When God was handing out hair, I must have been first in line. I'm not talking thick, luscious, glossy hair on my head — although that would be nice. But hair everywhere else: sideburns, a happy trail, a furry upper lip, the odd chin hair, downy fluff all over my arms, back, and even my neck.
Growing up in a big Greek Cypriot family, I had always put my hairiness down to my heritage — we all looked the same and I was proud of that. But as soon as I started primary school, I realized my hair would be an issue.
"We don't want you in our group. You have a mustache and girls aren't supposed to have those.” At eight years old, I didn't even know what a mustache was. When I got home, I asked my mom, who gave an understanding nod and bundled me off to the bathroom with a tub of Jolen bleach. In five minutes, the jet-black hairs on my upper lip were transformed into the fair, wispy, virtually undetectable hairs every other eight-year-old girl in my tiny village school had. It was a routine I'd have to keep up every two weeks for the rest of my life.
Then, a week before starting my freshman year in college, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a surprisingly common hormonal disorder that affects anywhere from 8% to 20% of reproductive-age women worldwide. Along with weight gain, acne, and irregular periods, one of the most prevalent symptoms is excess body hair, or hirsutism, as it's otherwise known. My hair suddenly got thicker and darker, and started sprouting up in places I never even knew hair could grow, including the tops of my cheeks and my forehead.
The PCOS diagnosis meant I began to understand my body a little better, but it didn't make dealing with the hair any easier.
The diagnosis meant I began to understand my body a little better, but it didn't make dealing with the hair any easier. Soon, I imagined, I'd be expected to party in barely-there outfits, and sharing a minuscule bathroom with seven other people meant I couldn't spend hours removing my excess hair. But it was meeting men that instilled the worst anxiety in me.
While living at home with my parents, I had always worried about what dating guys would entail (besides endless questions from my dad); bringing them back was an even bigger no-no. Going to college meant I had the freedom to get out there. I just didn't have the confidence. What man would want to date a woman that's hairier than him?
Instead of Jägerbombs, most of my student loan went on stockpiling Veet, razors, and regular visits to the area's one and only threading lady. When I finally met someone at the end of second year, I realized that keeping my excess hair from him would be no mean feat. Spontaneous dates led to speedy shaves and inevitable sore rashes, ingrown hairs, and pus-filled boils. I used to mix my body lotion with heavy-duty concealer and full-coverage foundation just to mask the bumpy redness, and only ever felt comfortable enough to have sex with the lights off.
He'd sometimes show up at my house with a bunch of flowers, a DVD, and pizza (the dream, right?), but I'd pretend I wasn't home after a wax earlier in the day had left me red and sore. I think my absolute hatred of baring my body contributed to the failure of our relationship — he didn't get it, and I was perpetually embarrassed. When it ended, I did what every other girl on the rebound does: accepted every party invite and downloaded every dating app.
I desperately wanted things to be different this time around, but my hair — especially the hair on my face — was at the forefront of my mind at all times, and I just couldn't let myself go like the rest of my single friends.
Yet again, I found myself sabotaging dates and even hookups because I was so utterly terrified and embarrassed of giving men a glimpse of my hair. Once, before sleeping with someone new, I snuck into the bathroom to shave my face so it wouldn't look suspiciously hairy in the morning — that's how fast my hair grows, thanks to PCOS — but accidentally cut myself. Half-covering the gash, I had to make an excuse and leave abruptly before he could figure out what was going on. I never heard from him again.
When I'm on a date, it's all I can think about. What if I've missed a hair and it tickles him when we kiss? I hope I shaved my fingers in case he goes to hold my hand...
To cover the slight five-o'clock shadow on my upper lip and chin, I once applied four layers of foundation, only for it to transfer all over my date's pristine white shirt. And I threw away every single pair of ripped jeans I owned after one date made a comment about my stubbly knees. Even I couldn't believe I'd missed those.
Come to think of it, I've still never agreed to go on a date in the daytime: It’s my worst nightmare to catch a guy I’m into analyzing my face in the cold, natural light of day, and worse still to have him comment on a few stray chin hairs I may have missed. Underground cocktail bars with dark and moody lighting are where I feel most comfortable. Even then I’ll always wear my long hair down, like a security blanket.
Although I have learned to manage my facial and body hair a little better (more on that later), impromptu dates are still out of the question. I need at least 24 hours to obliterate every single hair properly (in which time, some will have already grown back) and, if I'm going in for a wax, at least two days to let the redness subside. Don't even get me started on the painful stubble and shaving spots that spring up a few days later.
And when I'm actually on a date, it's all I can think about, no matter how many glasses of rosé I've downed. What if I've missed a hair and it tickles him when we kiss? I hope I shaved my fingers in case he goes to hold my hand... I know, it’s all absurd, but the idea of getting intimate with someone new instills a certain fear in me, and I'm convinced men have thought I'm just not interested and given up entirely. Instead of resorting to the "it's not you, it's me" line, it's so much easier to drop off the radar without an explanation. If my hair turns me off, I dread to think what it would do to them.
