Bullying #6: Scary, Hairy Puberty

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This photo pretty much sums up my awkward years.

Fifth grade was marked by an awkwardness that I was delightfully unaware of. The summer before, I had discovered my love of tap-dancing. I was somehow under the impression that it would be impossible for me to ascend to movie-stardom without mastering the art of tap. I would prod my parents for re-assurance of this fact, and although they struggled to come up with a single example of a 1990s movie that involved tap-dancing, I was undeterred in my conviction that this was a crucial skill.
Aside from my constant tap-dancing, I had that ‘drama kid’ self-absorption and self-adoration that I threw into every syllable I enunciated. I talked too loudly, I was too energetic, and I was existing in a sphere just outside of reality. I allowed my dramatic persona to cover my body insecurities. At this time, I was growing more quickly than my motor skills could keep up with, and had a shiny forehead sprinkled with pimples.
David Sedaris wrote that “The drama bug strikes hardest with Jews, homosexuals, and plump women who wear their hair in bangs. These are people who, for one reason or another, desperately crave attention.” Craving attention and needing an outlet for all of my hormonal craziness were two reasons that wed to create a particularly drama-crazy pre-teen. Plus, in drama class it was good to be over-the-top, so I could let it all out without fearing repercussions.
One day before tap class, my two friends and I were getting dressed in my room. As I took off my pants and pulled on my tights, I saw my two friends gesturing and giggling to each other. “What?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing.”
“No, really, what?”
This continued on for a while, and eventually they broke the impasse. “Well, Kathy said that your legs are too hairy and that you should shave them.”
I wrote about Kathy in an earlier entry, she was one of the founders of the ‘I Hate Marina’ Club, and although she had enrolled in a magnet school for the arts, she still lived in our neighborhood, and was still invited to our birthday parties.
It’s one thing to be told that you’re too hairy in a direct way, hurtful as that may be. It’s quite another to find out that your best friends are making fun of your body. I was very self-conscious about being too tall and having pimples, but the idea that I was too hairy had never even occurred to me as something to be nervous about. At this point, the only girl in our class who shaved her legs was a gymnast, and I didn’t realize that she was doing it until after this conversation. My next few months were marked by carefully studying the legs of every girl and woman I came across. All of my self-hatred and shame was re-directed towards other dark-haired women with hairy legs. ‘Ewww, she should really shave,’ I would think to myself as I nervously rubbed my hands on my own calves, which were now covered in tiny cuts.
At the time of the confrontation, we all cried a lot. My friends begged me to say something bad back to each of them. I considered calling them both fat, but instead told one girl she had bad hair and the other girl that I thought her big sister was mean. How that was an insult, I’m not sure. They felt terribly guilty, but I had received the message. I needed to shave.
So, stealthily, I began secreting away my parent’s razors. The first time I shaved, every stroke clogged the razor with soft brown hair. I must have spent thirty minutes in the shower. The next time it went significantly faster, from there it got less scary and more routine every time.
My mom noticed one day when we were watching TV, after I’d been shaving for a few months. A well-intentioned friend’s abuela had given me a ‘WWJD’ bracelet that was tied around my wrist. “What would Jesus do? Would he shave his legs?” My mom asked me, joking and sad at the same time. “Jesus was a boy,” I sighed.
And I wonder about this, because the incident took my self-confidence down a notch or two, and was a contributing factor in my decision to get laser hair removal fifteen years later. I wonder what it would be like to not have so many things to keep up with as soon as puberty hits. It’s hard enough to be a full-grown woman and navigate the demands of society, but covering the evidence of puberty immediately after it’s emergence was stressful and embarrassing. At that age, I was still playing with Polly Pocket dolls and stuffed animals.
I don’t agree with critics that say it’s sexualizing young girls to ask them to shave their legs. Maybe that’s how it looks to adults, but as a child I had no concept that this would make me more attractive to boys. What was unsettling to me was that my body had just started doing something differently by growing thicker hair on my legs, and that this thing my body was doing was disgusting to everyone. I just wanted to be normal and not gross.
BuzzFeed recently put a video up asking women why they shave their legs. On camera, if I had been asked, I might have said something lame about liking how it feels, but really I do it because that’s what people expect me to do. I don’t do it to look hot, I do it to blend in. I could fight the power, but ‘not shaving’ signifies something that I don’t have the energy to defend. It’s like wearing a shirt endorsing a political candidate: you have to be an ambassador for the cause when the shirt is on. If I didn’t shave, I’d have to be an ambassador for not-shaving all the time, and to deal with the haters of all kinds of feminist theories I may or may not agree with.
Physical criticism has always stung me a lot more than criticism relating to my personality. All of the times that my friends had told me I was being annoying or a show-off or too loud had been scarcely noticeable to me. I guess because my pimply face, hairy legs, and overgrown body weren’t choices, being mocked for them just seemed cruel. Even now, I don’t feel badly when someone criticizes my makeup or clothes, but I hate being teased about my weight. My acne and height had been mocked to my face, and my teacher had even given a lecture to the class to not make fun of fat kids or ‘kids with pimples’ (there was only one, me.) But I had never over-heard gossip about my appearance before, and especially not while I was half-naked.

I would love to end with this some kind of call to action, like ‘let’s all not make fun of each other about our bodies!’ But that hardly seems reasonable, so let me instead say this: puberty sucks, and if there’s a pubescent person in your life, give them a break. I’m sure they’ll be more pleasant in a few years, but right now, they’re dealing with this kind of stress. I don’t think my experience was uncommon, in fact, I think I got through puberty pretty easily since this is my only story of utter humiliation related to my body. Most girls I knew faced it; being ‘not good enough’ is one of the many joys of  entering womanhood. What a lovely way to be welcomed from childhood into the rest of one’s life!

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.


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