Dear Imprudence: Ew, My Daughter Has Facial Hair!

A reader wrote in to Emily Yoffe at Dear Prudence this week with the following:

My 7-year-old daughter is smart, pretty, and fun. Her father is of Hispanic descent, and he’s gorgeous, but he has a lot of thick, black body hair—including a “unibrow,” which he’s plucked since he was a teenager. Our daughter has inherited his thick, dark hair and my fair skin, and I’m shocked to see that her coarse eyebrows are starting to grow together—downy hairs are appearing across the bridge of her nose. She is beautiful, but her eyebrows bother me. Her 10-year-old cousin has a shockingly thick unibrow, and she came home in tears because her classmates teased her. She took a razor to her face and ended up cutting herself badly. I don’t want any of this to happen to my daughter, but I’m disgusted with myself for having such a reaction to a few stray hairs. Showing my daughter pictures of Frida Kahlo and talking to her about inner beauty will be worse than a lie, since I’m obviously bothered by her eyebrows! I’ve been tempted to look into electrolysis down the road, but what kind of maternal instinct is that?

—Shallow Mom

Given that we live in a culture that views body hair on women as one of the most atrocious aesthetic offenses ever, it’s not terribly surprising that Mom has internalised harmful attitudes about body hair, and I commend her for recognising the social pressures influencing the way she’s viewing her daughter’s eyebrows. She also raises a really important point; as much as we talk about body positivity and acceptance, young girls with bodies that don’t meet society’s standards are still abused for it, and sometimes they injure (or kill themselves) in pursuit of beauty. Mom clearly feels conflicted here. She obviously wants to protect her daughter, while also addressing the oppressive beauty standards that surround her daughter’s body and the way she feels about her daughter’s looks. This is a tough  letter to answer.

So, how did Yoffe respond?

Dear Shallow,
Of course it’s superficial to worry over a few hairs. But humans are very superficial; in this country alone, we spend billions trying to either remove hair or grow it. Given the hirsute dynasties from which my daughter is descended, when I first held my darling in my arms and gazed on her mass of black hair, I whispered to her, “Don’t worry, baby girl, I will take care of you when the time comes to get some of your hair removed.” When I allowed her to get her eyebrows waxed the first time (she had been begging), it was a bonding experience to hold her hand while the deed was done. But she was a teenager by then, and, as you say, your daughter is only 7 years old. Right now the incipient unibrow is visible only to the close observer, or as T.S. Eliot wrote, “But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!” But the trajectory of her cousin is a warning. If your child has an easily fixed cosmetic problem, it’s best to avoid her wanting to take a razor to her face. Fortunately, today a little girl with a brow like Bert the Muppet can have it transformed almost instantly into something more like Brooke Shields. This article describes the growing trend for getting young girls with moustaches and heavy brows zapped with a cosmetic laser. I suggest for now that you stop counting hairs and relax. As the brow fills in, or she starts complaining that other kids comment on it, you can say that she has eyebrows just like Daddy. Explain that he takes some of his out with a tweezer, but you’re going to do something better for her that will mean the extra hair is gone for a long time or maybe forever. It’s OK, Mom, that you want a clear path for your daughter’s inner beauty to shine.

—Prudie

‘I really feel ya! My daughter has gross body hair too! Good thing we have lasers now, isn’t it!’

You know, I read that article at the Times too, and what I got out of it was not ‘hooray!’ but rather ‘wow, this is really awful, that social pressures about beauty and acceptable bodies are leading girls to get cosmetic procedures to modify themselves at younger and younger ages.’ The whole ‘Skin Deep’ series is a deeply disturbing look at the way our society views women and girls.

Why is Daughter’s hair a ‘problem,’ Prudie? Why is your entire response framed as ‘don’t worry, there’s an easy fix for this’? Why is there absolutely nothing in it about adult women who choose to wear their body hair as is? About letting Daughter make her own choices about her body hair? Why is it assumed that of course Daughter will want to wax her eyebrows when she’s older? Isn’t that basically setting her up to hate her body? Won’t she be getting enough of those messages from the people outside her home? Her mom obviously wants to be supportive of her, and clearly wants to counter some of these attitudes.

You know, I have a mustache. It’s pretty fine, so you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you were in one on one conversation with me. I like my mustache, and I pretty much always have. In fact, sometimes I wish it were thicker. Sure, I got shit for it when I was younger, but I just quoted Rita Mae Brown: ‘I like my mustache! It makes me look distinguished.’ I probably came home upset a few times, and my dad didn’t say ‘you know, I shave my face, but I can do something better for you and get it lasered off.’ He said ‘fuck ’em.’

