“Wow, you’re so hairy,” the boy standing to my daughter’s left said. He gazed in awe at her rounded seven-year-old arm, brown from the summer sun, and the silky, dark hair encircling it. It was the first day of second grade and the first time someone remarked about my daughter’s body hair. But I had been waiting for this to happen for a long time. My daughter, like many girls from the Middle East and South Asia—she’s a mix of Iranian and Indian—is hairy (by western standards). In a school full of fair-skinned, light-haired Caucasian kids, she—at that age—looked hairier than she actually was, and certainly hairier than the boy in question.
I had done what I could to prepare her for the potential onslaught, the barrage of unkind comments about body hair. I’d faced these myself growing up in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1970s and 1980s, and I knew that even in today’s world where “body positivity” is a thing—where celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes Leone, have proudly displayed their untended underarms—body hair still elicits mockery.
I waited for my daughter’s reaction, for her to burst into tears (or sock the fellow, for she was/still is a tough girl). Her answer took me by surprise: “Yes, I’m hairy because I’m Iranian and Indian,” she said.
“Oh,” the boy said, clearly not understanding what that meant. He looked at her arm again. “Oh.” Clutching his new backpack, he turned away from my daughter and to the little boy on his left.
At that moment, I knew this was just the beginning of a long and trying hair journey—a journey that we would take together, one during which we’d share anger and frustration as we commiserated over the misery of body hair. On this journey, I would recall my own hairy youth and the pain of waxing (a practice virtually unheard of at the time in Switzerland, and therefore costly).
I would remember envying friends with smooth, hairless limbs who could strip down to their swimsuits at any given moment and recall how I would have to come up with excuses to cover up the fact that I had to time my pool visits around waxing visits. I would remember the rough, sweaty feel of the pants I often wore in the summer heat to cover up my legs.
I would remember my mother gently telling me that body hair didn’t matter, though I was convinced at the time that it did. And although I would tell my daughter exactly what my mother had told me—not just because that’s what mothers do, but because it is true that hair is only hair and nothing to do with who she is—I would also seethe internally.
For centuries, women have used all manner of depilatory potions, creams, waxes, plucking and tweezing accoutrements. India and Iran, where our families are from, are no exception to this. The difference in those countries, though, is that body hair on girls and women is normal, and though it may be considered as unsightly as in the west, it’s accepted that girls will have hair and that hair will be visible until the appropriate age, at which point it will be dealt with.
Sadly, in the U.S. and other western nations, girls from those ethnic backgrounds have tended to stand out. That’s true even today, in the era of body positivity, because body hair is just not a part of the discussion, says Meghan Gillen, professor of psychology at Penn State University’s Abington campus whose research focuses on body image.
“It is such a big part of body image and to encourage body positivity, we really need to be having discussions about body hair, about racial differences with respect to body hair,” Gillen says, “so that we can educate people on variability between ethnic groups and start to remove the stigma so many girls face with respect to body hair.”
While waiting for that conversation to happen, though, the onus of helping girls contend with body hair falls to their parents. And to that end, here are some tips the experts can offer up:
Frame the conversation positively
You may feel often they’re falling on deaf ears, but the message that “you are more than your body hair, that some people have more body hair than others and there is nothing wrong with that” is an important one, says Gillen, and should be repeated often—particularly at younger ages.
Make sure to also frame all hair and hair removal conversation through a health lens. “It’s important to emphasise health, to say things like, ‘If you remove your body hair, would you feel healthier? Would you feel stronger? Because that’s more important than doing it to please other people,’” Gillen says.
Wait until age 12, then follow her lead
“My girls never complained to me about their body hair,” says Leila Akherati, a beautician in State College, Pa., and mother to two daughters aged 21 and 17. “However, there are other girls who are very sensitive about their hair, and who want to remove it.”
Akherati believes that “the right removal time depends on the person and how sensitive they are about being hairy,” and that it’s important to listen and respect an individual’s wishes. However, she says that most young girls who come into her salon to wax their legs, underarms and/or arms are at least 12 years old.
Some beauticians warn that removing hair on girls younger than this age can be harmful to their skin, but 12 is a “developmentally appropriate age,” Gillen says, an age at which most girls are able to make informed decisions about their bodies.
Weigh shaving versus waxing
The American Academy of Dermatology notes that hair grows back slower with waxing—but it can also be painful, and freshly waxed skin can remain red and irritated for a while. The Academy also urges caution with hot wax typically used by estheticians, as it can burn skin.
Shaving is much more common than waxing. Shaving cuts hairs at the skin’s surface, the Academy says, and it’s a quick-to-learn-and-execute process—although it requires care, because razors are sharp and can cause cuts and nicks fast.
Beauticians like Akherati and Jonice Padilha, owner of the J Sisters Salon in New York City, say parents can encourage their daughters to try waxing as an alternative. In her salon, Padilha uses a very light wax that is specially made for young girls. Just be sure the follow the rules, she says: “For waxing to be effective, you have to wait five weeks before going back to the salon. Tell your daughter it’s ok if the hair shows between salon visits.”
Find the right beautician
Waxing can be a difficult experience for an adolescent. That’s why Padilha stresses the importance of finding the “right” beautician, one who can relate in an age-appropriate manner, who is gentle and who listens.
“You want someone who will be patient, who’s not in a rush,” she says. “If you’re not getting that kind of feedback, then you need to change, because you want someone you can trust.”
As it were, we apparently did things right. I followed my daughter’s cue: At age 12, she asked to have her underarms waxed and we went to a salon, where she also found someone she liked to do her eyebrows. She never wanted to wax her legs, and we researched razors when she was 14. Now at age 16, she’s a happy, healthy girl and a varsity tennis player who is much more focused on her game than her hair.