Things I do for Men and for my Mother

For all the amazing female teachers who helped me shape and reshape this text until it wasn’t that terrible. I am brave because I learn from you.

The place where I go to wax my legs has always been home to an extremely particular energy. It is a rather old building that you have to climb a flight of stairs to reach from the street. In the waiting room sit a stack of magazines that look decades old (the kind that deal with celebrity gossip and such trivialities) and a handful of chairs that are always empty. On the wall hangs a picture of Marilyn Monroe, her dress floating in the wind and her perfect legs revealed. I suppose it was put up to make one feel that having such perfect legs is of critical importance, in the event that one’s skirt might be blown up like Marilyn Monroe’s. “Wax your legs at our establishment or dare to suffer the wrath of passing strangers upon seeing your imperfect legs on a windy afternoon.” Right above that there is a picture of the Virgin Mary. I haven’t the slightest idea why that one was put up. Right beside both pictures there is a little window that looks into another room, from which a lady that seems to be a hundred years old handles the financial aspect of things. She never minds that I don’t have any change, so overall she is a positive presence. All in all, the place is very peculiar, and it always somehow reminds me of the 1950s and dinner with my grandparents and the kind of christmas decorations I used to see at hotels when I went to the beach in December.

On this particular day, when I arrive, our lady of the finances leads me through an open door to where the stretchers are, separated from each other and from the hallway by what appears to be one endless shower curtain. She points to one of the booths, where I step in and take my jeans off. In this particular booth there are two stretchers, one significantly higher than the other. Moments later, a plump lady with glasses and short black hair arrives, offers some kind of greeting and points to the lower stretcher. I climb up and lie down and pretty soon I feel the instant flash of pain in my leg that means someone has begun to spread an extremely hot liquid on it.

Here’s the thing: I don’t actually mind waxing all that much. I don’t enjoy it, it is most certainly a nuisance, but I don’t scream or see little stars around my head like a halo. Some of my friends do. They’ve told me. I try to distract myself from the discomfort by working out the math: According to the data I’ve collected over the years, about eighty-five percent of my female friends feel acute physical pain when they wax. And yet one hundred percent of my female friends wax their legs. For me it does not hurt that much, actually. It’s mostly out of principle that I dislike it. And especially in the summer, when it’s hot and your mom insists you should do your whole leg, it can be a bit of a bummer. But there are far worse things I have endured, like having that same mom of mine squeeze my pimples until they pop or wearing high heels or putting on eyeliner that always ends up making my eyes itchy until I cry. There are far worse things I do for men and for my mother.

As I think about all this, the black-haired lady keeps doing my legs. To add to the peculiar, old-timey energy of this place, music from the 70s and 80s plays at a low volume through some speakers I hadn’t spotted before. I can’t help but wonder who was in charge of making that playlist. “Find me some killer tunes for women of all ages to listen to while someone rips hair out of their bodies by burning them.” That must have been an interesting job. I think about making this joke to my mother. She would not, I can imagine, be very amused.

The lady hums under her breath as she works. The music is in English and not very popular, but she seems to know all the lyrics nonetheless. As she stirs the wax inside a huge metal bucket, I can see a tattoo in her arm. It’s a treble clef, and a few words that I struggle to read as her arm remains in motion, but that I finally conclude are “music keeps me grounded.” I like that. I am about to ask her if she sings or plays, but I have never been good at striking up conversation with strangers. Besides, it occurs to me, it’s probably best not to strike up conversation with somebody who’s currently spreading a very hot liquid all over my bare legs.

By now the lady is repeating the process all over again. I have always found that the second time in a row, waxing hurts less, maybe because by then your legs feel number and more detached. They’re less yours and more the patriarchy’s, I think, and I laugh at how outraged my mother would be if I said that to her. I wonder for a moment if this lady, who loves music but plucks hair out of women’s legs for a living, would feel the same way. I wonder how she feels about the popping of zits and the wearing of heels and the makeup of questionable provenance. I wonder if she does these things and if they hurt her.

The lady now has me on my back and the heat of the wax against my previously untouched skin is actually hurting me. Once again I wonder why I do this, why I put up with it, though, of course, I know the answer. My dad would look at me weird. My mom would yell at me. My friends would whisper behind my back. It takes courage to understand that the social obligation for women to wax their legs is a direct consequence of an oppressive patriarchal system, and that kind of courage I believe I have. If you were to ask my mother, she’d probably say I have too much of it. However, it takes a fundamentally different kind of courage to say “screw it” and stop waxing your legs altogether, and in that sense I’m not nearly as brave as I should be.

I think about my friends who tell me that waxing hurts them, that they’re uncomfortable wearing such short dresses at parties, that boys have often looked at them or touched them in ways they’re not supposed to. I think about all the times that we’ve complained together about these things, all the times we have emerged from conversations feeling closer to each other because of these painful everyday feelings. Being a woman is often about that. We relate to each other through our pain. But it gets a little tiring, every so often, to have pain be such a defining aspect of who society expects you to be. To have pain be one of the main pillars upon which you build the person that you are.

I am suddenly filled with the urge not only to ask the black-haired lady if she sings, but to tell her that I sing too. I want to find something that unites us. Which, I know, is a pretty crazy thing to think when you’re lying in a stretcher in your underwear while a person pours hot liquid on you. You can’t get much closer than that, and it’s very possible that you don’t need to. And yet I just don’t particularly want this to be it. I don’t want this loathsome activity to be the thing that unites us, this woman and I. A moment ago it didn’t seem ever-so-slightly important that we should be united at all, but if we must then I’d rather it be music that does it. Not this. No more of this.

As if reading my mind, the black-haired lady rubs alcohol on my legs and says “we’re done sweetie, you can go now.” She has left the room before I’ve even finished saying thank you. I quickly and clumsily put on my jeans and shoes and go out, once again, to the waiting room.

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