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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

December 23, 2015 by

Jewish, Female and Hairy in Japan

One of the hardest parts of my first labor was taping the IV needle to my arm—or rather, removing the tape when all was said and done and a healthy girl with all her delicate features intact was looking up at me. I was group B strep positive and had received penicillin just prior to the time my baby would cruise down the birth canal. I don’t mean to sound like a total jerk complaining about tape. I had a wonderful labor and delivery in a sanctuous birthing house in Tokyo, of which I am most thankful. Everything was marked with abundant peace, but blast that tape! You see, I am on the hairy side, a far cry from the Japanese women I encounter. I am the Ashkenazi Jew with memorable arms. My midwife ripped. Off came two bald spots and an embarrassed little clump of womanly-pride. (I know. Vaginal, drug-free delivery, with a baby coming out, the words “Ring of Fire,” and here I am whimpering about arm tape). 

I tend to be dramatic about this predicament, or so my husband says. He doesn’t hear my students, four- and five-year-olds, point and liken it to their dads’. He is generally not with me when I encounter outspoken school children on the train. Kids are exactly who I should listen to; they are brutally honest, but not necessarily mean. Theirs is usually the opinion one can trust. Of course, here, moms take a razor to even the most already-naked arms, shaving off brows to draw them in. Naturally, I would land here, and not some hairy area of wherever, with tropical/hippy/cavemen/French Polynesian/pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific ladies with their hairy underarms, or in some remote swampland, sans Vogue or Seventeen. I should be with untouched women like this, perhaps crouching with a tiger under a banana tree, in a Gauguin painting. I could stand with the prominent brows of Frieda. I am here, though, in the land of everything Feminine, everything smooth, without hair or furrow. I am late 1960s moonlighting on an early 1950s set. 

It isn’t just Japan—when I taught in the Latino community of Lake Worth, Florida, one of my students pulled my arm hair and said, slowly and disgustedly in a thick Spanish accent, “Que?? What is this? It’s like my Papa’s!” I am at home nowhere with these arms.

Before a wedding in which I was bridesmaid, the bride advised I shave my arms. I politely declined and tried to burnish more of a tan. That helps. Gosh, I could still burn with embarrassment, reliving this. I’m horrified, too, about shaving.  Mine would be the body that produces some terrible stubble, even though I have some friends, of varying descents, who love shaving their arms and just glide that razor, wrist to elbow or shoulder, everyday. Ugh. That sounds terrible, a jail time I’m just not comfortable serving. In this day and age, I still can’t believe certain friends still suggest shaving.

The obvious thing is to check into lasering, taking it off with a beam. I would have, should now, maybe, if we had discounts on that here, if I didn’t have a daughter who already has her own thick hair coming in; I would, if it weren’t so expensive. And yet, here I am, complaining and letting this be the one tripping feature that gets in the way of me feeling sexy, pretty, and feminine. Nothing should get in the way of me being bold. I’d wear dresses with peekaboo cutouts. I’d wear more lingerie, go strapless, and without shame. I’d stomp on the need to adhere to some normative beauty code, but hey, I’d already be fixed. 

I bleached in middle school, since middle school I think, with that Sally Hanson stuff. Who knows how many baby tubs of that white stuff I’ve mixed with the baby spatula. How many brain cells I’ve offed to lighten my load of arm hair. Now with two children and limited brain activity, I can’t seem to lock myself in the bathroom for glorified Clorox spackling. (Though I do like how the mixture becomes a layer of clouds as it nears time for rinsing).

I think smooth is beautiful, in any culture. Unless, maybe, if you are of the culture of burning bras and using coconut oil for deodorant on your very hairy pits. If this is you, then just consider speaking French as it lends itself to a certain, oh I don’t know, something very sexy-cool, “Who are you even, to climb up my tree” sort of vibe. And then you’d have to start smoking skinny cigarettes or be into Beat Poets and look like François Hardy. Otherwise, we should totally find some Groupon together and step into now. Right now. 

I guess I’ll own this thing called, “We don’t all look the same,” or “Hey, I’m ethnic,” and I even try to fling out the words, “Who said there is one kind of beautiful?” from my bleached-out brain. Truth is, I believe my beauty would be enhanced without teddy bear arms and tikes calling me out for letting arm hair exist. What do we do and how do we draw the line when there is a cost to removing that which we don’t want to call “mine”?

Like I said, my daughter will be the same as me. Probably. I never even wanted to wear my hair up in ballet bun, thinking how the other dancers would be staring at the darker hairline that seemed to trail from the nape of my neck. I’d forever bleached the small of my back in bikini season, and that was always, as I grew up in south Florida. I thought about how to stand on the beach, next to boys, as if I were a mini cardboard cutout on a stage, always turning so they couldn’t see behind. This thing has never been okay. 

Unlike many girls (I’ve heard it’s a Jewish thing) who get the nose job around sweet sixteen or high school graduation, I’ve always loved my nose. Back before there was such a thing as laser hair removal, that’s what I would have wanted. I’d have babysat for years. I’d have even tossed around the idea of eloping if it meant I’d be able to honeymoon sans any hair, save a glossy coif. I’d gamble away investments if I could end this now. 

Perhaps fitting is my husband’s hair specs. He is perhaps one of the smaller percentage of Japanese men who actually have body hair. As a preteen living in the US, he visited his Grandmother in the Japanese countryside of Shizuoka. She pulled his leg hair and actually asked, “What is this?? Kore nanda?” She had never before seen body hair—not on legs, anyway. 

Looking at myself, I ask that, too—what is this and what am I supposed to do? It is a choice  about identity. It is one of the lenses through which I view beauty and also the way some part of it runs, elusive, away from me. If only I felt I needed a nose job, maybe. 

How much am I willing to spend on changing myself, on showing my daughter a way of cutting off what we don’t feel belongs. Perhaps it would be yen well-spent. Perhaps it would lead her to feel less comfortable in her own skin later. If I say, “This is how G-d, our holy and perfect G-d created me,” and then I change it, what then? I guess there’s always bleach for something temporary. Or long sleeves or pretending it doesn’t matter. Or standing up straight and simply not letting it cloud my view of beauty, not letting it deride or define my femininity. 

Maybe it will be when my daughter turns 16. Or 18. Or after her first child. Maybe I’ll unzip the former body and step-out, sinuous and smooth. By that time, maybe, I’ll have launched towards that part of menopause, the good part, where chin hairs fall out and your whole body stops manufacturing so much freaking testosterone, you are finally okay, save for night sweats and everything going bonkers.

So never mind. Maybe let’s seize the day.