In fact, I learned the hard way that honesty is most definitely not the best policy on my sixth date with a gorgeous police officer I'm pretty sure I may have fallen for — until he never returned my messages. When he asked why my arms were red and blotchy, I explained I'd had an IPL session to reduce the hair that morning and he recoiled in horror. "Your arms are that hairy? That's actually gross."
Yes, I'm completely and utterly obsessive about my hair, but I know I'm not alone in hating and wanting to get rid of every single patch of it. No matter how much we talk about normalizing facial and body hair on women, it's still something that many see as undesirable — taboo, even. We've all seen pictures of celebrities and models making a statement and owning their armpit fuzz, or flashing their leg hair in ad campaigns, but seeing an average woman proudly showing off her hairy stomach or the ingrown hairs on her bikini line still feels rare.
No matter how much we talk about normalizing facial and body hair on women, it's still something that many see as undesirable — taboo, even.
Even in her 80s, my grandmother hoards those little magnifying mirrors so she can eliminate her facial hairs as soon as they spring up, and a friend recently admitted to sneaking off to the office bathroom to pluck her chin hairs before important meetings with male bosses. An esthetician friend of mine also told me recently that clients apologize to her about their hair before whipping off their clothes for a wax. If they're saying sorry to someone who sees all types of hair day in, day out, how do they feel in front of new partners?
Skin specialists have also seen a huge rise in clients getting laser hair removal and IPL in a bid to be hair-free from top to bottom (quite literally). I'm in that boat. Instead of spending my money on holidays, clothes, or making amazing memories on nights out with friends, I've been saving up for years to zap one body part at a time of every single pesky hair, starting with my face.
After a course of laser hair removal didn't go well for me, I booked in for IPL, which stands for Intense Pulsed Light. The difference? Laser works on a very targeted wavelength but that of IPL is broader and harnesses a bright light that is attracted to the melanin in the hair follicle, subsequently damaging it.
After 12 sessions, I still have to deal with downy peach fuzz along my upper lip, chin, and cheeks. They're much finer and lighter than before, but it's still something I'm conscious of, especially when I'm makeup-free. But I've found that dry shaving (no, the hairs won't grow back thicker, that's a myth) now means I can date freely without having to worry about sneaking off to reapply my foundation or even canceling beforehand.
Letting my IPL specialist loose on my face was one thing, but having her zap my bits was another. To spare myself the embarrassment (although I'm pretty sure estheticians have seen everything), I sprung for the Philips Lumea Comfort IPL Hair Removal System. At over $200, the price tag might make your eyes water more than the actual ping of the device itself, but after one month of use, I noticed that the thick, jet-black hairs on my bikini line and stomach were thinning out. I still have to shave, just not daily, and that makes it well worth the investment. (Although having to contort yourself into weird positions to catch each hair is another story.)
Half the time, no one is even close enough to see my stubbly bits, and it's important to bear in mind that most people's perceptions of your appearance are different from your own, anyway.
Because polycystic ovaries can make hair growth feel like a never-ending battle you're not armed to fight, it's worth booking an appointment with your primary-care doctor. He or she may prescribe an oral contraceptive pill to block the male hormones that lead to excess hair growth, but I'd also suggest visiting a dermatologist. Nasty hormonal breakouts recently led me to spironolactone, an oral pill that has made my skin clearer and significantly reduced my unwanted hair.
“Spironolactone is a potassium-sparing diuretic that is licensed in the UK for treatment of blood pressure often in older patients with heart problems,” says Dr. Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Skin55. “Women with PCOS tend to have two distinct types of hair problems. They often suffer with excess facial or body hair (often in a similar pattern to men — known as hirsutism) but at the same time may notice shedding of scalp hair (often manifesting as thinning over the crown and temples).”
Dr. Mahto adds, “Off-label, spironolactone can help with both types of hair problem. It can potentially improve both scalp hair growth and hirsutism. However, in this context it should only be prescribed by a consultant dermatologist with experience in its use as it is an off-label or unlicensed treatment."
I've also tried to give less of a damn. Yes, not caring is always easier said than done, especially after everything I’ve just said, but hear me out: As time goes on, I'm starting to realize that I am so much more than my body hair, and that letting it rule my life is only holding me back. Not just from dating, but from jobs, vacations, crazy nights out with my friends, and just generally living my life.
Half the time, no one is even close enough to see my stubbly bits, and it's important to bear in mind that most people's perceptions of your appearance are different from your own, anyway. Those who care enough about my body to comment? They aren’t worth it. Which makes me feel a little better when I'm sharing a subway car with a hundred other people — or initiating a conversation on Bumble.
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