Not by the hairs on my chinny chin chin

Every morning, the first thing I do when I wake up is go to the bathroom and pluck out the tiny black (and, now, even some white) hairs that have emerged on my chin since when I was standing in front of the mirror 24 hours earlier.

In some ways, it’s quite satisfying, this daily ritual of mine: finding the perfect angle to tweeze out every last one of those hairs, managing to grasp even the tiniest new growths, discovering sneaky strands that slipped by unnoticed yesterday to survive another day – little do they know that today they will meet their end.

But it’s also a melancholy ritual laden with memories. Memories of being called ‘monkey’ in the school car park when I was 12. Of demanding to have blood tests and ultrasounds when I was 13 or 14 to check if there was anything ‘wrong’ with me or my ovaries. Of trying to cover up the unnatural new horizontal hairline across the middle of my face after using depilatory cream when I was 16. Of being shocked by the zipper-like sensation of having threading done for the first time when I was 22. Of spending hours getting my face, arms, and bikini line zapped with lasers when I was 27. Of burning my skin with hair bleaching cream when I was 17…and 24…and 30.

Every time I go camping, or stay somewhere with shared toilet facilities, it’s a ludicrous juggle of pocket mirror in one hand, tweezers in the other, phone flashlight strategically but precariously balancing on a knee or a rock or a toilet lid.

And, what for? So that the world never finds out that my body insists on growing hair in places that society insists it shouldn’t? So that others never find out that I’m…human?

As someone whose life, both professionally and personally, centres on promoting the equality of all genders, breaking down harmful stereotypes, and celebrating diversity, this daily ritual is also a daily battle with myself.

I still remember the inspiring film about women with facial hair that our professor screened during my undergraduate Gender Studies degree almost two decades ago. My heart fills with pride every time I notice my female-identifying friends nonchalantly sporting foot hair, or chin hair, or a moustache. My partner seems to love me just as much pre-plucking and he does post-plucking. And when I’m in the middle of epilating, he can’t even tell which leg is the hairy one and which one has been freshly denuded. Women like Harnaam Kaur rock my world.

So why can’t I offer myself the same freedom?

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of ‘my body, my rules.’ I don’t think removing some hair makes me any less of a feminist – my feminist spirit doesn’t reside in those tiny whiskers.

Yet, as a feminist who tries to be conscious of the impact of not only my words but also my actions, I wonder if I’m sending mixed messages to my three year-old niece by telling her she is perfect just the way she is but then plucking my eyebrows in front of her. Is it any better if she doesn’t actually see me doing it? Am I being hypocritical when I discuss ideas with young feminists about how we can smash the patriarchy together, and my gesticulating arm is unnaturally hairless? When I debate with men who are blind to their privilege about the need to shift the social norms perpetuating gender inequality, does it weaken my argument if, a few hours before, I was in front of the mirror performing my daily ritual?

No. They are not mutually exclusive. While my photography might sometimes be black and white, I am not.

As another inspiring Kaur, this one by name of Rupi, reminds me, my body is my home:

In my house, I decorate the walls, change the paint, move the furniture – I do whatever I need to so as to feel comfortable and happy in that space which is mine. So it shouldn’t be any different with my body. Any changes are mine to make – or not – as I please. And what a home it is!

Yet, I’d like to reach the stage where I feel fully empowered, either by choosing to take the hair out OR by choosing to leave it in. Where I feel like I own that choice – not because, socially OR politically, it’s what I should do. Even if it’s futile.

No guilt. No melancholy. No doubt.

I’m not there yet. But, as words and photos are outlets that help me make sense of myself as much as they help me make sense of the world around me, I’m committed to embarking on a creative, reflective, journey to try to find my way.

I look forward to bumping into you on one path or another, to hearing your stories, or even just seeing you encouraging from the sidelines.

Here are my first steps.

 

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Jump

I generally see myself as a fairly independent, strong, and confident woman. But I struggled with something today that left me feeling frustrated at myself and furious at the world: I couldn’t convince myself to go out for a walk.

Sure, like anyone trying to get fit, there are times when I’m just too busy, too tired, or too lazy to motivate myself to do exercise. But none of those were reasons today: I had the afternoon free, I had plenty of energy, and I actually really wanted to go out and do something active, since I’d spent the whole day at home. Yet, I just couldn’t bring myself to walk out the front gate. I put on my exercise gear, then took it off again, three times; I paced between the sofa and front door for what seemed like an eternity; I picked up my phone and considered contacting people, but then put it down again.

All the while, my head was buzzing with questions and doubts: It’s going to be dark soon – is it too late for me to be out walking alone? But it will do me good to get some fresh air and watch the beautiful sunset, won’t it? Maybe I should cycle so then it’s harder for guys to grope me? But my bike light is broken – maybe it’s not safe to be riding in the dark? Maybe I should wear a baggier t-shirt so I don’t draw any unwanted attention to myself? But why shouldn’t I be able to just wear what makes me comfortable? Maybe I should wait for my boyfriend to come home and we can go together? But why should I need a man to escort me? Maybe I should call a female friend? But what if they get harassed or assaulted on their way to meet me?

Around and around I went and, eventually, it did get too dark.

I felt as if the issue was all in my head and, at the same time, so overwhelmingly bigger than me with its roots so firmly grounded in systemic inequality.

