I have a secret. It's not a fun, sexy secret like, “I don't wear panties at the gym!" (Is that even sexy?) No, this is an embarrassing and decidedly unsexy secret, a secret I’ve (mostly) kept for about seven years, and it's easily the biggest barrier between me and positive body image.
So here goes: I'm hairy. And I don't mean I-have-to-shave-my-legs-like-every-other-day kind of hairy. I mean I have a medical condition that causes a hormonal imbalance, which results in excess hair on my face. Plus I'm half-Arabic, which is like the dark, coarse icing on the cake.
Even before I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and hyperandrogenism, I was a hairy little kid. I inherited my mother's vampire-pale WASP-y skin, and even her medium-brown hair, but my body hair is direct and unfiltered runoff from my dad's gene pool: thick, curly, black, and profuse. If the goal of my conception was to create maximum contrast between skin tone and body hair color, well, mission accomplished, parents.
By the time I was 10 or 11, I had a noticeable mustache, which, after some comments from kids at school, I began shaving. If you’ve never had MULTIPLE boys you’ve had crushes on come up and ask you if you shave your upper lip, then bully for you because it, then allow me to assure you: it's The Suck. When I started shaving my legs in fifth grade--just the fronts, at first, because no one looks at the backs, right?--I also had to shave my feet and all my toes to keep from looking like a hobbit.
As I progressed through middle school and high school, I noticed that my peers did not seem nearly as concerned as I was about finding a bathing suit that did not allow pubic hair to poke out the front and back. They were able to shave their legs a few days a week; if I went even 12 hours, I had noticeable stubble.
I hated shaving my legs, I hated battling an entirely uncooperative bikini line, and I hated waxing and Nair-ing my moustache. But I didn’t hate anything as much as when I went off to college and discovered I was starting to grow sharp little black hairs on my chin.
I was maybe 16 or 17 when I was diagnosed with PCOS. That means that my ovaries have lots of follicular cysts on them, but I fail to ovulate. In other words, my reproductive organs have no follow-through. The big tip-off was that I never got my period. The only time I ever had it was when I was put on birth control, which I stayed on for less than a year because it made me insane. I’ve had maybe six menstrual cycles in my entire life. When I was 19, I got an IUD: constant low dose of hormones, plus birth control, and still no period. But it did nothing to correct the overabundance of androgen-type hormones in my body, which are the ones causing me to grow a goatee.
I don’t look like the typical woman with hormonal imbalances. Many women with PCOS are overweight; I am not. Many similarly afflicted women also suffer from severe acne; I do not. Hyperandrogenism can cause thinning hair, which I do not have. (How crappy is it that it makes the hair on your head fall out, but the hair on the rest of your body grow? Rude, hyperandrogenism. Just rude.) I look like a healthy 25-year-old female. But I wouldn’t if I stopped making an effort to hide the hair.
For the past 18 months, I’ve been on medication that is supposed to counteract the effects of the hormones, but it has done absolutely nothing to stop the hair from spreading even though my blood work shows that my levels are now normal.
At first, it didn’t seem like a big deal: I have five hairs on my chin, so I’ll just pluck them! But as the months and then years wore on, what was a two-minute process every other morning became a daily 20-minute clandestine routine. I remove anywhere from 20 to 50 coarse black hairs from my chin each day, and many are ingrown and need to be painfully, bloodily pried out of my skin with a sterilized needle. While you may not be able to see the hair because I’ve pulled it all out, my chin is usually red and dry from all the irritation.
Aside from the utter inconvenience of adding 20 minutes to whatever I have to do to get ready, there is another complication: my boyfriend, with whom I live. There is nothing on earth I would rather he not see than me at my magnifying mirror digging out and then plucking the hairs on my chin.
Sometimes this means I take shelter in the bathroom to pluck, where the light isn’t nearly as good. Sometimes I sneak a plucking session when he runs to the bodega for a sandwich. I am determined that he never sees me do it, because I would wither with humiliation. What could be less attractive than watching your girlfriend pluck out her beard?
And I’d be lying if I said my need to hide my goatee didn’t affect other areas of my life. A few months ago, my boyfriend started talking about a camping trip up to his uncle’s cabin. I panicked. Camping = I can’t squirrel myself away in some well-lit room with a magnifying mirror for a half hour and pluck at my chin.
Not that my boyfriend isn’t supportive. I “confessed” my problem to him one night over Skype a year or so ago while he was on tour, because we had decided that when he was back in the city, he would move in with me. I felt like I owed him a warning. I told him, gravely, that there was something I needed to talk about--something embarrassing and important. He was totally terrified, the poor guy.
When I began telling him about the hair on my chin, he was visibly relieved. He'd thought I was going to confess some infidelity or hidden criminal record.
“Babe, I don’t care about that. It doesn’t matter,” he said, trying to put me at ease.
“DON’T MINIMIZE MY FEELINGS!” I sobbed, totally out of my mind.
He didn’t get it. He doesn’t get it. He thinks I’m pretty and he loves me, which I know is awesome and wonderful and blah blah, but it haunts me that I’m 98% sure that if I didn’t hide my goatee, if that was just something I decided not to do, on principle, we probably wouldn’t be dating right now.
And not just him, but any of the guys I’ve dated--who have, by and large, been intelligent, thoughtful, kind men--would probably not have dated me if I had a lot of hair on my chin that I just let run wild. And I’m not saying that’s because they’re shallow, superficial people. I’m just saying that they probably would not have been attracted to me when we first met.
