Sunday, July 27, 2008

My Experience With Armpit Hair

There have been an interesting string of events that have taken place since I ditched the razor. Well, I guess I didn’t ditch it completely; I just stopped using it above my hipbone. It started with a dare, of sorts. I should start from the beginning.

It was a sunny morning in the Midwest, and I lay on my friend’s backyard hammock. The breeze was just light enough to keep my sweat from dripping, but it was not enough to alleviate the sweat. “You need a test of conformity,” she said; “perhaps you should not shave your armpits until I see you again.” That’s seven weeks I thought, and that is a long time for my underarms to go without a sharp blade slicing into its sensitive flesh. “Sure,” I said. Why? Well I thought I knew exactly who I was: a strong woman with no ego; I am a feminist who touts my SELF as my own – to do with as I please; and in some ways I was comfortable because not shaving may fall in to a stereotypical category in which I already pridefully and passionately place upon myself: gay. These are silly generalizations, but as the days turned into weeks, my hair’s length began to match that of my awareness of gender.

My confidence was through the roof, and I wonder now if it is because I was subconsciously discovering/holding on to a masculine trait of feeling positive about my role in the world. Choosing to go against the grain was brave, and that is masculine, right? Maybe not, but, I decided to be real with a lot of folks in my life. If I could be brave in my own world, perhaps others could be brave in my world too. So, um, yeah. Armpits don’t emit any special potion that protect, and needless to say, I was rejected here and there on a multitude of issues based on my need to be free from my own set-up boundaries, constrictions and conformity. Still, I was determined to keep my “locks” (ew, can I call armpit hair such a thing?).

One of the first couple of days that I was back from the safety of the hammock, I was at the pool with my nephew. It was unbearably hot – like the sun-is-right-here-on-your-neck type of hot. They were there when I arrived. Two women – whom my queerdar picked up as family – strolled over to the edge of the city pool where I was diving, flipping and laughing in the deep, cooling water. My armpits had been consciously on my mind these days. I knew when to hide ‘em. In fact, I can’t believe how often my elbows jabbed in to my sides – as if to remind me to not lift my arms too high – we wouldn’t want to show the world that I am a woman who doesn’t conform to standards. Somewhere in the back of my heat-dazed head I decided that these women might find it sexy that not only am I wearing a white bathing suit with rainbow hearts, but they would also realize that I am interested in them because I have armpit hair (seeing the stereotype of this type of hair). So I propped my arms up on the ledge adjacent to their legs and proudly rocked my stubble. I’m pretty sure they never looked at me. And if they did, what type of weirdo checks out their possible date’s pits? Perhaps it wasn’t long enough yet.

It was finally noticeable on a day where I was not quite as puffed up as the day at the pool. It was the first day at the mural site, and I was the only woman. I had on my painting gear, ready to get dirty, and my hair was swept up into a bun, and held together by my pen. That morning I noticed the dark mass under my arms, growing (too close for comfort) next to my sports bra. With a wince and a crinkle of my nose I hopped on my bike and headed out to the neighborhood where the mural wall needed pointed, primed and landscaped. The guys at the site were dope: super funny and very masculine in that they wore long shorts, Timberland boots and either A-line tanks or crisp white t’s. First thing we had to do was put the scaffolding together, which means a lot of heavy lifting, and holding up the metal pieces. It also means exposing the world to my armpits. I noticed them noticing, and I thought, well, already they think I am not a “girly-girl” because I was working on such a hard job – and in fact one of the guys asked me if I am the male in my intimate relationships (no, you idiot, gay relationships don’t have to mirror your heterosexual ways…) – and maybe this would work to my favor because they will give me the benefit of the doubt that I can indeed lift and work hard. Because I can. Instantaneously I was in charge of things; pointing out where to place the metal sides, calling out for more mortar to be mixed. My demands were intermixed with stories told by my fellow workers that were littered with misogynistic words. They talked about music and hollered at ladies walking by in their summer ‘fits. Usually men apologize to me in these situations; “oh, sorry Bonnie, no disrespect, but…” Nothing like that was ever said. I felt truly accepted by them, and I dug that. I wondered on my way home if it had anything to do with the hair growing under my (now dirty) arms.

The next day, I rode my bike the five miles to the center of town, and waited for the early morning bus to drop me off at the site. A guy about my age walked by a few times, and then stopped. “What’s that pin mean,” he asked while pointing to my rainbow pin on book bag strap. It says “Celebrate Diversity.” It was silent for a moment as I gave him that look that says, come on now, you know what a rainbow flag symbolizes. “So, are you, like, a lesbian?” he sputtered. “Yes.” Yes I am buddy. “So, have you ever been with guys? I mean, do you have guys trying to turn you, like how I am doing now?”

