When I hit puberty, a strange phenomenon occurred. I slowly stopped wearing sleeveless clothing. I got rid of the spaghetti strap dresses and the muscle tanks, and if I wore a camisole, I made sure I had a cute jacket layered over it.
Folks, I live in Singapore. That’s on the equator. The weather is consistently hot and humid. I’m talking warm rain and squinty afternoons (you thought I had small eyes because I’m Chinese? I have small eyes because if I don’t squint, the sun will burn my eyes out!). I didn’t even know sweater weather was a thing until The Neighbourhood started singing about it. Why? Because over here we don’t get sweater weather. If you’re smart, you don’t get sweaters, period. So why have I been traipsing about in long sleeves and layers in thirty degree weather?
It’s been a secret up til now, but in the name of science (I’m allowed to have a broad view and definition of science) I’m finally going to say it. The reason I have kept my upper body limbs hidden from the world, the reason I am willing to foray into the sweltering heat in wool… is my armpits.
I think this is probably an excellent time to tell you that this will be a disgusting article. I am going to talk about my armpits. But I’m hoping that because I said this was science, you’ll bear with me. Because this is important. And… “scientific”.
When I found out about the body positivity movement, I was stoked. Finally, here was a movement that was teaching people to be proud of the bodies they have. Here were masses of human beings fighting back against the body-shaming and the fat-shaming and the skinny-shaming so popular in the media. Here were influencers announcing their support for people of every shape and size. If my muffin top had hands, I’d have high-fived it. Or, I would have low-fived it, because I don’t like lifting my arms up. I don’t like showing off my… you know.
It started off as a very simple insecurity. When I turned thirteen or fourteen, I started growing hair. Duh. I’ll admit that at first I was stoked. I was like, “score!” because this meant I could finally do big girl things like buy deodorant that smelled like lavender and glittery pink razors. God, I had hit the jackpot. And this was how I felt for about a week, before it started to really sink in. Nobody really likes armpit hair. My eyes were suddenly opened to the millions of hair removal ads everywhere — short, one minute affairs that involved a beautiful woman lovingly stroking her beautiful, naked armpits. Armpits that looked like tofu. Tofu pits.
“It’s just not hygienic,” some friends said. “If you let your hair grow out, it traps oil and sweat and you smell bad.” Never mind that none of my guy friends were this obsessed with having silky underarms, I bought into the story anyway. Armpit hair? Gross.
Even grosser was what happened when I started shaving. I got little nicks and rashes from using razors, from all those mornings I was in too much of a rush to reach for the shaving cream. I got ingrown hairs — God’s way of saying “you should’ve used the shaving cream”. And despite everything I put myself through to look acceptable in tank tops, my underarms never looked like the ones in Dove commercials. My armpits looked more like someone’s five o’clock shadow than tofu.
It became an obsession. I was tweezing and shaving and waxing everyday. It was getting in the way of my day to day activities. I’d pause my studying to tweeze my armpits. My skin was red and raw all the time because of my unquenchable desire for those goddamn tofu pits.
All this time, I was vocally advocating the body positivity movement. I was writing about the damaging effects of advertising, and encouraging people to love their bodies no matter what size jeans they wore. I was like, “fuck yeah, I love bodies”.
The irony didn’t occur to me until recently, when I was looking at myself in the mirror. I was feeling happy with my body. I was in a good mood because I’d been working out and I liked how my arms were starting to look stronger. “Maybe I’ll wear something sleeveless,” I thought. “Something that’ll show off my baby guns.” I pulled on a camisole. People, I looked good.
But a small part of me was unhappy. “What about your armpits?” it whispered. I raised my arms and I was immediately dissuaded from wearing the camisole out. My underarms were dotted with scars and ingrown hairs and hairs I’d somehow missed during my dedicated hair removal ritual.
I wore a long sleeved shirt instead.
The episode bugged me. How could I be repping the body posi movement when I hated one part of my body so much?
And it’s not just my armpits. For the longest time, I wouldn’t wear open toed shoes out because a childhood spent running barefoot and stubbing toes on things have led to cracked toenails and dry calluses.
So many feminists I talk to share similar problems. We won’t shut up about including fat girls on the runway, but we also won’t shut up about how ugly we look because of a fresh pimple that’s popped up on our foreheads. We say “Don’t shame her for how little she eats!” but we ridicule ourselves for the state of our eyebrows. We will religiously refrain from asking if someone’s put on stress weight, but will casually ask about someone’s stress eczema. That has to change.
The body positivity movement is about bodies. Everything about bodies. Not just the size of our bodies, but also everything that’s on it. That includes freckles and warts, acne and blackheads, rashes and scars. It’s about learning to love all of it.
I go back to the common excuse for hating these things about ourselves — “it’s gross”. We’re quick to equate pimples with bad skincare, body odour with a less than rigorous shower regime. But if we’re willing to accept that a skinny girl might just have a naturally high metabolism, then we have to be willing to accept that some people are genetically more prone to breakouts than others. If we can see that a fat man is living healthily, then we have to be able to see that a person with warts might really have a more diligent skincare routine than us. Going beyond that, we have to ask why the idea of poor hygiene disgusts us so much when the reality is that many people can’t afford that luxury. Not everyone has the cash to have their eyebrows threaded on a monthly basis. Not everyone can indulge in moisturiser. Not everyone can set aside money for Differin and Epiduo. Does that make them less beautiful? Less worth investing in?
The answer is no. Because people are more than the bodies they inhabit. Because people deserve love and understanding regardless of the packaging they come in. Because nobody should have to explain why they want to be treated like a human being. That’s why. And that’s why I’m begging the body positivity movement to include all this in its fight. I want us to remove the stigma so persistently attached to perfectly normal bodily features. I want us to respect bodies because they’re amazing, regardless of the spots and scars that adorn them. I don’t want to hear the words “gross” and “disgusting” used to describe anyone’s body — why would I want to hear them used to describe what’s on somebody’s skin? To you who’s reading this, I hope you feel good about yourself today. I hope you check yourself out in a mirror today, because you are absolutely killing it. That pimple? That scar? That stray hair? I hope you’re loving your body, not in spite of it, but in celebration of it. Your body is an ever-changing work of art. Who wouldn’t want to love it?
I’m thankful for my armpit hair. Really. Because if I had never grown them, I probably wouldn’t be here contemplating the quiet body shaming. The body shaming that comes in the form of “it’s what’s good for you”. How many of us have bought blackhead strips when we actually just have hairs growing on our noses? The misinformation out there is incredible, and a lot of it is there to put us into little boxes. And I could go ahead and argue that society’s infatuation with clean underarms stems from an attempt to infantalize women, or that the patriarchy just wants to give us another thing to be insecure about. But I’m not going to, because some people like shaving their armpits and it makes them feel good. And in my books, that isn’t a sin. Heck, you could perm and dye your armpit hairs and I’d think it’s rad. What isn’t rad is putting people (ourselves included) down for the state our bodies are in, whether it’s a result of genetics or our environment or personal choice. And so I’m going home and I’m going to take a shower, and then I’m going to moisturise my rashy armpits. Because these buddies deserve it. Because I am done wearing impractical winter clothing in seventy percent humidity. Because I am done being ashamed about the skin I’m living in.
A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.