It makes sense. Facial hair is a male sex characteristic. Men are supposed to have facial hair. It’s something that happens to them during puberty and it indicates that they are reaching sexual maturity, like boobs and hips indicate for women. I wouldn’t be attracted to a guy with an hourglass figure, and I don’t think that makes me--or any other straight woman--overly superficial. So how could I blame a guy for not wanting to take out a girl with a lot of facial hair?
Just to be clear: I’m not talking about the standard-issue Mediterranean moustache that comes with that genetic territory, or a few wispy hairs on your chin or side burns. I mean coarse, dense, dark hair. A woman with a beard is not “acceptable,” socially speaking, wrong or right. And medically and evolutionarily speaking, it usually indicates a genetic or hormonal abnormality.
The only approved “permanent” method of hair removal recognized by the FDA is electrolysis, an incredibly time consuming, expensive, and fairly painful process that involves shoving an electrified needle into each individual hair follicle. I had a few electrolysis sessions a handful of years ago, and it was just too expensive for me to go back. My results were negligible.
Everything I’d read about laser hair removal, another popular option, came with a pretty clear disclaimer: RESULTS MAY NOT BE PERMANENT. MAY NOT WORK FOR HORMONAL HAIR GROWTH.
It didn’t sound like it was for me, so I never looked into it.
A few months ago, after a meeting with an actress whose one-woman show I work on and who is also Arabic and had joked about how hairy she was, I spilled the beans about my hairy chin.
“Honey, this is ridiculous,” she said. “You’re too young and pretty to feel bad about yourself for something so stupid.”
She bought me a Groupon for laser hair removal right then and there. My Hairy Fairy Godmother.
The Groupon deal was for six laser sessions on a small area: lip, chin, sideburns, “happy trail,” etc. I went as soon as I could.
This particular laser spa uses a Candela GentleLase laser, which is an alexandrite laser that works especially well on people with light skin. Not all lasers are created equal, so if you’re thinking of doing this yourself, make sure to pick a laser suited for your skin tone and hair type.
When I made the appointment, a terse Easter European woman forbade me from plucking for at least a week before the appointment.
“No tweezing or waxing, OK?” she commanded. “Only shaving and creams.”
I had never not plucked before. The idea of having stubble terrified me. And as I let the hair grow in fully for the first time in years, I could see the full extent of how bad it had gotten. I tried to go out as little as possible. Fortunately for my fragile self-esteem, my boyfriend was out of town on a job for the next few weeks, and I wouldn’t have to see him until after the first appointment when-- fingers crossed!--I’d have some results.
The spa was located inside a Chinese massage parlor, which I did not know, so I was super-confused when I walked off the elevator and into a room decorated primarily with bamboo. The laser technician took me into a small room with a table like you’d see when getting waxed. I reclined as she asked me questions about the last time I plucked and whether or not I was wearing makeup.
She told me I’d come in once a month for six months, and that I might need one or two treatments past that because facial hair was particularly stubborn. She told me that after this appointment, the hair would “shed” in 10 to 21 days, meaning that all the ones she “killed” today would work their way out of my skin by then.
“And no plucking or waxing between appointments!” she said again.
Hair grows in stages and can only be killed in the “active” stage of growth, so many treatments over a long period of time are needed. When you wax or pluck, you essentially “reset” the follicle and the cycle has to start over.
The tech gave me some heavy-duty orange goggles to wear while the laser was on, and then she went to work. It took all of 20 seconds. The smell of singed hair filled the room.
“Use lots of sunscreen all the time, always,” she said. “And no waxing or plucking! Only shaving and creams!”
I was beginning to get the idea.
That first day, my chin looked totally clear because, I suspect, all the visible hair had been burned off by the laser. But soon, I had a full chin of stubble again, and I started to panic. Shaving just wasn’t cutting it. How was I ever going to get through six months with a chin full of stubble?!
A little over a week later, I sat in front of my magnifying mirror with my tweezers, ready to break my solemn vow to Mila the laser tech. I was flying out to Illinois to see my boyfriend for the first time in 6 weeks, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to scratch him with my chin. If it sets me back, it sets me back, I decided. Thanks, crippling insecurity!
But when I went to pluck out the hair, a rather unusual thing happened. Instead of having to pluck the hair out of my skin, it simply slid out of the follicle with no actual tweezing. The hairs were all dead and detached, just waiting to be “shed” naturally. Now I could just speed up the process!
Every single hair came out effortlessly, and for the first time in my adult life, when I woke up the next morning, I didn’t have to repeat the process. Or the next day. Or the next. In fact, my chin stayed almost entirely hair free for about two weeks. I was amazed. And perhaps inordinately grateful.
I felt truly feminine for the first time in a long time. I was no longer self-conscious in bright sunlight or close quarters. I didn’t worry about running off to the bathroom to pick at and pluck my chin. I was able to wake up and feel pretty without the compulsion to fix something about myself first. And that was revolutionary for me.
I’ve now had two treatments and I’m going in for a third soon. The results, even if they aren’t permanent, have stunned me. Already, my hair growth is down by at least 60%, and my chin stays smooth for at least a few weeks after the “shedding” phase of each treatment. At my last session, Mila asked me if I’d ever had my bikini line lasered. I said that I hadn’t.
“Oh, you should!” she beamed. “It’s amazing.”
I think I just might.