As a feminist, I'm often critical of the beauty industry. I'm used to telling conventional beauty standards to auto-copulate. So, when I was struck with the desire to have my defenseless little hairs yanked out by the roots, I felt troubled and confused. Because waxing is one of the many cultural practices that I find problematic.
What's Wrong with Waxing?
There's the racial angle, of course. I might not agree that Ashkenazi Jews constitute a "race," but let's face it: we Jews tend to deviate from the reigning beauty ideal. We're short; we have strong features, and thick, dark locks. I know Jewish girls who spend hours straightening their all-but-straight hair, girls who carefully tweeze their brows and upper lips. It's hard not to feel that these arduous grooming measures are an attempt to look whiter, to blend in. There's an undercurrent of ethnic self-hatred in these women that makes me distinctly uncomfortable.
Then, there's my feminist objections to waxing. I hate the age-old idea that women must suffer to be beautiful. For the most part, I agree with the second-wave case against the beauty industry, as stated by the incomparable Naomi Wolf. Our society pressures women--and increasingly, men too--to harm themselves for the sake of beauty. Breast implants, stilettos, bikini waxes--for some, these might be authentic personal choices. But most women engage in physically destructive beauty regimes because of social pressure to do so. Wolf sees painful beauty treatments as a subtle form of violence against women. And personally, I'm inclined to agree.
But You Still Got Your Brows Yanked Off!
Well, parts of them. Yes. Does that make my a hypocrite? I don't think so, for several reasons.
First, I didn't get waxed because I felt that fuzzy brows were some kind of terrible defect. I know lots of women who look gorgeous with thick, natural brows. Nor was waxing an attempt to look "whiter," per se. Hairy brows or no, I look distinctly Jewish, and I'm proud of it.
I didn't get waxed because I felt pressured to do so. Sure, conventional beauty standards had something to do with it. I wasn't born thinking that a wide, smooth glabella was a desirable thing. But I'm also perfectly comfortable rejecting beauty practices that don't feel right to me. (Dieting, for example.) In the end, I made a thoughtful decision to modify my appearance, in a way that seemed reasonable to me.
For me personally, getting a brow wax wasn't much of a sacrifice. The procedure was painful, but it was also brief. There were a few moments of intense pain as the stylist yanked the wax off, plus some mild soreness that lasted for about twenty minutes. And the resulting change in my appearance, while minor, made me genuinely happy. This seems like a pretty good deal.
On the other hand, from my personal standpoint, Brazilian bikini waxes seem downright inhumane. I can tolerate a certain amount of pain in a few tiny spots on my forehead. But would I want to subject my nether regions to the same type of abuse--and risk all sorts of unpleasant health complications? I think not. And frankly, I'm appalled that our culture pressures women to suffer through such a procedure.
So Where Do We Draw the Line?
How much is it reasonable to sacrifice for beauty, financial gain, or social acceptability? When does a bizarre personal choice become an oppressive cultural practice? The short answer is: I don't know. Obviously, it's a subjective decision. I have a vague sense of where the line should be, but that's influenced by my personal experience; by the value I place on beauty, and on bodily integrity; and by my personal tolerance for pain.
Then again, maybe it doesn't matter where one draws that line in the sand. The truth is, people like modifying their bodies, for a variety of reasons. It's an age-old past-time, which can be a lot of fun. I'm inclined to think that procedures which can permanently impair physical functioning (elective labiaplasty comes to mind) are inherently repressive. But, barring permanent physical harm, there's a tremendous range of body modification practices available. And each of them could conceivably represent an empowered, life-enhancing choice for some individuals.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
The things some women do for beauty seem crazy to me. Then again, I have friends who think that my decision to get my brows done is completely insane. It's not my place to question anyone's personal choices. The real issue is making sure that we have a cultural climate in which people really can make those choices freely.
I might enjoy having neatly-shaped brows, but I'm still irritated by all the cultural pressure to be groomed into oblivion. I was still intensely gratified the other day, when I saw a clothing ad the featured a beautiful, and distinctly un-waxed, female model. And if I hate the pressure to be shaved and waxed, I hate the pressure to diet, or get breast implants, or engage in hundreds of other dangerous beauty practices about a thousand times more. But that doesn't mean I can't respect another woman's right to get a boob job, if that's what makes her happy.
And if someone chooses to engage in risky beauty practices as a response to social pressure, that, too, is a legitimate choice. It may not be consistent with my personal value system, but it's still their body, and their decision.
In the end, we need to respect others' choices, even as we fight the social pressures that constrained those choices. It's a delicate balance, one that requires some fairly sophisticated thinking. But it's certainly not impossible.