How, I wondered, could this shit still bother me? I’ve worked in the field of gender equality for almost a decade, so I’m mentally prepared; I’ve trained in kickboxing and kungfu, so I stand a decent chance of defending myself; I’m fluent enough in the local language here to coherently yell back or ask others for help; I’ve travelled alone around the world and have always managed to take care of myself. And yet some days it’s just all too much and I don’t have the mental energy to face the fight.

Just yesterday, some colleagues and I were discussing the barriers that stand in the way of women achieving goals, the challenges that make it an unequal playing field for women and men. Earlier today, I saw that The Equality Institute has created an image that perfectly sums this up. Sometimes these are really tangible obstacles – having babies, being paid less money than a man for the same work – and sometimes these obstacles are much more elusive – fear of what might happen, doubt of whether you’ll be able to handle the situation if something does happen, expectation that the authorities won’t take you seriously if you try to report it. Obstacles like that hold women back not just from relatively small things like going for a walk at sunset, but also from big things like applying for a promotion at work, studying a traditionally male-dominated field like engineering, or leaving an abusive relationship.

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In the end, I wandered over to my neighbours’ kids’ trampoline and I jumped up and down, surrounded by a protective mesh trampoline barrier, next to an enormous wall topped with barbed wire, within a compound that has 24-hour guards. I tried to see the sunset over the wall but I couldn’t quite jump high enough.

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Masculinities Mondays: 8th of June 2015

On June 16th, MenCare, in collaboration with the Clinton Foundation and HeforShe, will launch the very first State of the World’s Fathers report. The report is intended to provide a periodic, data-driven snapshot of the state of men’s contributions to parenting and caregiving globally by addressing four issues related to fatherhood: unpaid care work in the home; sexual and reproductive health and rights, and maternal, newborn and child health; men’s caregiving and violence against children and women; and child development.  As the MenCare Campaign explains, the report aims to provide the basis for concentrated social, political, and healthcare initiatives; broad institutional change; and public awareness to bring about a transformation toward equitable, involved fatherhood. It defines a global agenda for involving men and boys as part of the solution to achieve gender equality and positive outcomes in the lives of women, children, and men themselves. Speakers will include Chelsea Clinton (Clinton Foundation), Gary Barker (Promundo), and Dean Peacock (Sonke Gender Justice).

For those of who will be in New York, you can register for the event for free here. And, for the rest of us, we can follow the event live here.

Masculinities Mondays: 25th of May 2015

Partners Adrian, left and Shane, arrive to cast their vote at a polling station in Drogheda, Ireland, Friday, May 22, 2015.  (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Partners Adrian, left and Shane, arrive to cast their vote at a polling station in Drogheda, Ireland, Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

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Reactions to the ‘yes’ vote. (Photograph: Cathal Mcnaughton/Reuters)

With Ireland voting ‘yes‘ to same sex marriage, just one week after the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, this has been a pretty good week. Becoming the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage by referendum, Ireland is, as Irish PM, Enda Kenny, said, “a small country with a big message for equality.” Congratulations and thank you, Ireland! Now the rest of us just need to sort ourselves out.

This week is also wonderful because, to mark Orange Day on the 25th, we have come across a bunch of excellent, touching and though-provoking videos to share.

  • To learn about why research is crucial to ending violence against women, check out this informative and inspirational Tedx Talk by Mary Ellsberg:

* TRIGGER WARNING: This video contains descriptions of violence, which some viewers may find triggering or distressing. 

  • And last, but not in any way least, we would like to share this incredibly powerful Tedx Talk by Bella Galhos, entitled ‘My own father sold me for 5 dollars!’, about the urgent need to end violence against women in Timor-Leste, for the sake of the next generation:

* TRIGGER WARNING: This video contains descriptions of violence, which some viewers may find triggering or distressing. 

Masculinities Mondays: 13th of April 2015

When women get arrested for trying to stop sexual harassment, something is very wrong. The stickers that these women had planned to distribute on public transport in Beijing on International Women’s Day said, “Stop sexual harassment, let us stay safe.” With hindsight, they should have used holograms.

Sending out thoughts and support to these five brave women in China.

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(Clockwise from top left): Zheng Churan (郑楚然), Li Tingting (李婷婷), Wang Man (王曼), Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘), and Wei Tingting (韦婷婷). Source: Telegraph UK

Yay for Sweden!

Two heartwarming stories to come out of Sweden recently, that make us want to buy some crisply-designed, light wooden furniture and eat some Kalles Kaviar.

  • The Swedish Academy announced that they will be adding the gender-neutral pronoun, hen, to their official dictionary in April. Coined in the 1960s, hen was later revived by Sweden’s transgender community as an alternative to han (‘he’) and hon (‘she’).
  • And Swedish photographer Johan Bävman has created a beautiful series on men during their paternity leave. In Sweden, parents are given a total of 480 days of leave which they can choose how to split between them; however, if men do not take at least 60 days, those days are lost. Says one father in the series,

I think it’s important to share the responsibility of staying at home with your children, even if you lose out financially. We have less money because I stay at home, but at the same time I will have more time to bond with my daughter and that is what is most important for our future together.

Thanks, Sweden – keep on showing the rest of us the way, please!

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© Johan Bävman