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Embracing Our Body Hair

By: Sindura Vuppu

I was only nine years old when I first used Veet hair removal cream to get rid of the shame and insecurity that came with my “unwanted” hair. Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif, the face of Veet in India back then, said I’d feel more beautiful if I did so. Thick dark hair on my dark skin didn’t help meet the beauty standards of a South Indian. Ever since, I’ve tried various ways to “clean up.” I covered up most of the time and waited desperately to visit the salon and get waxed every month just so I could wear clothes that I liked. I felt less pretty. I felt less feminine. I wondered how femininity or masculinity had anything to do with how hairy one was. 

Until a few decades ago, being hairy wasn’t so problematic. In fact, people saw beauty in facial and body hair. Indian Actress Kajol sported a unibrow in the 90s and was considered beautiful. Unibrows became trendy among Indian women. In the Middle East, as well as East and South Asia, unibrows were considered alluring in both sexes. Additionally, pubic hair is seen as a sign of sexual health and fertility In Korean culture, and many Korean women got pubic hair transplants. Similarly, many foreigners have reported that they are often surprised to see unshaved private parts in Asian bathhouses. The West, too, was comfortable with body hair until the 20th century. In the Middle Ages, Catholic women were expected to let their hair grow as a display of femininity. The only “requirement” was to keep it concealed in public. However, being hairy wasn’t that big of a deal for a long time. As we go further back in history, we can find the possible reasons why the obsession with hairlessness  began.

Charles Darwin’s book “Descent of Man” (1871) associated hairy bodies with “primitiveness” and “inferior races.” According to him, having less body hair was a sign of being more evolved and sexually attractive.  Not-so-surprisingly, these ideas targeted women more than men, establishing control over women’s bodies in the most misogynistic and heteronormative way and linking their femininity and sexual attractiveness to the lack of body hair. Scientists drew a clear distinction between masculinity and femininity based on body hair, calling this distinction “higher anthropological development” in race. At the dawn of the twentieth century, changes in fashion that exposed more skin encouraged less body hair. In 1915, Harper’s Bazaar, the first women’s magazine, launched the anti-armpit hair campaign, calling clean armpits a “necessity” for sleeveless clothes. The first Gillette women’s razor was also launched around the same time. Soon, middle-class white women desired smooth, “clean,” and white skin. Gradually, this influence spread across the world, combined with a development in various hair-removal techniques. Today, hair-removal has become so common among men and women, especially women, that most religiously opt for hair-removal as if they have no other option. As if it was a requirement to feel feminine, hygienic, and respected.

The way women are expected to have hairless bodies and smooth skins like children is a form of oppression. Making grown women feel pressured to remain young in the way they appear and behave makes it easier for the patriarchal society to establish control and dominance over almost every aspect of their lives. The term “pretty privilege” also applies to this viewpoint. While beautiful and attractive women who fit societal standards of femininity seem to receive more respect in their professional and personal lives, women who challenge these standards are often looked down upon. Recently, women letting their “unwanted” hair grow out has become associated with the desperation to be “different” and prove a point. While this might be true and is just a form of expression, rather than a personal choice, letting body hair grow has become a sign of “rebellion.” By mocking such choices, society increases the pressure on women to follow the norms and be more “modest and respectable.” Additionally, getting rid of body and facial hair has become so deeply associated with femininity that men doing so is often mocked. This stems from queerphobia and the desire to eliminate anything that isn’t heteronormative. This notion only strengthens toxic masculinity and the need to prove one’s masculinity or femininity. However, such ideas are now being challenged on a higher level. 

Frida Kahlo exhibited one of the earliest and the most significant forms of defiance by growing out her facial hair and embracing it. More recently, celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Julia Roberts, and Paris Jackson to name a few, are encouraging the idea of embracing one’s body hair by publicly displaying their unshaved armpits and legs. In addition to being the first razor brand to show body hair on television, Billie, an indie razor brand, has launched campaigns such as the Body Hair Project and Red, White, and You do You Campaign with ads and videos celebrating the choice to shave or not shave body hair. It is also the first brand to show pubic hair on its Red,White, and You do You Campaign.  Januhairy is another campaign started by students  Laura Jackson and Ruby Jones in 2019 that encourages people to grow out their body hair for the month of January and share images of themselves online. There are many more such campaigns that strive to normalize body hair and empower hairy people. As years pass, we can expect the world to be more tolerant of all body and skin types. 

