At an arm’s length

At an arm’s length

Criss-cross applesauce was never my forte. It meant bending my legs into an uncomfortable position, squishing myself into an invisible human box. But most of all, it meant one dreadful thing: we were about to be forced to huddle together on the floor.

As much as I could say I loved third grade, from the Shel Silverstein poetry readings to the constant doodling, that year was the first time I truly hated a part of my body.

Gathering together on the floor, the brightly colored walls surrounding us, we made a semi-circle. I don’t remember what was being read to us. But I do remember my teacher sitting on a tiny stool, perched like a commanding bird over her classroom. She read with enthusiasm. With many voices, acted out as though she was the Robin Williams of our generation.

She read on and on. And when she stopped, that’s when the chatter began.

A boy who was sitting next to me, criss-cross applesaucing, leaned over my shoulder.

I remember him grabbing my arm without permission. The first red flag.

“Why do you have so much arm hair?” he said, disgust dripping from his mouth that probably smelled like stale Cheetos.

“I don’t know!” I remember yelling, although it’s likely I didn’t say anything at all. I was quiet and introverted. And I likely flushed bright red from embarrassment.

What he didn’t know was that I had a heightened curiosity over my tiny arm hairs. They rippled across my skin like a wheat field, full and ready to dance in the wind. I had always wondered why I had them. They seemed unnecessary, but never before had I truly hated them. I was just curious why they chose to exist on me, and not on my peers. That is, I never truly hated them before, until that moment.

I suddenly silently compared my arms to my peers. All of them. Who had the most arm hair? And in my eyes, the winner was always me.

And now, as disgust leaked from his mouth, all my arm hairs felt like they were standing against me. I hated them, and they hated me. It was a feeling I couldn’t quell. I immediately associated body hair with ugliness, disgust, a feeling of loathing and horrifying embarrassment.

A third-grader loathing part of their body, being physically disgusted with themselves. I hate to think back to how much time I wasted.

And so it got to the point where every day I would wake up and stare down at the tiny hairs. It felt like they were shouting at me.

I asked my mom for a razor. I lied and said it was for my budding leg hair.

I ran it across my arms, stripping hair away from my body. I felt free. All the hairs, they were gone.

But what arrived back to greet me so soon again was stubble. Longer hair. Thicker hair. Darker hair. Little red patches of skin from cutting too close. Ruby red bumps everywhere.

As I was in the back seat of the car one day, my grandma grabbed my arm, in the same way that third grade boy did.

“What are you doing to yourself?” she asked, shocked. She stared down at me with her kind, disappointed eyes. And so I started crying.

I chucked the razor into the garbage when I got home. The tiny hairs grew back on my body.

I wish I could say I slowly fell in love with them. But I didn’t. I cloaked my arms in long sleeve shirts and baggy sweaters.

And it wasn’t until college that I realized obsessing over the tiny hairs was a waste of time. Nobody cared, and nobody should. That third grade boy was slime. It was my body, not his. But for so long, I treated it like his opinion mattered much, much more.

College was where I learned from the talented, intelligent and badass humans around me that hair is controversial. Humans, including myself, weave and perpetuate damaging myths of what is female, professional and “conventionally beautiful.”

And not just arm hair, but all hair. The way women of color are policed and oppressed for their looks. How magazines showcase long, sleek and full hair as ideal. How shaved legs have become a norm of femininity. How pubic hair is waxed away even as it serves a hygienic purpose. How ultimately, our bodies should not be our own.

But guess what? It’s not that third grade boy’s body, it’s yours. Nobody has the right to grab your arm and make you hate a piece of yourself.

So the next time you think about why you’re shaving, why you’re waxing, or why you’re not speaking out against oppressive rules, ask yourself: Am I doing this for me, or am I doing it for the them that hurt me?

Norming and Reforming My Identity

Norming and Reforming My Identity

The Invisible Norm

The Invisible Norm