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.
I thought it was a cruel joke that I, the girl of the family, had more body hair than my brother. (Years later, we would learn that we had different fathers.)
“Why are you trying to cover your arms? Everyone knows you’re hairy,” Raja would tease.
“Yeah, well, everyone knows you have buck teeth!” I’d snap back.
My brother’s jabs about the hair on my arms were the only verbal acknowledgment of my embarrassment that I ever got at home. Neither of my parents ever said a thing, which made the burden of the shame I carried feel even heavier. I was alone with my confusion. I could only assume I was as disgusting as my brother made me feel.
I wore an overshirt constantly until one spring day in 1982 when I took it off to reveal my arms in short sleeves.
I can’t remember what drove me to unleash my arms, but I do remember being charged by the thrill of finally being free, of letting my arms swing in the sun. At my desk before recess, I rolled down my button-up shirt in slow motion: off my shoulders, then down my back. Careful not to cause a stir in class, I bunched it up and tucked it safely inside my desk. I was sure everyone was watching me. As soon as I noticed a funny look or heard laughter, I would snap it back on.
I almost made it through recess without anyone saying a thing. I played kickball, did flips on the monkey bars, jumped rope, and climbed poles.
I saw a couple of double takes from classmates. A look of shock. But no one said a word. It was as if they were scared of my hairy arms. Like my limbs had some otherworldly power. I liked the way my peers seemed to bow down to my strangeness.
The bell rang, and we all started to make our way back to class, when suddenly a girl threw a rubber ball in my direction.
“You sure do have a lot of hair,” she said.
Her words caught me off guard. I got nervous. In a flash, I saw my button-up sitting inside my desk and I wished I could grab it. I looked down and noticed the girl had a hole on the top of her sneaker. Something about this realization gave me comfort.
“Yeah, I guess I do,” I said as I shrugged and threw the ball back to her.
I didn’t put my long sleeves back on for the rest of the school day. I had passed the playground test. I thought I was in the clear. Then I boarded the school bus for home.
I was late to the parking lot, and the only place to sit was in the dreaded back. I slid into a window seat.
“Don’t mix with those who do drugs. They are a bad influence,” my father would always warn my brother and me.
I imagine he was referring to the kids sitting near me that day — a redheaded girl and guy who seemed to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Smoking cigarettes, playing loud, heavy-metal music on their boom boxes, these high-school kids and the rest of their clan surrounded me.
Across the aisle was Raja, who must’ve had a hard time getting a seat, too, because he usually sat in the middle. We had gotten to a point as siblings where we barely acknowledged each other in public, even though at home we bickered constantly.
“You better shut up or I’ll tell Dad,” I’d say.
“Go ahead, Fartbina. I double-dare you.”
The window I sat next to was covered in a cloudy film, blocking my view. I was lost in a daydream, imagining myself spinning in a cotton dress, bare-armed. That’s when I heard the first cackle.
It was the redheaded boy.
I looked up, and he was standing in the aisle by my seat, leaning, blowing smoke.
“Man, look at the hair on her arms,” he said.
I felt a bubble form in my chest, even though no one paid attention to him.
“Seriously, dude, those are some hairy arms!”
A couple of people chuckled.
Black Sabbath, his T-shirt read. I had no idea what a black sabbath was, but it sounded dark.
He leaned in close to me. I could see the pimples on his face.
“Holy shit, she’s like a monkey!”
I moved closer to the window, sat on my hands.
A burst of laughter shot through the smoke and noise.
I looked down and squeezed my hands under my thighs.
He wouldn’t stop. He started making monkey noises.
“Raja, dude, your sister’s like an ape,” he said, tapping my brother’s shoulder.
No, I thought, don’t drag my brother into this. Despite how much we fought at home, I secretly wanted my brother to protect me. I wanted him to tell the redheaded boy to buzz off, kick his knees, punch him in his zit face.
“Seriously, Raja, why’s your sister so hairy?”
I looked up and saw a smirk on my brother’s face.
“I don’t know, man,” he said after a minute, shaking his head. Dismissing the question, dismissing me.
I stared into the thin opening between the bus seat and the backboard. I wanted to slip inside the hole, to disappear.
“C’mon, baby, stop it,” the redhaired girl interrupted.
She looked at me and smiled, as if she could hear my thoughts.