Now, I’m not saying Mom has to take that particular approach, but it would be awfully nice if Prudence hadn’t jumped right to body hatred; why not talk about Frida Kahlo, who made amazing art and wrote great things about her relationship with her body? Why not present other models of women accepting their body hair, and why not talk about how social attitudes lead to a stigma about thick eyebrows on women? Yes, a young girl who is being tormented for having thick eyebrows probably will want to remove them, and I certainly don’t blame her for that, but when the conversation at home starts with ‘we can fix it!’ and a reinforcement of harmful beauty standards, how is that good for her? My father was able to have a conversation with me at age seven about the social attitudes surrounding definitions of beauty,  after all, and he made it clear he’d support me either way.

These are complicated things to navigate. There are lots of adult women who do not like their body hair, for a wide variety of reasons, and who choose to remove it, also for a wide variety of reasons. This letter troubles me because I feel like Prudence is completely discounting the idea that maybe Daughter should be raised with an open mind so that she can make decisions about her own body. Fighting oppressive beauty standards happens on a lot of fronts, and one of them should be in conversations with young women and girls.

Submissions for advice columns you’d like to see deconstructed (or celebrated) are always welcome: meloukhia at disabledfeminists dot com

10 Comments

  1. Seems irresponsible of the advice columnist not to even mention the costs, risks and side effects of laser hair removal. Any professional service is surely far more expensive than a pair of good tweezers. A child’s skin is so delicate, and I doubt these cosmetic procedures have been tested much on kids.

  2. I was also a hairy kid, and have a lot of unwanted hair as an adult (due to PCOS). My parents told me I should start shaving my legs when I was 10. I was thrilled. My leg hair was darker and thicker than my friends’ hair, and I was very self conscious about it. Other girls used to smugly point it out — it sucked. Shaving for the first time was a tremendous relief, and I felt beautiful and grown up.

    I realize my feelings were due to oppressive beauty standards, and that it’s sad that I felt embarrassed and ashamed of something natural… but that’s how I felt. The ideal was everywhere, saturating our culture. Nobody had to tell me to be embarrassed. By the time my parents suggested a razor, I had hated my hairy legs for years. I’m grateful that they let me get rid of the hair.

    For the mom writing the letter — I would not take a kid in for laser hair removal (!), or even make a big deal of the kid’s hair being different. I would approach it the way most moms approach eyebrows. Many adult women shape their eyebrows at least a little bit, and at some point daughters become interested, or the mom offers to teach them. It doesn’t have to be about her eyebrows being unusual — the daughter should just know that some women shape their eyebrows, and she can choose to do this or not. Just like some women wear makeup and others don’t. It’s up to her, and there’s no right or wrong way. If she remains blissfully unselfconscious, great. But if she starts disliking her eyebrows or get teased, she has the option of shaping them, and it’s no big deal.

  3. Great that this column was covered here, s.e. I think that body acceptance should get way more attention in advice columns rather than the “quick fixes” (with lots of risks and costs, as Penny says) available to change our bodies.

  4. From Prudie’s response:

    “…when I first held my darling in my arms and gazed on her mass of black hair, I whispered to her, “Don’t worry, baby girl, I will take care of you when the time comes to get some of your hair removed.”

    That’s the FIRST thing she thought of when she *held her baby for the first time*? For real? “OMG! Your icky hair! When you’re older, I’ll get you waxed/lazered.”

    WTF?!

  5. I have a slight unibrow – the hair over my nose is not clear/blonde but isn’t as dark as my brows.

    My sister and her friend once pinned me down, tweezers in hand. Luckily, they didn’t do anything.

    But my leg hair! Ah, that gets under my sister’s skin. Oddly enough, you can tell where I shaved the few times I tried because it grew back darker and coarser.

    And I wear shorts most of the year. I just don’t care.

  6. There’s also a lot of racial/ethnic messages here, because of course the standard of no visible body/facial hair is based on white Northern European women who are more likely to have less and lighter body/facial hair than white women from other parts of Europe (as always, we’re only talking about “white” women, because if we were talking about anybody else we would have said so because this is the US media and that’s how it works–sigh). I have a “unibrow” but only the hair directly above my eyes is visibly pigmented, so you have to be incredibly close to my face to notice the little blonde hairs all the way across.

