Hair is often considered one of women’s most important physical attributes, its length and texture being the subject of countless magazine articles and an entire industry’s worth of products. But the relationship between beauty and hair also offers cultural insights that are often overlooked in common discourse. The following essays tease apart some of those cultural threads, showing how hair (or lack thereof) affects how women see themselves. Edited by Irene Huhulea & Rachel Hurn
Iranian women avoid body hair like the plague. The norm is to commit to hairlessness, which is ironic for a population predominantly blessed with thick, dark hair. Women who embrace the natural hair on their bodies are deemed unattractive, nonconformist and unsophisticated. When I was growing up in southern California, I felt like it was other women telling me my body hair was unacceptable—from an elementary school bully making fun of my unshaven legs in gym class to my female cousins encouraging me to shave at a young age. But during a visit to Iran when I was 25, I was shocked when my cousin Mohammad shamed me for having hair on my arms. “Ew. That’s manly. You should get that taken care of.”
After feeling this repeated pressure to get waxed, I went to a beauty salon located in a swanky area of northern Tehran. The all-female salon was crowded with blonde dye jobs, hairless tattooed eyebrows, freshly waxed arms and full faces of makeup. These women looked like they were channeling Marilyn Monroe, not the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is just one of the many examples of the contradictions in Iran, where Islamic law establishes female modesty as a fundamental value and deems lack of proper hair and body covering illegal. Due to these restrictions, Iranian women tend to pamper their faces excessively since they are their most visible attribute when wearing a headscarf, or roosari. I observed this beauty standard not just in Iran’s capital city Tehran, but in other cities and towns across the country as well.
My undyed hair, natural eyebrows and little makeup made me feel like an outsider in Iran, but they also drove my curiosity about the beauty obsession ingrained in Iranian society. Were women trying to attract husbands? (Arranged marriages are common.) Were they maintaining a standard that was enforced by patriarchal society? Were women actively but aimlessly involved in a beauty contest with each other? Many young women live idly at home with their families post-graduation, if marriage, education or work opportunities abroad fail. Jobs in Iran are competitive, especially due to the high rate of unemployment.
Whatever their motivation, women in Iran, in the diaspora and across the globe spend exorbitant amounts of money on hair removal throughout their lives. I find this preposterous. Hair removal shouldn’t have the same financial weight as student-loan debt, especially when it comes with irritated skin and ingrown hairs. In the most practical sense, women should do what is most comfortable for them and have the choice to do as they please with their body hair without the societal cloud of beauty standards.
In search of a deeper answer, I went to a laser clinic in downtown Tehran. I was struck by the diversity of the women sitting in the waiting room. These women were young and old, religious and nonreligious, coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They were all investing months into laser sessions to eventually become hairless. As I chatted with other women about the pain of the procedure, I began to understand that these women-only spaces provided a pastime for women that went beyond vanity—a form of socialization and bonding in a patriarchal society very much divided between public and private space. I’ve realized that this type of bonding had a truly subversive power, offering women a special community that no man could begin to understand.