In prison, shaving was a luxury I couldn’t stand to lose

Part of the punishment.
Part of the punishment.
Image: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“George Bush was president the last time I shaved my legs,” I announced from the shower.

“Thousand points of light,” said Diane, an older woman doing time for abusing her corporate credit card to buy household essentials as she waited for me to get out.

“George W, not the father; I’m not some kind of pig,” I schooled her.

I started shaving when I was ten years old, pilfering my mother’s yellow-handled metal razor from her shower. Amateur that I was, I harvested a slice of skin worthy of grafting. When my mother discovered my wound, she provided the few tips needed to qualify me for authorized use of a razor by a minor.

I used my new license to shave every day for almost 30 years, until I met York Correctional Institute, where the warden considers all tools of hair removal to be weapons—aside from factory-reject electric razors and Nair bottled in 1999.

The act of shaving was never a nuisance or a preference for me; it was automatic. Neither a triangle of bristle near my ankles nor a strip of stubble on my shin ever appeared. I never imagined a day when I would be prevented from my daily grooming routine.

I didn’t shave when I first arrived at prison; I never thought I would be here long enough to need a shave. About six weeks into my stay, I sudsed up my washcloth, started to scrub and wondered how a Greek sailor got into the shower with me and left his toupee under my arm. My basement window wasn’t obscured by bushes; I had grown full hedges. All of this hair can’t be mine, I thought. I didn’t even recognize myself.

Panicked, I purchased the electric razor from the prison commissary. It barely removed any hair. The rotating blades pressed against such cheap mesh guards that the lattice tore, leaving razor-tipped metal edges digging into my skin. Scabs dotted my legs and when I tried switching methods, the Nair set the abrasions on fire.

Then, on top of these scabs, I developed a rash. Prisons are the capitals of infectious disease; more than just the bad attitudes are contagious.  The prison doctor said he saw one red skin inflammation every year that defied diagnosis. I won the completely-unidentifiable-irritation-award for three years running.

“Shaving or the clobetasol,” the doctor told me, holding out his hands like the competing sides of a scale, meaning that if I continued to shave with the razor that minced my skin into ground chuck, then he would stop prescribing the steroid cream that stopped the rash. I pitched the razor and haven’t attempted hair removal since.

Women never consider the possibility that we may, at some point, be unable to groom ourselves or control how we look. If we do, we usually associate that inability to primp with death, not living in tight quarters, undergoing daily scrutiny and surveillance. Sure, my new hirsute identity elected not to shave but, as for most prisoners’ actions, conditions compelled my choice; in prison, restriction always anchors one’s free will.

Being unable to control our appearances can be traumatic, harrowing. That’s the real punishment for women in prison—the powerlessness to look the way we choose. Women’s magazines succeed because we like learning what else we can do to change, enhance or delete from our appearance so that we’re not always stuck with what occurs naturally. Proving that appearance is no minor concern, the mere chance to change our own attributes has created a 70 billion dollar a year cosmetics industry, a multi-billion dollar plastic surgery industry and Adobe Photoshop.

Private enterprise loves to make money off prisoners; the decision not to allow makeup or other image enhancers in women’s prisons is not because no one on the inside would buy the products. We would. I suppose that denying these products is part of correction, an imposition of humility on incarcerated women.

Sentences of mere confinement were too easy in Franz Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony, where guilt was “never to be doubted.” In the colony, wardens carved prisoners’ punishments into their backs with needles over and over again until the carvings lacerated their bodies to the point of death. The executioner required onlookers to watch the visible demarcations of punishment. Beheading or poisoning the prisoner would have been more efficient yet it would have been insufficient. It is never enough that someone suffers punishment; a prisoner has to wear it before he dies.

External manifestations of punishment are hardly new. From Hester Prynne’s crimson vowel to the six-pointed yellow stars worn by Jews in Nazi Germany, few can deny the connection between reckoning and appearance.

Your just desserts have to be spilled down the front of your shirt. Revisitation of karma must lay track marks.  Even Jesus Christ who rose from the dead couldn’t shake his stigmata. Prevention, people will tell you, is why these brandings are necessary; prevention of escape, prevention of another offense. Everyone must know you did wrong just from looking at you. Knowing that you are helpless—that you’re not ready for your close up when you’re ready for your cuff up—to control how you look is the real penalty. The real rebuke is ugliness.

Nowhere is this lesson more apparent than in how we criticized Lindsay Lohan in her court appearances last year when she was accused of stealing a necklace from jeweler Kamofie and Co. in Los Angeles. Of course, in this country, no defendant is actually considered innocent until proven guilty. We suspect someone is guilty until she looks terrible, and when she does look bad, we know she’s guilty for sure.

Lohan appeared in court on March 10, 2011 in an awkwardly adjusted, Raquel Allegra buff-colored leather dress and a Judith Ripka diamond pendant that few others can afford. Was it really the fit of the dress or the cost of the diamond that offended us, or its function? Lindsay used the dress and the diamond to look good, so different from all of the other defendants in court that day.

Lindsay denied those people who remain unaccused of wrongdoing the right to look better than those people who face accusations. How dare she?

Even as my own trial unfolded in the local newspaper, reporting inaccuracies and the names the press called me bothered me but not enough; I was just glad that Connecticut courtrooms disallow cameras.

Because of this rule, no reporters carried cameras with them to snap photos of me outside the courthouse. They had no chance to see the hair on my legs because it wasn’t even there yet, so that was not the cause of my trepidation. Readers of the local press drew incorrect conclusions about my character and the evidence against me.

But my overall appearance was still inconclusive to them and I was OK with that, because no one could assess my case based on whether someone though I looked good or bad. Think about every trial you’ve seen on TV and try to deny that the defendant’s appearance did not affect your evaluation of the evidence and the verdict.

I must admit that not shaving, or not grooming myself, has caused a new form of self-rejection. I never look down or to the sides when I dress. Nightmares of strapless dresses and shorts recur weekly. I shower with one eye closed so I can’t see the locks on or between my legs. I refuse to wear shorts in deference to the public aesthetic.

As a result, I am so alien to my own body that I don’t even know if I’m bleeding. So unfamiliar am I that I discovered a days-old cut on my leg after I parted the hair to see why a minor knock hurt so much. I don’t know how I got it; it had already begun to heal.

Women rarely shave in Europe, other inmates remind me, as if they have been there. I never shaved to fit in. I shaved because the activity revealed my body to me. I knew the slopes and scars, curves and craters.

Admittedly, I never liked terrain; it was always too something, fat, short, wide or white. Through shaving, though, I understood the condition of my skin, the largest organ I have, even with the imperfections I have inventoried.

When I shaved, I accepted myself more even though I was conforming to an external beauty standard. I sound overly trite when I say this, but I bared myself to myself. It’s a hard thing for me to do physically or emotionally after being society’s rejects for so long.

Psychologists say that women experiencing emotional pain tend to cover up to protect themselves and to prevent scrutiny. They do it with fat, baggy clothes, or whatever works. I sprout a thick enough coat to do the same with hair except I enjoy the added benefit of fending off lesbian suitors silently when they sneak a peek through the shower curtain.

I never thought I would miss the flaws of my short little legs so much that I would want to bare my body more, both to myself and to others but I do. I doubt that is a bad thing. More than just to get rid of the hair, I cannot wait to shave so I can know what I really look like again. I wonder if it will be before Obama leaves office.