What We Say, What We Do: Narratives on Body Hair, Size and Skin Colour

My hair stylist who runs her own salon talks worriedly about some women who bring daughters as young as 11 years of age to have the hair on their arms and legs waxed. There is a misconception, she says, that if you start early, they will have less body hair as they get older, thus making their lives easier. However, my stylist was questioning the age rather than the practice itself; that body hair is something all women must manage is a taken-for-granted assumption.[1]

For feminist mothers, however, the dilemma of hair is not just about the regimes about beauty and the creation and valourisation of pre-pubescent looking bodies. The anxiety now is magnified both by the inability to extricate oneself from these demands as well as the concern that one is giving mixed messages to one’s daughter. Am I sending the message: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’, to my daughter? I worry that my daughter will watch me shave my legs and think that hair is undesirable, and so I lock the bathroom door, hiding the act of shaving almost as a guilty secret. As someone who has been conditioned into the ‘hair is unsightly’ school of thought, I’d like very much for my daughter to be free of it.

Using a double negative, Priya emphatically argued: ‘It’s not as if I don’t want my daughter to ever wax or shave, but I do want her to understand the sexist ideologies that such practices are part of. I want her to not hate her body’. When I point out the several negatives she uses, Priya laughs: ‘I should have said—I want her to love her body—is it telling that I didn’t? How hard is this world we live in for young women’. Tara shrugs self-deprecatingly: ‘I worry about my own politics sometimes, because I worry that my daughter has some hair on her shoulders. I hope she does not find this something she has to deal with as she grows older’. Tara’s comment suggests that we cannot but be aware of the onslaught of cultural demands of beauty that our daughters are likely to face and are anxious both about this pressure as well as our own apparent inability to adequately live our politics in our personal lives.

Kyla suggests that peer pressure matters too, even as she injects a note of practicality:

My twelve year old wanted to use hair removal cream on her underarms since her friends do. I let her. One of her friends also waxes her arms and legs and has a boyfriend—my daughter is very impressed by her ‘bad girl image’—the idea of rebellion. I don’t say anything though. I talk to her about techniques of hair removal and what they mean in terms of effort and time. Even if I tell her hair is ok, her peer group is not telling her it is ok and that matters to her.

Feminist mothers then are articulating an interesting problematic here— in an ideal world they would want their daughters to not care about body hair at all, to be in that sense different and freer than their mothers are. In a more pragmatic sense, they concede that it would be all right if their daughters chose to remove body hair so long as they did it with an awareness of the patriarchal discourses within which it is embedded, that is, to be as their mothers are. What does it mean then to ‘settle’ for an awareness of the patriarchal discourses within which we live our lives? Why is it that so many could not envisage a world in which hair and its discontents will cease to matter? How much power do we assign to the codes of body and beauty regimes, even as we hope that things might be different?

Skin colour is a further significant issue in a country that is deeply racist and casteist. One woman wrote in an article about the pain of being the mother of a dark daughter and her hope that she will somehow be able to raise her daughter to look beyond the stereotypes that associate fairness with virtue and darkness with its lack (Ruth 2015). Everywhere one turns one finds an advertisement for fairness cream, including more recently one to make your ‘vagina’ fair.[2] So pervasive is the obsession with fairness that in 2009 a campaign titled ‘Dark is Beautiful’ was launched to attempt to address skin colour based prejudice.[3] The dismay with the regime of fairness is visible among many mothers, not just self-identified feminists.

Both Maitri and Vani talk about how their daughters have been bullied in school for being dark. Vani, herself, is much fairer and this has been a source of additional angst for the daughter:

I tell her that she’s lucky that she has her father’s colour as also his lean build. I tell her that if she had my colour, maybe she would also have had my large build with its concomitant issues. I feel strange saying that. In another context I would never mention fat or weight to her but here in order to contextualise I did. One thing I’ve learnt about parenting is that you always take back your words. I also wanted to point out to her that we’re all dealing with some unhappiness on how we look. Lookism is so all pervasive.

What does it mean when a feminist mother says that we are all dealing with unhappiness about the way we look—the acceptance that there is no way out of this quagmire? Vani would not otherwise present size as a problem to her daughter but in the face of what seems to be her daughter’s ‘bigger’ problem, colour, she feels compelled to place the two next to each other to suggest: ‘all of us have problems’. She does this in full awareness that this is not ideal at all, but perhaps important to her daughter’s self-esteem at that precise moment.

Despite our awareness of the ways in which our bodies are sought to be disciplined into specific shapes, most articulated the inability to be completely unaffected by it. Ratna recounts intervening to ensure her daughter was not harangued about weight. At the same time, she expresses dissatisfaction with her own weight: [4]

Scholarly work in the area of fat studies has produced narratives that suggest that the mother-daughter relationship is significant in the creation of negative meanings in relation to body weight (Donaghue and Clemitshaw 2012; Maor 2012). While all of these studies are located in non-Indian contexts, my interviewees’ narratives suggest that they at least appear to believe that what they say will impact how their daughters feel about their bodies.

