Hair Removal: Decades of Being Called ‘La Peluda’ Got Us Nowhere

The sensation of hot wax on my upper lip instantly makes my stomach drop. Even after a decade of hair removal, the feeling of having my thick, dark hair ripped from its follicles elicits a flight-or-fight response. Like most Latinas, I’ve been partaking in the sadistic ritual of waxing since an early age. The first time I got bullied in elementary school was because of a barely-there unibrow. My mom took me to see her regular esthetician who plopped me on a bed in her garage-slash-studio and tugged the handful of wisps in the space above my eyes. I was 8 years old.

I’m not alone in my experience. “OMG SAME,” one friend messaged me in response to an Instagram story I posted about feeling like a raw chicken after my bi-weekly wax session. Another: “Is it weird that i look forward to getting it waxed? Lmfao.”

Even on a meager writer’s salary, the $13 it takes to leave my upper lip bare is baked into every paycheck. It’s in the “needs” category of my budgeting list, next to the carton of eggs and strawberry cream cheese I pick up weekly. Laser hair removal is out of my budget—even though it’s been proposed as a Christmas gift from family members several times—and shaving my face is a big no-no to my waxing specialist, a short, grumpy woman who probably takes pleasure in seeing me squirm.

Courtesy of subject

My relationship with hair removal feels like a long, drawn-out battle—one I’m increasingly tired of fighting. At one point in my life, I was getting regular bikini waxes every 6 weeks like the rest of the girls in my high school gym class. Now, I let the top of my eyebrows grow thicker, to the dismay of my mother who calls me out on FaceTime if I let them get a little too unruly. My grandmother would probably light a prayer candle if I told her I also let my leg hair grow out in the winter.

I’m a part of a new generation of Latina women who are tired of waxing themselves raw and have started embracing their natural, thick, copious amounts of hair. Rebeca Mireles-Rios, an associate professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, has years of research surrounding young, adolescent Latinas and their perception of body image—most notably, how it’s been shifting. A new generation, one who embraces their body hair, has been on the frontier for a while, and they’re challenging what it means to exist with hairy forearms and still be considered beautiful.

“This generation is going to be teaching all of us a lot,” Mireles-Rios says. “You think about colonization and what happened to communities and histories, and why there is that pressure for past generations to fit in, to be accepted, to blend into mainstream society, to leave behind their language and culture—who they are—in order to survive. To be able to embrace both, how do you do that? This generation is doing that.”

One could also credit the seismic shift from being plucked and hairless to fuzzy and warm as a result of the pandemic. With no one leaving their houses for months, who cared if your armpit strands were braidable? For other peludas—hairy in Spanish—the change in perspective surrounding body hair came soon after.

Amanda Forastieri, a Puerto-Rican visual artist, says they began exploring their gender identity in early 2021 after months of being inside. Forastieri, who goes by she/they pronouns, has toyed with the idea of stopping shaving all together, growing out their hair for weeks at a time. Her parents have lamented about her lack of shaving and attribute it to depression. For Forastieri, it’s about unlearning behavior adopted from the gender binary that so heavily creeps into Latin culture: “I no longer have this weight I feel to fit in or be perceived by what’s determined as beautiful or not by the male gaze,” she says. “I’ve acknowledged that it doesn’t make me more or less valuable, more or less likely to receive love.”

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