my arabic hairitage   cheryl qamar


Cheryl sat down to write this piece the minute she saw the topic. The piece actually wrote itself. This is a story she had to tell to honor the power and politics of body hair in her lifetime.

I've been hairy since the day I was born. When my mother held my freshly out of the womb body up to my father and said, "Isn't she beautiful?" his only reply was, "She looks like a rat." I eventually lost the hair on my ears only to have it show up again on my chest twelve years later.

The solution -- electrolysis! For months, I went to this baby pink office where a woman clad in a pink uniform with pink glasses and nail polish would probe my follicles with electric currents. I would walk out of there with red dots all over my chest. It hurt like hell. But the hair did eventually go away - from my chest that is.

On to the next battlefield - my legs. Now I'm a full-fledged teenager and wanting to explore sex with boys (at least for starters). Hairy legs were not sexy in Wichita, Kansas in the early 60's unless you happened to be Parisian. Thank God for that one summer in Paris when I was sixteen and I got it that at least in one part of the world, hair on women's bodies was not only not repulsive but considered sexy. And they also let it grow under their arms!! WOW!! But none of my friends believed me back home in Kansas - they still thought it was gross. So, back to pretending by body was bald like all the white girls only just a little darker. This exfoliation was a serious endeavor because, quite frankly, my legs were hairier than my father's! I tried it all - Nair, bleaching, plucking (which worked on my unibrow. Let's face it, Frida Khalo was not an icon yet), shaving, razoring no avail. My legs had a 5 o'clock shadow no matter what I did. But I wasn't having sex yet, or at least sex that involved my legs so I got by until 1969...

Now I'm in college and all of a sudden big hair is in! No more straightening or ironing my head hair. Also, really radical chicks are letting the hair grow under their arms -- no more red blotches and stubble under there for me. I was grateful that my boyfriend actually thought it was sexy. BUT no one was ready for the truth about my legs until...

The 70's! Now I'm living in Boston and Feminism has arrived. No body is shaving anything. One of my best friends has a beard and she works at the Cambridge Food Co-op. I've discovered sex with women who think my hairy legs are a turn-on and they're not even Parisian. They're just Feminists and they get that women's bodies actually have hair. I wear shorts with my hairy legs showing out for the first time and I feel like I have finally arrived until I get accosted on the street by men who are strangers, "Fuckin' Dyke, shave that shit off your legs!" Who knew that a "little" hair could be so threatening to men? Were they jealous? That was my overriding assumption and my first retort. I also used my middle finger a lot. For years, I held the frontline on the streets with my civil right to wear the hair on my legs. At the very least it caused a lot of staring, at the worst, direct verbal attack -- either way -- I had to keep my wits about me on the streets. The retort that was ultimately the most effective was face to face confrontation.

In the most neutral tone I could muster:

"Excuse me, Sirs, are you talking to me? Do you want my attention? I don't recall asking for your opinion. I wouldn't presume that you would want my opinion about your body either. I find it hard to believe that this hair on MY LEGS has that kind of effect on you."

This would so totally disarm them because I was forcing these men to deal with me as a person, hair and all.

Fast forward to the 90' I'm living in rural New York. But, hippie rural New York. I'm also getting into dresses for the first time. I have two Jewish friends who are also hairy, Ruth has hairy legs and Laura has a mustache. We feel like the last bastion of feminist warriors battling the tide of fashion that keeps women looking more like girls - hairless and pre-pubescent. We form a pact. We are going to hold out against the tide.

And we do, until I go to Lebanon for the first time with Dominique. She politely asks me to shave because she's worried about the relatives.

Okay, for her I'll do it. Now I discover waxing. Back to the salon, only this time it's white uniforms and torture. Fortunately, the result lasts longer - no more 5 o'clock shadow. Dominique's family likes me - they don't know about my legs or my lesbianism. (I do notice, however, that there are an awful lot of hairy-armed women in Lebanon who are obviously shaving their legs and I feel a sort of unspoken tribal connection.)

All my life this hirsutulous body has been a battleground for approval and/or independence. To depilate or not has been the all too definitive question regarding my identity. Until now. Finally, I have found a balance. In the winter, I let my hair grow. To tell the truth, it keeps me warm. Like other animals, I need my fur in winter. In the summer, I wax it because I like the way it looks and feels. I returned to Paris two years ago. I did not see one pair of hairy legs or armpits. And I must admit, I felt a bit, melancholy about it all.

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