There’s a photo of me in a white-and-gold sequined ballerina costume standing with a childhood friend by a ballet barre. We’re backstage at the Scott Air Force Base Youth Center in Belleville, Illinois, in 1977. Minutes before our entrance to perform Swan Lake, we pose for a photograph. Our faces are restless and giddy. My shoulders are up to my ears as I beam a toothless smile. At five years old, it would be my first time onstage. It would also be my earliest memory of being anxious about the hair on my arms.
Even though it was the height of summer, I brought a white cardigan that I put on immediately after we arrived. Before the shot was taken, my mother yelled, “Starina, take it off, don’t hide your dress!”
Being of Thai-Indian descent, she didn’t have a body of unwanted hair like I did. Neither did my older brother. However, my Armenian dad, who had immigrated to the U.S. some years before my mom, did. Being sensitive to the embarrassment around my unwanted hair seemed out of reach in the scope of my mother’s understanding.
In the photo, my limbs are twisted inside out, showing only my hairless inner forearms. This part, I thought, was the beautiful side.
After the picture was taken, I quickly put my sweater back on. But onstage, even without the sweater, I felt safe from being seen. The bright stage lights blinded my view of the audience. I looked out into the dark theatre and danced with wild abandon. Then, when the performance was over and we all made our way offstage, I put my sweater back on.
By fifth grade, I was so used to covering my arms during the warm months it didn’t dawn on me that kids on the playground would comment on the way I was dressed. In fact, I came to expect it.
“Dang, aren’t you hot? It’s blistering out here,” kids would say.
“No, not really,” I would respond, shrugging my shoulders, looking down. But I was always burning up.
By this time, my family had moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, where, thank God, there were only three hot months out of the year. Every summer, I’d find myself in a panic, scrambling for outerwear to hide myself in. No one can know about my arms, I thought.
At age ten, when I started to like boys, I couldn’t help but feel desperate. That year, my older brother Raja had his fourteenth birthday party at our house and invited some of his soccer friends. I’d been to his matches; I knew which boys I fancied.
On the day of the party, I spent hours getting ready. I wore a red-and-white gingham top that I had outgrown, causing my bony wrists to poke through the sleeves. I put on lip gloss. I rehearsed over and over what I would say to my brother’s friends.
“Stop showing off, no one’s gonna like you, doofus,” Raja said, rolling his eyes.
When his friends arrived, I was so struck with shyness that I couldn’t speak. Birthday candles were lit. Chocolate cake was served. And while everyone was having fun, I tugged at my sleeves to cover my wrists. I kept my arms hidden under the dinner table.
Physically, my brother and I looked different. I had a strong Armenian nose; Raja’s was flatter. My skin was olive-tan, his more like red clay. My hair was curly. His, straight. His forearms had very little hair, and when the time came, he could barely grow more than a peach fuzz of a mustache.