It’s time to normalize body hair. It’s also important that hair removal should remain a choice and should not be forced upon. There is nothing wrong if, as a feminist or a supporter of this movement, you choose to remove your own body and facial hair. It’s not hypocritical, but rather a personal choice. Having more or less body hair does not make one more or less feminine. Our body hair does not define who we are. Excessive or unwanted hair can occur because of several factors such as genetics or hormonal imbalance. It is normal to have more of it and it is equally normal to have less of it. The slowly fading dark patches in my armpits that came with hair removal creams, the bumps of ingrown hair that came with shaving, and the dreadful hot wax that burns my skin every month, continue to bother me.  I’m still learning to get rid of my insecurity of having a hairy body, but it is sliding down the list of my priorities with each passing day. While it’s not easy to readjust a brainwashed mind, it’s never too late to try. Let us learn to embrace our body hair, slowly and gradually. Let us appreciate what we have and be kind to ourselves. 

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Why We Dislike the Idea of Being Girly

By: Sindura Vuppu

I watch my thirteen year-old cousin grow into an incredible young woman. She is mature, opinionated, and kind-hearted, with morals so great that I learn something from her everyday. Not long after, my proud smile falters. “I’m not like the other girls,” she says, “No offense, but the girls I know are…too girly.” I’m immediately reminded of my thirteen year-old self. 

I called myself a feminist at a very young age, and held so many strong opinions about issues like gender discrimination and misogyny. What I failed to recognize was my own hypocrisy. Books and movies made me believe that being a “regular” girl was scornful. I had to be different, so I hid my Barbie dolls and started watching Power Rangers because I believed that it was cool and tomboyish. I wore makeup in secret as if makeup were a ridiculous thing to do. I said I disliked “typical” girls who wore pink and talked about boys all day. Instead, I idealized the “girl next door,” who, as One Direction once put it, doesn’t know she’s beautiful and needs help recognizing her beauty. She reads books instead of partying, pays no attention to boys, has high morale, and is intelligent unlike the other girls.  

Pop culture played an important role in defining idealistic standards and contrasting archetypal girls to me. In Taylor Swift’s song “You Belong With Me,” Swift sings, “She wears high heels, I wear sneakers, she’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers,” which I believed meant that all girls fit into two binary categories; they were either sweet and innocent or mean and callous, depending on how “feminine” they are.  This depiction is a reinforcement of the famous Madonna-wh*re complex that was first identified by Sigmund Freud. In psychoanalytic literature, this concept explains that men view women as either “tainted” and “impure,” or as saintly “Madonnas” who are worthy of love and respect. To live up to this bizarre dichotomy, literature and cinema have often brought up contrasting characters to glorify the Madonnas. Now known as the “girl next door” trope, these “good girl” characters have been idealized for generations, tracing back to Lizzy from Jane Austen’s famous love story Pride and Prejudice (1813). Lizzy is presented as a contrasting alternative to her glamorous rival Miss Bingley who competes with her over their love interest, Darcy.  Lizzy is tomboyish, intelligent, and rugged in her ways, while Miss Bingley is more stereotypically feminine. Similar to Regina George’s character in Mean Girls (2004), Miss Bingley is portrayed as “the bitch” who is pretentious, manipulative, and sabotaging. Because she differs from Miss Bingley in that she does not publicly vie for Darcy’s attention, Lizzy’s character is glorified for being different from other young women of her time. Her individuality is focused upon in a more positive light, while Miss Bingley is degraded as the “typical” girl, as if it was inferior to be one; she is dismissed and ignored by Darcy for not being his “Madonna.” The girl next door trope in such stories mainly serves as the good alternative for the male protagonist to choose. Her individuality bears no significance if it does not align with what our patriarchal society expects from a respectable woman. Today, these Madonnas have a different role to play. Often paired with “bad boys” with a traumatic past, these “good girls” heal and transform them into better men. The character of Jamie from A Walk to Remember (2002), and Tessa from the popular fan-fiction inspired movie After (2019), serve as perfect examples of these angelic life-changers. These characters exist solely to contribute to the character development of the male protagonist. 

