As someone who spends $25 on threading her eyebrows, among other things, every month, Matthew Immergut’s Manscaping: The Tangle of Nature, Culture, and Male Body Hair struck a chord with me. Body hair removal is connected to capitalism – I could have told you that a long time ago, while shelling out money for shaving cream, razors, and those monthly threading sessions. I could have also told you that hair, and lack thereof, for women is policed by nearly everyone, from boys on the playground making fun of your “unibrow” or “moustache”, aunties telling you that you should wax your legs every six weeks instead of using a harsh razor, by friends telling you that the extra hour spent straightening your hair every morning is “totally worth it! You look SO much better!” Even today, there are countless memes all over social media about how vital it is to get a perfect eyebrow arch and brows that look perfect, but not too perfect. However, reading Immergut’s Manscaping helped me continue the process of fitting together all those fragments into one larger picture that reflects not only my experiences, but the way that Western society treats body hair on brown women as a whole.
Immergut mentions that “women as well as nonwhites have long been associated with a chaotic natural realm in Western intellectual history” (287), so what happens when you are both of these things, when you are a woman of color? As long as I can remember, I have always felt shame about my body hair. My thick eyebrows started getting pointed out by older family members and classmates when I was in elementary school. I was not even a teenager and yet I was already expected to somehow police my body hair and fit into a neat little box of what a ten year-old girl should look like. Further complicating the issue was my thick, frizzy hair, which refused to style itself into neat, straight strands no matter how much hairspray I used or how much I brushed. Feeling shame over my “untidy” and “lazy” appearance, I gave up completely, pretending that I just didn’t care at all, trying to find strength in defiance. However, on the inside, I hoped my mother would notice my plight and take me to the eyebrow lady and the hair salon, the bearers of the neat girlhood that was eluding me.
It is only in the last few years that I have been able to deconstruct these experiences and begin understanding how the words about my untidy appearance were not actually a reflection of how well I was able to tame the hair on my body. Instead, they reflected the narrow expectations that were placed upon me, an Indian-American girl growing up in the United States, by beauty standards of perfectly plucked eyebrows and pin-straight (or artfully curled) hair that were based on white bodies. While I found Immergut’s discussion of the relationship between “manscaping” and landscaping somewhat condescending in its glossing over of the relationship between colonized brown bodies and imperialized land, I feel that Manscaping has better enabled me to understand my own body in relation to the larger histories of imperialism, colonialism, and migration that I am irrevocably connected with through my brownness and thick hair.
With full knowledge and acceptance of what I am doing, I get my eyebrows done every month and straighten my hair semi-regularly in order to fit the neat, tidy, and well put-together appearance that I want to convey to the world. Despite all this, I still cannot help wondering that if ten year-old me had known and understood all of this, would she have reacted with the same shame and followed the same path?