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This is part of our series of articles about beauty—how we achieve it and redefine it as we get older.
I am in an epic, lifelong battle with my facial hair, and I am losing.
It’s like when they clear a wooded area to build a strip mall, and then the strip mall goes belly up and Mother Nature reclaims its domain: Patches of grass, weeds, and even brave, wiry young trees push their way up between cracks in the asphalt.
My transgender son, who recently started on testosterone, and I share a goal: For him to have more facial hair than I do.
That’s my face—my chin, lip, a few of the pores on my nose, and even my eyelids have hair of varying textures (the latter thanks to an eyelash serum I have since stopped using). And, yes, I’ve had my hormones checked; I do not have an imbalance, which can cause some women to grow a beard. I am simply a not-young, hairy Semitic woman. And because God forbid anything about aging should be easy for even five minutes, my head hair began thinning after I went off the pill, and the Rogaine that has brought it back gives me dark Teen Wolf fuzz on my temples. My transgender son, who recently started on testosterone, and I share a goal: For him to have more facial hair than I do.
My first salvo in this war employed Jolen Creme Bleach, because for some reason my 12- or 13-year-old self believed that a still-visible blonde mustache on my olive skin was preferable to a dark brown one.
“You know, honey,” my relatively fuzzless mom said, as I sat on the side of the tub holding a ticking kitchen timer—my upper lip stinging from the white, frown-shaped strip of paste—“In some cultures, such as India, facial hair on women is considered sexy.”
I couldn’t reply or chunks of bleach would have fallen off my face and I’d have had to mix up another batch with that tiny spatula. So I glared until she left the bathroom. In my head I was screaming, “We don’t fucking live in fucking India!”
Electrolysis (a.k.a. My Enhanced Interrogation Session)
From there I tweezed (ouch!), waxed (red bumps followed by little pustules), and endured electrolysis in my 20s, administered by a woman named Elyse who wore giant magnifying goggles and a headlamp and chatted nonjudgmentally about all the unlikely places humans have hair. Electrolysis involves inserting a slender probe into each of your follicles and individually murdering it with a jolt of electricity. Because the process is just short of an enhanced interrogation session, Elyse knows stuff about me that I’ve never told any therapist. Dark thoughts, I find, accompany dark facial hair.
But electrolysis is permanent when done right, and it’s the only method I’ve tried that has lasted on my face. The sparse hair on my lip appears to be new growth, perhaps spurred by the Rogaine. I was first in line clutching a wad of cash when hair removal lasers became a thing in the ‘90s, and my legs and bikini line remain admirably fuzz free, but, alas, not my chin or my sideburns. So I am now a woman who shaves, which, if you call it dermaplaning and pay an aesthetician to do it, isn’t actually shaving.
I know I’m not the only one, not least because my straight-edged lady razors come in lady colors like yellow and lavender and are shaped like a flamingo. And because I asked.
Pancho Villa? Ouch.
“My chin whiskers are THE WORST,” says Gina (some names have been changed.) “As a 20-something, I had a couple of stray, fine but longish hairs. I plucked them and kept moving. Now these stubborn thick black wires are in patches on either side of my chin and jawline!” Gina used to go to a brow-waxer, a Mexican-American student of revolutionary history who kindly offered to do Gina’s ‘stache. “She said I looked like Pancho Villa! I laughed until there were tears in my eyes. One time I had my whole face threaded—dear gawd that hurt like a mofo.”
‘One time I had my whole face threaded—dear gawd that hurt like a mofo.’
Threading is when a practitioner essentially makes tiny lassos out of twisted thread and rips out even the nearly invisible, hard-to-corral hair. The technique is thought to have originated in India, which indicates my mom may have been mistaken about the abject worship of hairy females in Southeast Asia or anywhere else. A Greek friend cooks up a batch of halaweh, which is sugar and water and lemon, heated and then cooled into a sticky taffy-like thing, and applied like wax. She learned it from Palestinian and Jordanian classmates in college.
“You name it, I’ve tried it,” says a former colleague, Karina, who keeps a pot of Brazilian wax at the ready in her bathroom, a razor and tweezers in her car (numerous women told me that the natural light in the car exposes previously unseen hairs) and owns an at-home IPL device. Karina is blonde, but her chin hairs are not, and she has a few on her neck, where, if she were a man, her Adam’s apple would be. “One time I had a hair on my neck that I didn’t catch,” before hooking up with a man she was seeing, she says. “The guy was way too curious about how I could possibly grow a hair there. God wants me to be hairy and single, apparently.”
I, too, worry about the chin hair that escaped my scrutiny; there’s always fucking ONE, which I usually discover while rubbing my chin thoughtfully during a work meeting. Then I obsess for the rest of the meeting that everyone can see it.
Facial Hair Removal: Rage and Meditation
Shelly says she’s has had no luck with electrolysis and that much of the facial hair she had treated with a laser came back, but still she persists. One desperate night years ago, an infomercial seduced her into ordering one of the battery-operated devices that uses spring coils to yank out hair. “All I can recall is the pain,” she says. “I’ve blocked most of these things from my memory because the whole ordeal caused PTSD.” But pain doesn’t stop her; she believes it’s worth it. On a scale of one to childbirth, Shelly says she would take labor-level pain to be fur-free. “Whenever I’m at the laser place, I tell them to crank it up to 11.”
Shelly says she would take labor-level pain to be fur-free.
There is some glory in this fight. There are times I feel like a conquistadora, such as the 15-minute period immediately after I tweeze and shave, when my face is blissfully smooth. I am not the only woman to get some perverse satisfaction from temporarily triumphing over the thicket. A dear friend from college vents her considerable feminine rage by yanking out her steel wool-like chin hairs, and another friend finds standing by her window (natural light again!) and tweezing her chin for five minutes every morning “meditative.” “But then one time I decided to count the hairs I plucked from my chin and upper lip,” she says. “I got to 40 and stopped counting. Too depressing.”
When I’m feeling blah, I wonder if clearing away the facial brush is just pointless method number 75,783 of staving off thoughts of the inevitable. See how quickly we get back to the dark thoughts? “When I was younger I wondered what would happen if I was in a coma and if anyone would come and tweeze the hairs out of my chin for me,” Karina admits. I was relieved to hear she’d had that thought: I have long wanted to be cremated because I’ve heard that hair grows for a time after you’re dead. The idea of an open casket has made me anxious.
Relief will come, certainly when we’re a heap of ashes in an urn somewhere, but perhaps even before then, when our eyesight and that of our loved ones becomes so bad that a few (hundred) (thousand) facial hairs won’t bother anyone. “I was so happy when I broke my 10X mirror,” a friend posted on Facebook. “Denial is my depilatory.”
But I wouldn’t count on it. Says my college friend Amy: “Here I am staring 50 in the face and blurrily hunting in the mirror for hairs to pluck. They’re there. I can’t see them. But I can feel them.”