. I had long been bothered by my thick, unruly brows, and even endured a middle-school plucking tutorial from my mother. But I was resistant to the idea, strangely, until I saw the movie Meet Joe Black, a very long, boring movie in which Brad Pitt plays Death and Anthony Hopkins pontificates endlessly. With little else to entertain me, I fixated on Claire Forlani’s eyebrows. They were perfection—just thin enough, with a perfect arch, helpful in the emoting required for playing the love interest of the Grim Reaper himself. I came home and, as one does, told my mom about the perfect eyebrows I had seen. She helpfully pointed out that I too could have perfect brows if I started plucking them. And so I did, over-plucking zealously and trying match my other eyebrow idol, Ann Curry, who I saw on the Today Show in the mornings before school.

There was still one more step in my hair-removal education, which brings us to the product at hand: the dark hair on my upper lip. This was the last hair topic for me to broach in part because I didn’t want to even acknowledge it was there. It was excruciatingly embarrassing when my mom would point it out, attempting to normalize it: my mustache. I didn’t know from Frida Kahlo at this point, and I assumed female mustaches were something that affected an unfortunate few, mainly old ladies and me. But I sat down with my mom, mixing a corrosive-smelling powder and crème with a dollhouse-sized spatula, painting it on my face and letting it work for ten or so minutes, trying to avoid glimpsing my clown-like visage in the mirror.

The first indication I had that I was not so isolated in my bleaching rituals came from a favorite film, Reality Bites. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it scene in which Winona Ryder, preparing for a date, is shown prepping in the bathroom, unmistakable stripe of Jolen painted across her upper lip. In a hurry, she nearly exits the bathroom before darting back to the mirror and hastily wiping her face with a towel. It was a vindicating moment for me: cool girls do this; it’s no big deal.

When I went off to college, I of course toted my little green box of Jolen with me, unsure of where and when I would get the chance to use it, visions dancing in my head of cute boys bursting into my room and interrupting me, then fleeing in disgust. But then a remarkable thing happened: a friend asked me if she could borrow some. And we laughed about it and Jolen-ed together, still carefully locking the door, but freely discussing the silliness of this thing we do to ourselves. And more and more, I realized that my dark-haired friends were often closet Jolen users, all of us worried that we were the only ones. And we freely lent and borrowed Jolen, easing our secrecy with each stroke of that tiny spatula. And this bonding eased my worries about my appearance in general, not just that stubborn body hair.

College was a different experience entirely than high school, as I attended a small, liberal institution where many of the classmates I most admired eschewed shaving and bleaching. I became less guarded about my beauty rituals and more open to dropping them altogether. But many of my friends and I still kept that little green box handy. And even after college, as I moved to various cities, I would purchase a Jolen in each, locating it in in various drugstore chains: Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Duane Reade. It was always there, in a hidden spot, that familiarly mysterious package with retro font. Sometimes I forget to use it for months and months. But I still, occasionally, bring it out, having not yet learned to fully embrace my hairy, natural self.

Perhaps engaging in these rituals, as unnecessary as they are, is the first step in recognizing and reflecting upon beauty standards imposed upon us, and questioning why we follow them. By engaging in this practice together in college, my friends and I (and, by proxy, Winona Ryder in Reality Bites), become increasingly aware of its absurdity, while at the same time feeling that we are not weird, or different, or somehow lesser because of where hair happens to grow on our bodies. We are human women, and we’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with having dark hair on one’s face, just as there’s nothing wrong with wanting to bleach it. Though we may still keep that little green box at hand for those days we nitpick ourselves in the mirror, we no longer feel a sense of pressure, or of shame.

[Feature image via Boots.com]

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