Maitri suggests that whatever one might say or do it is hard to counteract the outside effects:

My daughter worries about her weight, tells me Ma you are feeding me too much and I am getting fat. Also, in the extended family people constantly comment on her weight and how she should try and lose it—she struggles with it. I tell her that at the end of the day it is your privileges of education, social security, and unconditional love surrounding you which gives (or should give) you the confidence to carry off your different body type without any worries.

Alka, Leela and Revathi discuss conversely the travails of having been too thin as adolescents, Leela and Revathi of having taken much longer than their peers to grow breasts and their hope that their daughters would be more comfortable with their bodies.

Who is this woman we all want our daughters to be? This woman who is confident about herself and her body, who is concerned about her health but not her size for its own sake. If we worry that none of us are quite yet that woman, then is this woman imaginary? What might we do to ‘guide’ our daughters in this direction, even as we struggle with our own awareness of our imperfections? Can we counteract the effects of the other narratives, most notably media narratives that our daughters are constantly subject to?

Our own stories of growing up are embedded in how we parent. Meera says: [5]

about eight years old, she was a little glutton, she loved food. She started being what people would call ‘plump’—and others would tell me she is a girl and you should make her lose weight. This annoyed me intensely. Then I was away for a year on work and by the time I returned, she had put on four inches in height and had become rake thin. Then the outsiders’ narrative was about how she had pined for her mother, or alternately how much her mother used to feed her. It was all just so annoying... She’s now very conscious of her weight though in an athletic way—this may have something to do with my being so indisciplined and letting myself go. I wonder if my complete rejection of any kind of diet was a good thing.

Meeras narrative strikes at the heart of the contradictions that underlie the good mother, bad mother narratives woven in complicated ways with the idea of feminist mothering. The good mother must both feed her daughter well and yet ensure that she does not get too fat. If the mother travels and her daughter gets thin, it is because the child missed the ‘heartless’ mother. The feminist in the mother argues that she should not worry about her daughter’s weight, but the mother who is also embedded in a cultural context that includes ideas about valued femininity thinks that perhaps both over- and underweight are not a good thing. The feminist mother who has chosen not to be concerned about her weight now worries that her own lack of concern has pushed her daughter to be too careful. The questions and counter-questions only multiply.

I too am conscious in an on-and-off way about my own weight, usually when I am in a room full of thin well-dressed women, but in relation to the things that worry me about myself, my shape is certainly not a priority. I have a reasonable self-image often centred around my mind rather than my body. If I think about my body, I think of its capabilities—can I climb a mountain, or perform a difficult yogasana—rather than its shape. And yet, I wonder if I am being too cerebral in my approach. Is the body a machine, subservient to the mind? Have I internalised the mind-body dichotomy entirely? A woman I met, to whom I described my research, responded by saying:

If I had a daughter, I’d want her to share my comfort with my body, curves and all. I’d like her to respect her body and take good care of it. I hope she can enjoy her body more than I do.

When I relay this comment and my own concerns to Tara, she laughs: ‘Yes. I wonder too if all this attention we lavish on our minds is worth it. Perhaps some hedonistic body-centred love would be good for us’.

The Cartesian mind-body dichotomy and the lessons of the Enlightenment that privilege the mind and the capacity for rational thought are perhaps ones that we, as feminist mothers, have learnt too well. However, in some of the articulations in my interviews I hear more than the whispers of a desire to undo those shackles to expand our imaginations and our concerns to include our bodies not only for what they can do, but for themselves: to enjoy the body for perhaps more than just its capacities.[6] What might this enjoyment of our bodies entail?[7] Further, how does our privileging our minds over our bodies impact our daughters? Conversely, if we participate in the fashion-beauty complex as feminists, will our daughters read this as contradictory, even hypocritical?

  • [1] In the USA, Breanne Fahs’ (2011) pedagogic experiment with her students—where the womenstopped removing body hair and men shaved theirs—also pointed to the complex cultural nuancesin which body hair is located, including the colour of the skin, the colour of the hair, the thicknessof the hair and the visibility of the hair.
  • [2] See: http://www.mid-day.com/arricles/now-vaginal-whitening-cream-that-promises-fairness-within-4-weeks/183036
  • [3] More information on this campaign is available at: http://darkisbeautiful.blogspot.in/p/about-us.html
  • [4] wasn’t happy at all about putting on weight. I’ve been fat and I’ve beenthin and thin is better. But I intentionally don’t make comments about myweight in front of my daughter. In third grade her Physical Educationteacher told her she needed to lose weight to run faster. She was runningfor her school and was slightly chubby. I pulled her out of that class immediately. I told her not to worry about getting fat—but despite this she tellsme now, ‘I will never get fat’.
  • [5] was always tall and large—my mother was very small and petite. But Ididn’t have a bust earlier and people would tell me ‘when you grow up...’.This would make me very conscious and I hated it. When my daughter was
  • [6] An explication of what this stretching of the imagination might mean for the ways we envisage ourbodies is beyond the scope of this chapter, as well as my own current imagination.
  • [7] One way to enter into this debate but one well beyond the mandate of this chapter is to begin anenquiry into the incendiary politics of self-care articulated in a variety of different ways byfeminists.
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