It all started in the seventh grade.
My super cool godsister Amanda came to live with us for a year. Amanda was 17, effortlessly glamorous, and breathtakingly gorgeous. Not only was she the chicest teen to ever grace the Northeastern soil, but she was also from London. Nothing transfixes the American masses like a hot girl with an English accent. Nothing. The little white-washed suburb I called home was instantly besotted by bombshell Amanda in all of her European swagtastic glory. And because we were fiercely close like sisters, and lived in the same house that year, I became cool and sophisticated. By proxy. Purr.
Within a few months of Amanda’s stint in the ol’ Barrie household, I quickly chose to shed myself of my skate-punk girl skin and trade it in for a new Juicy Couture, terrycloth one. Out went the sweet, skater boyfriend who once scrawled my name on a half-pipe in black magic marker at our local skatepark, and in came a Tommy Hilfiger-cloaked rich boy, a future-football-playing prep who once sweetly told my friend Joana he wasn’t going to get me chocolates on Valentine’s Day because he “didn’t want to ruin my perfect body.” (I was flattered.)
I became very popular, very quickly. I became part of the Kate-Spade-mini-backpack-toting girl pack. You could smell our flat-iron burnt hair permeating through the air. You could hear the clank of our clunky Steve Madden starter heels clodhopping through the school hallway, which juxtaposed perfectly against the elegant windchime of our delicate Tiffany charm bracelets. I breathed in so much Bath & Body Works Strawberry Champagne Sugar body spray that year, I felt constantly high from the influx of chemicals, wickedly tickling my lungs with its devilish toxins.
My popular, preppy boyfriend and I went pretty far, for middle school. He definitely saw my bare tits on multiple occasions and we salaciously made out in the hallways, loving the fifth graders voyeuristically staring at us, wide-eyed and horrified. Life was good. I was popular. I had a popular boyfriend. I mean, I definitely felt empty inside and feverishly wept to Ani DiFranco under the covers at night, but that didn’t matter. My outside was as glossy as the girls in the John Frieda “Frizz Ease” ads.
And then seemingly overnight, Amanda decided to move back to London to be with her aristocratic boyfriend.
And then my preppy boyfriend broke up with me.
“I definitely still want to be friends,” the preppy boy told me, nicely, as preppy boys do.
“Yeah, whatever,” I cooly purred as my heart dropped to the cafeteria floor and smashed in half.
So I did what any seventh-grade girl with a broken heart (or ego?) does. I made out with his best friend during a heated game of truth or dare. Duh.
The following Monday, I woke up and threw on my favorite tight white T-shirt and platform Sketchers sneakers, and rushed to the school bus. I sat in the back with the bad girls like usual. The moment I stepped off the bus and my feet made contact with the stained, disgusting carpeted hallways of our middle school, a feeling of pending doom loomed over my head like a dark cloud. Adolescent girls have killer instincts. I wasn’t sure what kind of shit was going to go down this particular school day, but I was certain shit was going to go down.
“Hey, Zara. Heard you’re hairy. Like an APE.”
A boy who resembled a fetus and allegedly still wet his bed sneered at me with yellow teeth and swollen gums as I struggled to open my locker. (I never got the f*cking hang of opening my school locker. To this day I’m terrified to use lockers at gyms or fitness studios.)
“What are you talking about?” my fingers trembled as I fumbled and fumbled and fumbled with the code, spinning the combination around and around like it was a magic eight ball that could please dear God give me a different answer, a different day, a different life. My deepest fear had finally come true. I was being exposed for what I really was beneath my Juicy Couture armor. A hairy freak.
Look. I’m a desert Jew with eyebrows like caterpillars and arms so hairy you can’t make out the complexion of my skin beneath the thick brush. Not only that, I have hair on my lower stomach. Not the cute golden-colored “peach fuzz” blonde white girls have, the kind that glimmers like gold in the sun — my “fuzz” was as black as the hair on my head and the caterpillars that lived above my eyeballs.
I started getting teased at summer camp for having hairy legs when I was nine years old. I swiped one of my sister’s pink disposable razors at the age of 10 so I could shave my legs and put an end to the teasing. Having no tutor, I naturally sliced up my virgin legs so severely a hunk of skin quivered in the corner of the shower, and so much blood oozed out of me I couldn’t help but scream, which woke up my sister. Dramatic, as all Barrie girls are, my darling sister immediately concluded that I was an emotionally disturbed child who was cutting herself. I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to be called hairy anymore! I was so embarrassed and so ashamed that for a while there I actually let my sister believe my cutting was intentional. I would prefer her to think I was a cutter than a leg shaver, which is dark, I know. After she threatened to tell my parents about my alleged self-harm, I came clean and she sighed with relief and taught me how to shave my legs properly.
I had been shaving my legs ever since and the teasing had subsided.
I had committed the ultimate sin: I had crossed a popular boy by hooking up with his friend. And now it was payback time. And popular boys always know exactly where to kick a girl: In the body. That little preppy boy had seen my bare stomach when I showed him my sacred tits. And the hair on my stomach wasn’t blonde and downy, it was dark and stormy.
And unlike my nine-year-old legs, no one had ever teased me for my hairy midriff because no one had ever gotten close enough to know its ugly truth.