“Hey, Raja, does your sister eat a lot of bananas?” the boy said
Just then, the redheaded girl tilted her head back and started laughing. A calm settled over me as I watched her closely. Inside her mouth she had shiny pieces of metal covering her teeth, glittering like sequins on a dress. This must be why she never smiles, I thought. But to me, the metallic wires looked precious and bright. Why would anyone want to keep that hidden?
“It’s time we do something about this,” my aunt announced as she pulled me into the bathroom later that summer.
My aunt Anna, who was my father’s eldest sister, was the only adult female who seemed to understand my predicament. She, like my father, was 100 percent Armenian. If anyone knew how to remove unwanted hair, it was her.
“I’ll show you how to use the strips. Nothing to be afraid of,” Aunt Anna said.
My aunt lived in France and was the type of woman who never wore shorts in public. She always kept her hair in a tight bob, which she routinely dyed black. She had a French accent. She wore Chanel.
“Ouch!” I winced and pulled back my arm.
“A little pain is OK. You will become used to it.”
Mounds of furry patches piled up in the bathroom sink. The warm wax felt welcoming, but then came the electric tear. I clenched my teeth, turned my head, and stared at the half-naked lady on the Nair box. Soon, my arms would be as pretty as hers.
“OK?” my aunt asked, wiping her forehead.
I nodded, in shock. My arms were swollen and pink. But all the hair was gone.
That night in bed, I couldn’t stop touching my arms. Aside from a few red marks, my skin felt soft and new. I felt as if anything were possible. I thought my arms would stay hairless forever.
But it took only a couple of weeks for the hair to start growing back. Disappointment took over as I tried unsuccessfully to wax my arms on my own. I just couldn’t bring myself to rip the pads off fast or hard enough. And when I tried asking my mom for help, she seemed clueless.
“I thought Anna showed you how do it.”
I attempted bleaching, which made me look even freakier, with strands of blonde on my brown skin. Finally, I tried gliding a razor blade across my arms. At first, my skin was as smooth as when my aunt first waxed me. I felt victorious. But within days, the fibers started to grow back darker and coarser, and my arms began to itch like crazy. I was defeated. The hair on my arms overpowered my will. I went back to covering myself up with long sleeves.
Shuffling through photos of my childhood, I’m amazed to see that in almost every picture, I’m draped in a long-sleeved top. I worked so hard to cover my shame.
By sixteen, I had figured out how to cut my arm hairs with a pair of my mom’s sewing scissors, which had an automatic spring attached to them. Long gone were my long sleeves and botched-up trimmings with a pair of rusty school scissors. Keeping my arm hairs smoothly trimmed allowed me to move through my high-school and college years with some sense of belonging.
These days, I routinely trim my arm hair with a men’s electric shaver, but I still keep some of it intact. I know there are plenty of options to get rid of unwanted hair for good, but I’ve never pursued any of them. Just recently, I had my arms waxed for a performance, and I was surprised when I realized how naked I felt without the hair. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like me.
Several years ago, my brother asked me to speak to his four-year-old daughter about the hair on her lower back. She was insecure. No one else in the family had body hair.
“I figured you would understand,” he said.
Seeing his daughter torn up about feeling different granted Raja a compassion he had been unable to feel for me when we were younger.
I looked into my niece’s eyes and saw that unspoken feeling of shame. I was near the same age when I’d started feeling anxious about my own body hair.
“You know, I have hair there, too,” I said, pointing to my lower back.
Her eyes widened as she looked to see where I was pointing.
“And look at my arms,” I said, rolling up my sleeve. “Not everyone has it.”
“Mommy and Daddy don’t have it,” my niece said, touching my arm.
“No, but we do.” I leaned in and kissed her forehead.
This was the conversation my younger self had longed to receive. I wanted to protect her from the world and its evil judgments. Let her know she wasn’t alone. But mostly, I wanted her to know she never had to feel wrong inside her beautiful, perfect body.
Starina Catchatoorian is a Brooklyn-based creative-nonfiction writer and singer-songwriter. Her work has appeared on Narratively, the Vinyl District, and NPR’s All Songs Considered. Though still not a huge fan of heavy metal, she once taught the guitar riff from “Crazy Train” to an eleven-year-old music student. And she slayed. ilovestarina.com