Perhaps one of the most popular female archetypes is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, first coined by film critic Nathan Robin to explain the character of Kirsten Dunst from Elizabethtown (2005). Unlike the soft-spoken and composed girl next door, the manic pixie dream girl is impulsive and spontaneous. As described by Robin, the manic pixie dream girl “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” The manic pixie dream girl approaches the depressed and gloomy man in order to “help” him recover and open up to life’s infinite possibilities. This highly stereotypical depiction of  a free-spirited and quirky girl has been celebrated in several movies, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and 500 Days of Summer (2009). Once again, this “dream girl” is associated with a man and is assumed to serve as his life-changer. But this type of girl is being challenged more recently; the character of Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) calls out the ridiculous assumptions about her character: “I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to ‘make them alive’…but I’m just a f*cked up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.” The coining of fearless and self-reliant girls like Clementine as “manic” is sexist by itself, and to make it worse, we get too busy focusing on her role in the man’s life and often ignore what she means to herself.  The breakdown of female characters into rigid categories, and the glorification of some of these as “ideal” stems from generations of misogyny. Both young girls and grown women are made to believe that the stereotypes associated with their gender are somewhat contemptuous. By portraying some of these categories in a negative light, literature and cinema have normalized the attitude of these characters as derisive. While we laugh at Mean Girls’ Karen Smith for being ditzy and gullible, we don’t recognize the degradation of what is considered the “girly” girl trope. Society has defined the characteristics and roles of men and women and has asked women to fit the “feminine” standard. The portrayal of the same femininity as manipulative and toxic, or as shallow and dim-witted, influences young girls to dislike the idea of being girly or feminine. This double-standard often leads to girls being torn between following the stereotype and being different at the same time. As a result, they start an unhealthy competition to be respected. Eventually, each girl’s originality is compromised as she chases a different kind of “originality”. On the other hand, young boys lose their perception of girls as they are, and instead place them into discrete and dichotomous categories. A set of unrealistic expectations follow, often ending up in disappointment. Girls come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. Every person’s priorities and interests differ and sets them apart in their own unique way. I like to think of these personality types as a bunch of Venn diagrams; some traits overlap with a couple of others’ and create a unique product. Glorifying some of these and degrading the others only damages the already fragile perception of women in society.

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LGBTQ+ Themes in Hindu Mythology and Indian History

By: Sindura Vuppu

It was not until I turned sixteen that I stepped into the world of political and social issues. I grew up in ignorance and indifference with limited exposure. My friends and I were clueless about issues like the marginalization of certain groups. When I finally educated myself, I recognized the unfairness in the way the LGBTQ+ community is treated in India. I felt ashamed of our ignorance. Was it always like this? One day, I discussed this with my mother.  She mentioned the “Hijras”, transgender women, whom I’ve seen beg for money in groups. Many people, mostly young men, get uncomfortable and feel sexually victimized by the Hijras. These Hijras are disowned by their parents at a young age, after which it is almost impossible for them to find a decent job. Some become sex-workers to men who cannot afford a cis woman, and most generally choose to stay within the transgender community and earn a living by begging in groups. When their requests for money are met, the Hijras give us their blessing since they are thought to have the “power to bless or curse fertility”(Biswas). They show up at auspicious ceremonies like the celebration of the birth of a child, and lovingly hold the baby in their arms to bless them. The same people who treat them as “untouchables” rejoice over their blessing. If this is an age-old tradition, the discrimination does not make sense. To learn more about the LGBTQ+ involvement in Indian history and Hindu mythology, I went online. 