    This woman is judging her daughter based on the standards of the culture she (the mom) comes from, and although she implicitly acknowledges it by referencing Frida Kahlo , it would be nice if she and Prudence both addressed that issue head on–different cultures deal with body hair differently and to some extent by telling her daughter her “unibrow” is bad she is telling her that her mom’s culture trumps her dad’s.

  7. I have thick, dark hair (I’m Eastern European, and white) and started shaving my legs when I was ten (no, I didn’t actually think to ask permission, but my parents didn’t mind what I did anyway as long as it wasn’t, you know, vandalism or bullying or something that affects other people). I also started shaving my arms (the whole thing, forearms and all!) I’m dating myself, but I thought my hairy arms were like Tom Selleck’s. 🙂

    I still do all of it, and though I don’t have a stache or brows which grow together, I’d have gotten rid of those, too. I was never a pretty kid and I stuck out in other ways (I have a pronounced limp) so I really didn’t want to feel hairy on top of everything else, to be honest. I don’t remember other kids saying mean things about this, but I did compare myself to my peers. On the other hand, I was very happy to have thick, full hair on my head, which can come with being kind of generally hirsute.

    7 year olds? Frankly, I don’t think they’d notice this sort of thing at that age, and neither would others, and this is all on the mom (which she acknowledges). It should be the daughter’s decision, when she’s old enough to care, if she does at all. I see that Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes, has very full eyebrows: http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2009/01/lourdes_ciccone_leon_to_attend.html

    Maybe they’ll come into style and the other teens will be penciling theirs in to be like Lourdes. Oh, fickle hair.

  8. @Brocades
    I started shaving my arms when I was really young, too. I’d always feel so self conscious looking at the pretty girls with their thin, blond arm hair! Now I’ve quit shaving but my ‘pits and my ankles, for comfort, and I’m pretty proud of my hairy arms. They’d look so vulnerable without any hair!

    Prudie’s advice makes me a little ill. Shaving/waxing/lasering is definitely an option and I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking it–but the idea of turning it into a bonding session?

    I remember when my mom said that she missed our weekly trips to Weight Watchers, because it was together time. I wish she’d wanted to bond over video games or Animorphs or something, rather than on disliking our bodies and trying to eat as little as possible.

  9. I’m glad hydropsyche posted – because I was about to say – it’s not the facial hair, it’s the color.

    The only thing the mom should do is tell her daughter she’s the most beautiful girl in the world, especially with those darling hairs.

    I mean WTF, she’s SEVEN, she’s not something you’re removed from.

    I’d be more concerned about the bullying, frankly. Yes, the mom can go to school (if she has that luxury) and report it, but if the admin makes a big deal out of it, it will only cause more trouble for the daughter.

    And if the daughter knows her mom thinks something is “wrong” with her, then she’ll be even more anxious about her appearance (at SEVEN!!!) and I know you feel vulnerable stepping into school when you feel like that.

    One more hair plucking thing – I’ve got that “peach fuzz” so my face (bar my brow) is “hairless” – except for, recently, some inch long incredibly WHITE hairs coming from my chinny-chin-chin. They drove mom up the wall, until she plucked them one by one. (Ow!) I told her thanks a lot, she ruined my chances of becoming a bearded lady.

  10. As a twin, the most noticeable difference between the two of us was our coloring – she was blonde with relatively thin hair on her head and very little body hair, while I had lot’s of thick dark hair, and dark hair all over my body. Wow, did I have issues with that growing up. I remember as a teenager plucking my eyebrows into oblivion because I thought they were too thick and, therefore, ugly. I remember stressing out about hair I found on my belly, my chest, my feet and my hands. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I pulled a full 360 and stopped shaving everything. Damn, that was a good idea. It was hard, and I still found myself doing things like shaving my legs if I was wearing a skirt, but now I don’t even own a razor and I feel incredibly liberated and proud (yes, PROUD) of my body hair.

    I really hope that woman doesn’t teach her daughter that’s it’s perfectly okay to hate your body. Sure honey, this is just a bit of quick maintenance. You know, you maintain your teeth by brushing them, and you maintain your prettiness by shaving/waxing/lasering off all of your icky, icky body hair. Especially your icky unibrow! So we’re not even pretending to follow that whole, “inner beauty” schtick for kids anymore, are we?