9 years old: I find a tube of hair removal cream in the bathroom. I decide to use it on my arms, but it takes too long and smells awful, so I get rid of the hair on one arm and not the other. I wear a turtleneck in the middle of June until it grows back. I don’t tell anyone what I did because then I’d have to explain why I did it.
11 years old: I am sprawled on the scratchy grey carpet in my grade 6 classroom, scribbling on a big sheet of paper with my table group. An argument with a boy over which one of us gets to use the good markers turns into a shouting match, which he wins when he calls me ugly for having a moustache. I blink back tears all day until I get home, where I cry and cry. I tiptoe into my parents’ bathroom and swipe my dad’s razor across the corners of my mouth. My skin, taut and shiny, looks awful. I block out how everyone reacted to it. I honestly can’t remember what they said. Those two weeks that it took for the hair to grow back are blank in my head.
12 years old: I try out for the girls’ basketball team and somehow make it in. I consider quitting when I realise we have to wear shorts as part of the uniform. All the girls shave their legs except me. I end up at my old elementary school for an away game and fake a stomach ache so I can sit out the whole time. I sit behind the equipment bag so no one can see my hairy legs.
12 years old: I realise how much I love to write. I am beautiful in my stories; my hair is long, tame, and sleek; I have perfect, thin eyebrows and no hair anywhere else. I change my name from Shailee to something whiter, easier to pronounce. In my stories, I can be anyone I want, and I try to be the furthest thing from myself. In fact, I try to be the closest thing to white.
13 years old: I get up to get some paper from the cubbies in the front of the classroom and a boy follows me. He loudly asks me why Indian girls are so hairy. I stare at him, shocked, wanting to disappear. He presses on, telling me all brown girls are unattractive and he’s only ever met one girl hairier than me. He tells me her name, as though I’d know her. I turn around and ignore him until he goes away. The whole class is quiet; no one sticks up for me. I learn what it’s like to hate your skin. Really, really hate it.
14 years old: I get my eyebrows done for the first time. They are so much thinner and I don’t look like myself. The same boy who once told me all brown girls are ugly turns around in his chair and tells me I look “almost date-able.” Instead of understanding how insulting his words are, I take them as a compliment. I go home, giddy, and write about it in my diary.
15 years old: I convince myself not to bother with pursuing my crushes because how could they like someone who looks like me?
15 years old: I meet the girl who that boy from grade 8 told me about—the only one he’d ever known who was hairier than me. She has a beautiful laugh and big eyes. I consider talking to her about our shared experiences. I never do.
16 years old: Two of my guy friends from school somehow get my home phone number and prank call me. I recognise their voices. They bark at me in exaggerated Indian accents, make fun of me for being hairy, and interrupt me when I try to say anything back to them. Eventually, I just stop talking and after they think I’ve hung up, they laugh and end the call. I sit and stare at the phone forever, unable to cry, unable to do anything at all.
16 years old: I start waxing my upper lip regularly. Boys start paying attention to me.
17 years old: I find it impossibly difficult to let my boyfriend touch me under my clothes. He tells me I’m beautiful every day, but nothing changes. I think about booking a few wax appointments so I feel confident enough to take things to the next level with him. I never do. We break up not long after I start to feel good about my body. I end up back at square one.
19 years old/now: I can’t make eye contact with people when I know I’m behind on a wax.
Now: I can’t be bothered to go get an arm wax—it’s expensive, it hurts, and it takes forever. I wear full sleeved shirts to the office in the muggy, July heat.
Now: I wonder if I’ll ever be able to wear anything without worrying about the hair on my tummy or back.
Now: I feel physically uneasy when my moustache, unibrow, or arm hair are more visible than I’d like.
Now: My stomach still turns every time anyone mentions anything about body hair, facial hair, or hair in general.
Now: I appreciate being in India for vacations—I wear a kurti every day because I can. I feel like a princess in saris. I spend 10 minutes picking out the perfect bindi to wear. I wonder why it took me so long to appreciate being brown, and then I remember the little things I heard every day that convinced me it was something to be ashamed of.
Now: I see pictures of my elementary school classmates on Instagram. They wear bindis to the summer music festivals. They are the same girls who whispered hurtful “jokes” about my brownness to each other when they thought I wasn’t listening.
Now: I’m working on getting over it.
Now: I’m working on learning to love myself, my hair, and my brownness.