Hindu mythology is a major source of ancient India’s attitude towards gender fluidity and sexual identity. Ardhanarishvara, a form of Lord Shiva that I grew up worshipping, is a mix of Shiva and his wife Parvati. The form has both male and female elements divided equally, therefore creating a genderless deity. “Parvati wished to share Shiva’s experiences,” says Kavita Kane in her article on LGBT themes in Hindu mythology, “and thus wanted their physical forms literally to be joined to show that the inner masculine and feminine coexist and can coalesce” (Kane). This non-binary form was and still is revered for the powerful message is conveys. This isn’t the only instance where Lord Shiva exhibited gender and sexual fluidity. Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe, takes on the “feminine” form called Mohini, who Shiva, the destroyer, falls in love and procreates with. Although the mythological texts say that Mohini was a female form, many scholars interpret their relationship as a same-sex one.  Mahabharata, which is considered one of the greatest epics of all time, narrated the story of the great warrior Arjuna, who took refuge in the harem of a king’s court for a year as an eunuch teaching singing and dancing. Even as someone who is considered a tough and masculine war hero, Arjuna’s “feminine” eunuch form is one of the most significant facets of his character in the epic. I grew up listening to these stories and marveling over their greatness. They act as moral stories that children are encouraged to read. These deities are revered as examples of dharma and righteousness. 

 Hindu mythology isn’t the only source of LGBT significance in Indian history and culture. In her article on LGBT themes in Indian history, Amy Bhatt notes, “Indeed, in India’s 16th-century Mughal courts, hijras and eunuchs often held positions of high esteem as advisers or emissaries between men and women.”(Bhatt).  Eunuchs were accepted and even revered by the common folk. They were important and trusted caretakers of the harems of the kings, as we can see in warrior Arjuna’s case.  Homoeroticism has also been celebrated in ancient Indian literature. “In the Kama Sutra, India’s famed erotic guidebook,” Bhatt writes, “the character Svairini is described as as a liberated woman who lives either alone or in union with another woman.” (Bhatt).The Khajuraho group of Temples in Madhya Pradesh, The Sun Temple of Konark, and several other monuments in India also have homoerotic sculptures engraved on their walls. After finding so many inclusions of the LGBT+ community in ancient India, one cannot help but wonder where the respect and tolerance went. When did the Indian people start marginalizing them and calling their existence “unnatural”? There is an answer to this question: the British colonization. 

In 1860, Lord Macaulay, the President of the Indian Law Commission authored section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” (Biswas), therefore imposing Victorian values on its biggest colony. Under the British Raj, homosexuality was criminalized.  In addition, they described eunuchs that served in royal palaces as “ungovernable”. “Commentators said they evoked images of “filth, disease, contagion and contamination,” writes Soutik Biswas in his article titled “How Britain tried to ‘erase’ India’s third gender” (Biswas). The British also had the conception that the “Orient” were “Overly erotic and over-sexed” and would “corrupt” young colonial officers (Han). The two hundred years of rule which left India in great economic and cultural depression is believed to have been the primary cause of the conservative and marginalizing shift in Indian societies. So, how is India recovering from this and reforming its social, political, and judicial system on this particular issue?

On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India declared Section 377 unconstitutional, therefore overturning a 157-year old ban, and decriminalizing consensual homosexual sex, after the government’s first recognition of the law’s barbaric nature in 2009.  The Court stated that “the inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognising a role in society for everyone… Those perceived by the majority as ‘deviants’ or ‘different’ are not on that score excluded or ostracised”(Misra). There has been enormous LGBT activism in the sex-workers community as well, “to change perceptions of sexuality, embracing diversity among the ranks of members of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (the largest Sex Workers’ union in India)” (Misra). Under a legislation that was recently passed in India, transgender people are allowed to change their legal gender post-sex reassignment surgery and have a constitutional right to register themselves under a third gender. However, this law has not been received well for various reasons: lack of medical benefits, addition of bureaucratic layers and red-tapism for legal recognition, and the lack of detail on matters such as marriage, adoption, and social security benefits (Pathak). Activists are pushing for amendments to this bill, and for additions and improvements to other LGBTQ+ laws. But such issues don’t get resolved easily. Along with the fight for change comes the fight to stay the same. 

Many Indians, mostly middle-aged and elderly Hindus, believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of Hinduism that portrays homosexuality as a “reprehensible Western import”(Bhatt). But on exploring some great Hindu mythological epics, it is quite clear that Hinduism is more liberal than the “western” (or Victorian) beliefs. Moreover, the significance of the community can be seen throughout Indian history and culture. I think it is time we revisit our history and re-interpret some of the lessons it teaches. It is time we recognize the unfairness in the way the LGBTQ+ community is treated, and join the fight against injustice and for reform.