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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

I can’t say when the hair follicles on my legs went into retirement, but I think it was around the time those on my chin began joining the work force in record numbers. Peering into the mirror one day, I was appalled to discover a thicket of fine, white whiskers sprouting along my jaw line right below my bottom lip. This came shortly after the welcome realization that the hair on my legs had simply disappeared.

No stubble. My legs were as smooth as the skin of an apple except for a couple of long, dark renegade strands on each shin. Discounting their webs of spider veins and scattered age spots, these might be the satiny legs of my childhood before puberty arrived with its attendant upheaval and I learned to shave.

One Christmas, probably in my eighth-grade year, I received an adorable round, pink plastic box containing my very own electric shaver. Later, I learned to use a razor, infinitely more dangerous to tender skin and bony shins than my cute electric, but providing a much closer shave. I carried on with these two hair removal tools until the late 60’s when the question of whether or not to shave took on serious political ramifications for both sexes.

Young men wore their hair long and sported beards, mustaches, and sideburns to protest everything from the strictures of their family’s values to the war in Vietnam and the entire military-industrial complex. For women, too, hair became a political statement. I, along with many of my sisters, eschewed shaving as a symbol of the dominant male culture, one that denied what women really were, namely humans who sprouted hair in unbecoming places just like men. Instead, we let the hair on our legs and underarms grow unimpeded by razor, depilatory, or wax. Feminists of our era were ready to remove our foundation garments and let it all hang out which included thick pelts of dark hair on our once-smooth legs.

Hairy legs didn’t bother me in the long months of a Vermont winter. Indeed, the added warmth was welcome under thick tights or long pants and freedom from the tyranny of bi-weekly shaves was liberating. But when warm weather arrived, my politics became too personal. I could not bring myself to display my gorilla fur for all to see. Somehow, as much as I embraced the feminist ideals of independence, intelligence, and natural beauty, I could not don a summer dress or my favorite cut-offs with hairy legs.

I imagine that first shave of the season was akin to a man’s shaving off his beard. The long, dark hairs clogged the drain, and several passes with the razor were needed to clear away my legs’ winter fur. Bits of skin were inevitably sacrificed under the blade and the resulting smooth legs stung with heat and irritation.

I maintained this smooth leg/hairy leg rotation until my mid-forties when I joined a gym. Never having participated in team sports or found salvation in punishing bike rides or lengthy hikes, sweating was new to me. Working out daily, I quickly learned the efficacy of wicking shorts and tank tops for staying cool. And shorts and tanks meant no more winter shaving breaks. Vanity aside, I couldn’t risk the safety of my workout companions should the distraction of my luxuriant leg hair cause one of them to suffer loss of consciousness or even injury.Vanity aside, I couldn’t risk the safety of my workout companions should they be distracted by the sight of my luxuriant leg hair.

I usually did my shaving in the shower where, without my glasses and good lighting, it was strictly a hit or miss affair. I went primarily by feel and this sufficed for several years. Then one day before stepping into the shower, I scanned my legs to see if I actually needed my bi-weekly shave. I didn’t.

The end of my shaving life wasn’t as abrupt as it seemed, of course. I just hadn’t been paying attention. Compared to the relentless droop of crepey skin on my arms and torso, the deepening vertical creases on my upper lip, the criss-cross of raised veins on the backs of my hands, the slow demise of my leg hair was hardly noteworthy.

As a child, I couldn’t wait to grow up and join the adult world. Now that I’ve been a member of that world for half a century, I know what my younger self could not know; at some point we stop growing up and start growing down. Our bodies grow weaker, our faculties grow less acute, our interest in the pleasures of the flesh declines.

But it’s not all bad news. Our accumulated experience and knowledge mean we have the potential to grow in gratitude, perspective, compassion and wisdom.

And I’ll take wise over hairy any day.

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