My Roots By Maria Pansulla Age 17

In the fourth grade, my teacher sat me next to a boy that would put his forearm up against mine. Initially, I was a little smug when I thought he was trying to compare tans with me because having European roots, I was typically really tan at the end of summer. He looked at my arm next to his and after what seemed like a long time just staring at me, I heard—everyone heard—him say, “Wow, your arms are really hairy. They have more hair than mine do!”

To say that this bothered me at the time would be true, but not as much as realizing that this comment didn’t only concern my arms. Whenever I would go to my pediatrician for a routine physical and arch my back for a scoliosis check, my mom would reach over and lift up my shirt from behind and ask the doctor, “Will this fall out over time? Is this cosmetic?” When my doctor said we had to “wait and see,” I could sense the pity and I knew that this hair wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

In the summer, I would always feel a little self-conscious in a bathing suit, which growing up I had always attributed to the actual development that comes with getting older – switching from my swim team speedo to a two-piece bikini. But, years and seasons went by before I put on a bathing suit and actually looked in a mirror and saw what I thought everybody else was seeing: hair, all over my body. On my lower back, on my shoulders, my sides, my stomach, all the way up my arms.

I had never been more disgusted with myself in my entire life.

I calmly went to my mother and explained to her my concern and she took me to see a dermatologist. Walking into the clinic thinking that there was a treatment, even an expensive one in the form of laser hair removal, was enough to keep me from finally breaking down. When I had to expose myself to these people, they managed to explain that laser treatment could be an option, but right now it might not work because I’m still “too young” and it might grow back.

One thing I learned about being “too young” is that body image, and the emotions accompanying it, are at their most sensitive. This is why at the beginning of the summer, I put on the smallest bathing suit that I owned and stood in the bathroom as my mom helped me put a hair removal lotion, like Nair, all over my body. After 3-5 minutes, I had to stand there as my mom took a damp washcloth and forcefully draged the scratchy surface across my sensitive back to remove the lotion. The first time this happened, every emotional wall I had built over the years fell apart, leaving me exposed to the memories from the boy in fourth grade that touched the hair on my arms to the summers spent out of the sunlight, wrapped in a towel. Every insecurity I had about my body was exposed and singed, just like the hair on my back.

After showering off the remaining lotion, the process would be repeated on some other part of my body, and every time, I would feel more repulsed with myself than I had in the beginning. But, after an hour or so of a situation both physically and emotionally irritating, I would eventually go look at myself in the mirror. It was then that I realized that my skin looked smoother, but nothing really changed about me at all.

While I’m not sure that I’m comfortable enough to just let it be, I did realize that I’m definitely not ashamed of my body or my European heritage anymore. Hair is removable, and as much as I’d like to get rid of it, I know that in the end it isn’t about other people seeing it and what they might think or say. When I look in the mirror at myself, I don’t see the hair anymore, whether it’s there or it’s Nair’ed.


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