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?
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?
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.
‘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