By the end of the week, I couldn’t walk down the school hallways without someone screaming “Ape!” in my face. Boys who had once been my friends, boys who had tried to date me weeks prior, would now pound their fists like a gorilla when I walked by! And my fleet of Kate Spade-toting cohorts? They didn’t want to become apes by proxy. So they avoided me. Everything is contagious in middle school. Coolness. Loserness. Hairiness.
I spent the rest of the school year choking down turkey sandwiches in the bathroom stall as silent tears slid down my face. I couldn’t set foot in the cafeteria without being heckled for my hairiness. Body hair is a particularly embarrassing, intimate thing to be teased about when you’re a young girl. It challenges your femininity. Girls aren’t supposed to have excessive body hair. And I was already battling my own girlhood demons. I was terrified that I was attracted to girls, not to boys, which was another giant challenge to the societal standards of femininity. Was there something hormonally wrong with me? I had body hair like a boy. I liked girls like a boy. But I felt like a girl. Which meant only one thing: I was a dyke. And every time the boys called me “ape,” I heard “dyke.” I became depressed. Deeply depressed. And in middle school, you don’t tell your parents that you’re depressed. You just quietly cry in the bathroom stall and pray to a God that you don’t believe in.
The summer between seventh and eighth grade, I decided I would start shaving my entire body. My legs. My toes. My arms. My stomach. My vagina. Every crevice of my body was kissed by a bubble-gum pink razor blade. I shaved in places that didn’t even have hair. And I did the full body shave every single night in the shower. Afterward, I would step out of the shower and lather my bare body in lotion until I felt slippery and slick like a seal. I didn’t want to be a girl. I wanted to be a smooth sea creature.
It became meditative. A ritual. And after a few years, I forgot why I had decided to shave my entire body every single day. I convinced myself I simply liked being bald-bodied.
“You have no hair on your arms! It’s so… silky!” the goth-punk boy I dated in high school once swooned, his baby blue eyes lighting up. “I like it.” I watched the bulge in his pants swell. Goth boys like their girls sunless and hairless.
“I just like it that way,” I would say, batting my lashes. “I’m not a hairy lesbian. No disrespect, I just don’t like body hair.” I would pause, aware of how “Malibu Barbie vapid unevolved Orange County Republican low-frequency scum” I sounded. “On me,” I would add, lowering my voice a few octaves.
Sometimes I would aggressively hide under the guise of feminism when it came to my distaste of body hair. “JUST BECAUSE I SHAVE MY ENTIRE BODY DOESN’T MAKE ME ANY LESS OF A FEMINIST THAN THE REST OF YOU! FEMINISM MEANS FREEDOM! I’M SICK OF BEING PRESSURED TO GROW OUT MY ARMPIT HAIR!” I would shout at the static screen of my laptop when some pretty Instagram model displayed her radical armpit hair. I guess I was triggered. If I grew out my armpit hair it wouldn’t look like a pretty tuft of brunette fluff, like Em Rata’s does. It would like I was hoarding the endangered redwood forest beneath my arms. And let’s get real. Fashion magazines only celebrate body hair when it resembles the pretty, cotton-candy head of a troll doll. They’re not ready for jet-black tumbleweeds. They’re not ready for Jewish girl hair.
So I continued to shave everything (I even started “derma-planing” which is a fancy way of saying shaving your face with a cool Japanese blade) like it was all for ME.
Until the coronavirus quarantine.
I couldn’t find a razor on the first day of the quarantine. I grinned and bared it. By the second day, my legs were so spiky the dogs no longer wanted to lay against them, for fear of being pricked by the sharp black spears emerging from my calves. By the third day, I wasn’t letting my wife touch my stomach. “NO!” I would yelp when she kindly wrapped her arms around my waist.
“What is your problem?” she asked.
“I haven’t shaved!” I whimpered with such deep-rooted panic in my voice it sounded like I was confessing to committing a homicide.
“I don’t care! Neither have I!” my wife said beaming. She proudly lifted up her pant leg and revealed mousy brown hairs, popping out of her long legs like little stray weeds in a neglected garden.
“You don’t get it! You were never teased for being hairy! You’re not JEWISH!” I cried.
That’s when this whole mess came back to me! I had shoved it deep down in the folds of my memory in order to convince myself that this time-consuming obsession with being hairless was simply an aesthetic choice. But it’s actually not. It, like most things, is rooted in the kind of middle school bullying we deem too menial to discuss in therapy. I’ve been through some dark shit in my life. Sexual assault. Depression. Alcohol poisoning. But why is it that when all is said and done, some of my ugliest wounds were inflicted upon me in f*cking middle school?
Without the distractions of New York City traffic, and getting dressed up, and grabbing cocktails with the girls, and hailing late-night cabs and fending off sex offenders on the subway — I am only left with myself. And I am made up of two things: molecules and memories. (Well, three if we’re being real. Can’t forget that HAIR.) I mean, it’s strange to me that I had completely forgotten that I spent an entire year of my life crying in a bathroom for being called hairy. For being a dyke. For being different. And how that stored away memory has catapulted me into an adult woman with a penetrating fear of her own body hair, and underneath that fear is probably the same fear that caused me to weep through seventh grade: The fear that I don’t belong. That I’m different. That I’m a f*cking freak that has to go to extreme measures to shave down my weirdness so I can be hairless and normal like all the blondes I grew up with.
And you know what I want to know? What other strange memories is this quarantine going to unearth?