Oh goodness, I thought. Seriously? So I lifted my arms and fixed my hair, armpit hair practically stabbing him in the eye. The magical powers still didn’t work. He was still standing there.

“Well,” I tell him, “I usually don’t wear work clothes covered in paint like this, so yes, when I am wearing my usual flowing dresses, I get mistaken all of the time for a straight woman.” I knew I would either have to be rude or educate so I chose the latter. “You may not realize it, but women are so conditioned in our world to be a princess and to marry a prince that coming out is a later-in-life practice among many queer folks.” He nodded. The bus came at that moment, and, of course, we were going in the same direction. He sat next to me, and told me about his job as a barber, and then he asked the most insane thing a person on public transportation has ever asked: “Ok, I will make you a deal; You get with me, and I will get with another man.” What in the world is this crazy dude’s problem? Here I am being nice and then he drops some weirdo sex stuff on me. I tried to laugh it off.

“Ha, um, yeah, not interested in that.” My social work skills jumped the gun (I should have just put my ipod back in my ear canals): “Have you ever been with a man?” I asked. He was silent for a moment and I could tell that he had never really talked about this before. Perhaps his ignorance was mistaken; he may be trying to reach out. He told me that before he went to prison for five years he had sex with “a he-she”… “Sorry, you mean a transgender person?” He looked at his shoes, and muttered, “Yeah, that’s it.” “Ok. Well, have you met anyone recently?” “No, I don’t go to those type of bars,” he said, still not looking up at me. I noticed then that he was the type of person who, like me, is often spotted as straight. He wore Dickies, new sneakers, a crisp t-shirt. He was covered in tattoos and had a cool-guy demeanor. I was happy to have the conversation now because he may be reaching out. I now wish I had been less consumed with flashing my pits, and, instead, more mindful of his real intentions. But, alas, we parted ways on the desolate streets of Carnegie.

I could seriously go on for pages here about all of the men who approached me during the week I worked on the job site. One person commented on my outfit (“You gonna paint in that; you don’t want to get messed up”). One person touched my hands (I didn’t give him permission to do so) and said I clearly didn’t do this type of job for a living. I got a grip of business cards from folks whose services I didn’t need, but who decided to waltz up to me as I rolled the super bright white paint on the walls. Madness I tell you. And the freakin’ armpits were doing nothing for me. I didn’t care about the hair, and no one else seemed to care. In fact, they seemed to be a magnet for men, and I don’t swing that way.

On July 26th, a mere 12 days since the dare, I shaved it off. It was about 7 in the morning and I was in the bathroom staring at myself in the early morning light. It took a split second, but I grabbed the razor, splashed some water on my pits, and got rid of it all. A slight sting of “good job Bonnie, you couldn’t make it even a month” rushed over me, but then it was gone. I realized that I am ok with being me, and if that means shaving and conforming, then so be it. If it means breaking down stereotypes while sometimes contradicting myself, then that’s my role. I still got treated the same way that I get treated when I don a skirt.

The day I shaved my armpits I worked so incredibly hard at the site. I was with the kids, I primed the wall, I did landscaping, I pressure washed the adjacent, moldy walls. I was filthy. I came home beat. My folks were down the street at their local hangout. I needed to collect my head for a moment. Purple dress, black flats, my hair clean and smelling good, and my armpits gleaming in all of their naked beauty, I walked in to the bar. “Yuengling draft,” I ordered. It wasn’t long until a local guy told my mom that her daughter was beautiful, and that he just broke up with his wife. He was going on and on. I drown the conversation out; I was too interested in my pint and the extreme fighting that was on TV. Two women, one from South Dakota and one from Brazil, were interlocked in move after move on the bloody mat. People in the bar were amazed at these “girls” who were being aggressive. They would never make the same comments if the two women were, instead, two men. My mom looked at me. “Should I tell him, or do you want to?” He noticed and said, “tell me what?” I looked at him square in the eye, and after a week of these types of approaches, I flatly and loudly said, “That I am gay.” He stood back, and looked shocked. “What, you think I’m gay?” So now he thinks that being gay is an insult, and, besides, that is not what I said. “Now (you jerk), I am gay.” He smiled. “Oh, well, that makes it even better; that’s totally hot.” Oh how I wish I had saved the shavings and sprinkled them in his Coors Light draft sweating on the counter top.

Instead I simply turned my head and watched a woman beat the crap out of another woman.