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My Catch 22: To Wax or Not to Wax?

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A girl with brown hair, brown eyes, dark tank top and pink lipstick, thoughtful.
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I am a hypocrite. I call myself a feminist by saying that women should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies. I say that women should not have to conform to the beauty standards of society.

They should be free to wear what they want to, when they want to, and how they want to. Yet, the sight of body hair on a woman makes me gag. For nine years, I have been bleaching my mustache, plucking my eyebrows, shaving my underarms, and waxing my legs and arms. 

If there is so much as a patch of hair on my body, I will wear full pants even in the hot, humid summers of New Jersey. If I get waxed, I feel obligated to wear skirts, dresses, short sleeves, and shorts to show off my smooth skin.

On the day that my armpits are shaved, I will raise my hand tall and high. On the day that tiny hairs begin to crow from my underarms, I will make sure to either wear full sleeves or not raise my hand at all. Each time, I tear up as the hot wax touches my skin or the bleach burns my face, it’s an example of my Catch-22. 

If I wax, I feel guilty about succumbing to the internalized misogyny that created these beauty standards. If I don’t wax, I feel unclean and self-conscious of my body hair. Either way I am in a state of discomfort.

But why do I take it? Why have I been trying to be completely hairless for the past nine years? Why do I bear the horrific pain of getting my hair ripped out from my hair follicle? Why do I bear the burden of my Catch-22? To be quite honest, I don’t know. Perhaps, it is because I am a South Asian woman. South Asian women are a group of people who are naturally hairy, but have conditioned generations of South Asian women to get rid of all the hair on their body.

During my trips to India, I am shocked by the sheer number of hair removal products. There are ten different kinds of bleach, five different types of wax, and three different types of laser hair removal treatments. Each product claims to remove hair in the most efficient way possible. Waxing and threading services are a staple in a beauty parlor and are as prevalent as gas stations in Route 1. 

Growing up, I was surrounded by South Asian women who were obsessed with body hair removal. I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, a town that is known as “brown town.” Even comedian, Hassan Minhaj said that “they [Cal Tech] basically dump Fremont, California and Edison, New Jersey into one school and said go hang out with your cousins.”

My friends and I would exchange numbers of the best waxers in town or lend each other epilators on the days where the salons were closed. We cried over being teased for our “fuzzy” bodies and wispy mustaches.

Even in the United States, the best waxing and threading parlors are run by South Asian women. However, the main reason I feel this way might be because for a large amount of my life I have been okay with the idea of conforming to standards placed on me.

My conformity exists not only with the beauty standards enforced on me, but also with my relationship with my parents.

In my first-year college writing seminar, my professor gave us an example of one of his students, who wrote a heartwarming essay about how parents shaped him into the person he is today. While reading his essay, my professor came across the word “infulcated.”

My professor said he asked this student why he chose this word. Did he mean inculcated, which, according to Merriam Webster, means to instill an attitude, idea, or habit by persistent instruction?

Or was there an underlying meaning to the “fu”? Then the student had an epiphany. He realized that the “fu” did have an underlying meaning. The “fu” was, in fact, a message to his parents. “F**k them for shoving their values down my throat, and not giving me the opportunity to think for myself.”

My professor then mentioned that while this student loved his childhood, he realized that his parents’ values took over his entire identity and way of thinking.  This led the student to make a complete 180-degree shift in his personality and way of life. Suddenly, all that his parents ever said or would say to him seemed like a “load of bullsh*t,” making him want to do everything in his power to defy their authority over him. 

When I heard this story, I honestly thought this student was dead wrong. While I do agree that we should think for ourselves, I also believe that our parents are the backbone of our existence and shape us to be the people we are today. Perhaps, it is because I am not only an overtly filial person, but because of my South Asian culture that respects our elders.

We touch the feet of our elders when we greet them. We receive their blessings before important events such as taking an exam or going off to college. We even live in joint households, where our parents reside as the matriarch and patriarch. There are definitely certain ideas and issues I have that do not match up with my parents.

My opinions on gender roles and sexuality do not always line up with my parents. However, I value their general advice and their life experiences. If push comes to shove, I am willing to swallow my pride and accept certain situations regardless of whether they are physically present in my life or not.

Once again, I am okay with conforming with societal standards and expectations. In this case, the expectation is filial piety. 

Coming to Bryn Mawr, there were more societal standards placed upon me. Bryn Mawr College probably one of the most liberal colleges in the country. A family friend of mine from Swarthmore College described it as a place “where all the girls are liberal hippies.”

Being a women’s college, many women feel like it is a safe space to showcase the autonomy they have over their bodies. As a result, I’ve seen many women on campus flaunting their underarms with full bushels of armpit hair, their legs with long prickly, unshaven hair, and their upper lips with dark wispy mustaches. To them, their body hair gives them a sense of autonomy, and a way to own their femininity. 

Body hair is not the only instance of how Bryn Mawr students showcase their autonomy. During a club meeting, one of my fellow first years and I were having a conversation about college life and our overall experience in Bryn Mawr.

Out of the blue, she mentioned that she got a tattoo on her leg. She lifted her pant leg to show the outline of a pretty pink flower on her leg. “My mom completely freaked out when she saw this, but what’s she gonna do? I’m eighteen years old and living in college by myself.”

At first, I thought to myself: Wow I am such a hypocrite.  These women are trying to break the hold society has over them. They are trying to break the mold of conformity, something I have always wanted to do. But then why do I feel uncomfortable? Why does it feel like wrong? Am I a conformist?

Then I realized something. Everyone, including my professor’s student, the girl from my club, Bryn Mawr students, and me, is conforming. Everyone is trapped by conformity regardless of race, cultural background, age, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or socioeconomic background.

Almost everyone at Bryn Mawr or just college, in general, is trying to become the opposite of what they were in high school. They try and challenge the social norms that were placed them growing up in by getting a tattoo, a navel piercing, not shaving, or drinking their weight in vodka, but people seem just as trapped in the social norms of culture as I am.

They say that they are free of society’s rigid chains. But are they really? Freedom is the ability to choose who you want to be. But are the people around me genuinely free if they are all conforming to the idea of not conforming? 

As I was going over my first draft of this paper with my professor, he mentioned that a rebel is, to some extent, defined by what they rebel against. My professor’s student, who felt as if he was completely defined by his parents’ values by rebelling against them in the hope of finding his own identity, in fact, did the opposite. His identity was still defined by his parents. Perhaps, in a different way but still defined by them. 

I always felt I was the one conforming to society, and everyone else was being their own individual self. But in reality Bryn Mawr’s beauty standard of “au natural” and my South Asian culture’s need to have smooth skin or the rebelling against my parents both force people to conform to some kind of societal standard even if they claim to be liberating themselves from the constraints of the majority’s rules.

While it may seem like we are trying to rebel from societal norms such as our parent’s influence or the stigma of body hair, we are, in fact, letting it trap us even further. Because we are letting the very thing that we are trying so hard not to let control us and our life. 

But how do we escape this trap of conformity? This trap of being defined by the very thing we are trying to run away from?

To be quite honest, I do not know. At this moment in my life, conformity also feels like a Catch-22. If we follow societal standards, expectations, and norms, we succumb to conformity. But if we decide to go against those societal norms by rebelling, we are also conforming to the concept of rebellion and being defined by the very thing we are trying to rebel against.

Just like Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 unsuccessfully tries to escape from war, we too end up stuck in the same situation we fought so hard to escape. So does freedom exist? Can we ever have the freedom to do what we want and go against the societal expectations and social norms placed upon us? Ask me in four years. Maybe I’ll have an answer by then. 

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