Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
I distinctly remember the day I noticed my leg hairs for the first time. I was halfway through 7th grade and stepped out of the shower when, under the harsh bathroom light, I saw them — the countless brown hairs that had grown across my legs.
I called out to my mom in the other room, “I need to shave!” She went out and bought one of those hair removal creams for me to use, thinking it’d be easier than trying a razor. The cream gave me a burning sensation, forcing me to quickly stop. Frustrated I looked down at the remaining hair, feeling dirty.
Since then, the idea that I needed to remove any and all body hair remained a constant in my life. Being perfectly shaved was something I could control when so many things always felt up in the air. If I noticed a long hair left over on my knee or ankle, it’d disturb me more than I care to admit. I would go over that section thoroughly the next time I shaved — sometimes in the same day.
When I was 19, I spent my junior year of college abroad in Florence, Italy. One Friday night, I was all wound up, rushing to complete an assignment.
I can’t remember why, but while I was boiling water for pasta in a pot and heating sauce in another pan, I decided to switch their burners… at the same time. In my scattered rush and grab, I didn’t stop to consider that the pasta pot was designed to be held on both sides and it immediately began to tip over.
Boiling hot water splattered all over my right leg, severely burning me. I was powerless to stop it as my focus was also on preventing the other pan from spilling on me as well. After the shock, I pulled off my tights, sitting down in agonizing pain.
It won’t surprise anyone that the next day, I went on an early morning flight to Barcelona. I was studying abroad in Europe after all.
I bought pain medication and bandages at the local pharmacy, avoided putting too much pressure on my leg, and spent the weekend there. I visited the Park Güell, walked along the beach, and drank sangria.
At first, it seemed minor, the burn didn’t constantly hurt, but after a couple days of walking, the pain elevated. I couldn’t put much pressure on the leg. I also didn’t shave in those three days and wore pants when I could.
By the time I came back to Florence on Monday night, my leg was filled with dark spots and raised sores and scabs. It was not good.
So, I did the responsible thing and went to the doctor. She gave me medicine and a huge bandage to go over the entire bottom half of my right leg. I couldn’t get the leg wet and I couldn’t wear pants over it. (This all happened at the end of January while I had a cold and while Florence runs warm in the winter, it wasn’t that warm.)
While the cold sucked and showering was a mess of taping plastic bags to my leg, all of that paled in comparison to watching my leg hair return.
I know I should have been more focused on the giant black scab on my leg that led people to ask me if I had “been shot.” (Yes, this is a real thing people asked me.) But seeing the slowly thickening and growing hair made me feel as unclean and messy as I had that day when I first noticed it.
For the first week, I shaved my left leg but soon felt ridiculous just shaving one. Why bother when the other one felt like a forest?
As happens with a habit, the longer I wasn’t doing it, the more I was starting to come to terms with not shaving. That was until I went to Budapest in March (flights are so cheap in Europe!) and visited the Turkish baths. In public, in a bathing suit, I was uncomfortable.
Yet, I also felt liberated from the standards I had held my body to. I wasn’t going to miss out on experiencing the baths just because I was burnt and had hairy legs. I was forced to let go of the need to control my body hair, especially in a bathing suit. It was terrifying, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
Let me be clear, most of my friends will go weeks, if not longer, without shaving their legs. There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting your body hair grow if that’s what you want to do. According to Vox, shaving didn’t even become a regular thing for women until the 1950s when ads started pressuring women to do so.
Mentally, it just made me feel like I had things together. I’d joke to people that I could live on a deserted island by myself and I’d still shave my legs.
It ended up being four months until it was almost time for me to go home to New York. Honestly by then, I’d kind of forgotten about the growing hair. I guess when you see something enough times you stop being shocked by it. As the weather got warmer and I got more used to seeing my hair, thankfully also lightened by the sun, I stopped consciously thinking about it.
When I returned home and had my doctor examine my leg, he determined I had suffered a severe second-degree burn. I still needed to avoid shaving the directly affected area, as the nerves were closer to the top of the skin, but I could shave around it.
Now I still shave at least a couple times a week and only have light scarring from the burns. The difference is that now I don’t freak out every time I find a forgotten hair or miss a couple days. Working to manage my anxiety might also have helped with that.
Am I happy with the exchange of being burned for not obsessing over my leg hair anymore? No, it was really painful. But, if it had to happen, I’m glad I was able to learn something from the experience and forgo some of my need to shave.
Sarah Fielding is a New York City–based writer. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Insider, Men’s Health, HuffPost, Nylon, and OZY where she covers social justice, mental health, health, travel, relationships, entertainment, fashion and food.