Friday, January 28, 2011

The unwanted hair wars

When I grew into teenage years, my body changed in wondrous and terrible ways. The tiny nubs on my chest bloomed into soft white breasts. Hair grew grew dark and wiry on my legs, dark and curly in secret places. Pimples splotched my face. I squeezed them regularly, even though my father cautioned me to leave them alone. My mother, preoccupied with her long hours of nursing shift work and the looming debt of the farm, told me absent-mindedly that washing my face thoroughly would get rid of the pimples. I scrubbed furiously. To my horror, the pimples broke and bled, leaving a field of tiny reddish-black scabs speckling my face.

But the worst thing about puberty was my mustache. My upper lip was blessed with thick down that began to darken as I crossed into teen years. I was mortified. Having a mustache put me squarely into the category of “ugly girl”. That, combined with a weak chin, caused me to wince each time I looked in the mirror. And look I did, staring often at that face of mine, at the pimples, the weak chin, the mustache. Each time I despaired. I felt so ugly. Each time I searched for something redeeming.

I settled on my eyebrows. They rose above my dark brown eyes, thick and lustrous. I plucked them meticulously, carving them into a full smooth line. Secretly, I imagined myself winning a beauty contest in our high school: “Mary Lou van Schaik, proud recipient of the Most Beautiful Eyebrows award.”

Walking down the grey terrazzo-tiled floors in our high school, past rows of dull brown lockers, I held my head high. My eyebrows sailed ahead of the rest of my face, perfectly groomed and arched. Mentally, I wore an invisible face veil, praying that students and teachers alike would look only at the upper half of my face.

I remember ordering a home electrologist kit from the Simpsons-Sears catalogue. It arrived in a plastic case, with an instruction booklet which I found difficult to follow. I was too embarrassed to ask my father for help. After a week, I returned it. Later, I took refuge in bleaching creams and eventually weekly trips to the Diana Salon on Queen Street in Toronto. There I joined other women in the waiting room, all of us sitting with our faces bent, our eyes downcast. One by one, we were ushered into a room divided into work stalls, each stall separated from the other by a white hospital curtain. The sessions consisted of 15 minutes of torture, as a technician in a white coat poked an electric needle into a pore on my upper lip, pressed a foot pedal, and a jolt of sharp stinging pain zapped the offending hair. The procedure often left tiny burn marks. I bore the pain stoically, fed by an image of a hair-free face. After countless years, the shadow on my upper lip faded. Surprisingly, the pain was worth it. I felt normal, even liberated.

The decades have passed. Now well into middle age, I contend with half a dozen chin hairs and a slight darkening on my upper lip. My mustache no longer bothers me. Instead, my beauty fixation has returned to my eyebrows. About three or four years ago, I noticed the brown hairs were being replaced at an alarming rate by white ones. For a long time, I plucked out each invading white hair. Lately it's become a losing battle – there are just too many of them. “Accept yourself,” I told myself, and vowed to leave my whitening brows alone.

But old habits die hard. I actually love plucking those sturdy white hairs. It reminds me of those earlier days squeezing pimples. Such a satisfying feeling to rid the body of this or that imperfection.

I fell into temptation. Even though I promised I would not pluck, I looked in the mirror and a crop of white hairs laughed and teased me. Come get us, they taunted. One evening last week, I reached into my cosmetic basket, which holds dusty relics from earlier years: a bottle of foundation that probably should be thrown out, some old red lipstick, a case of mauve and grey eyeshadow, two pairs of nail clippers, an eyebrow brush and my trusty tweezers. The nail clippers and tweezers straddle the basket's rim, within easy reach.

Unlike the brown hairs, the white ones grow in straight and bristly, like pine trees in a forest of maples. I looked carefully at two or three, took aim with my tweezers, and missed. Out came half a dozen regular brown eyebrow hairs. I tried again. Another miss, and six or seven more brown hairs lay curled on the tips of the tweezers. I began plucking fiercely, picking up speed, assuming that by going faster, my error rate would decrease. Wrong assumption. More brown hairs fell to the sink and still the crafty white ones stood out defiantly. I finally parted all the brown hairs, like sedges in a swamp, isolated one white one, positioned the tweezers firmly on it and yanked. Out it came – along with a cluster of fledgling brown ones.

There was now a rather large gaping hole in my eyebrow line. I looked like I was suffering from a minor skin disease. I dug into the cosmetic basket and drew out the eyebrow brush. No use – no matter if I brushed up, down or sideways, the hole remained.

So now my right eyebrow has a miniature clear-cut patch in its forest. Meanwhile the left eyebrow boasts a flock of strong white rebels. The hairs refuse to lay down neatly and the brows look lopsided. I may have won the mustache war, but have definitely lost on the eyebrow front. I'm leaving them alone.

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