Three things have stayed constant my entire life — my hair has always been long, I’ve always been short and Rajan has always done my eyebrows.
Besides that one time in 2018 when Rajan was on vacation (my eyebrows were ruined). But you get the point.
I’ve taken pride in my hair my entire life. It’s long, thick and healthy. It’s beautiful, and aunties never refrained from saying so. My mom would put my head between her hands and wash my hair, telling me stories about growing up or university or an original about a mean crow that she should totally make into a children’s book because it’s amazing. She’d comb it, detangling the millions of knots, and then she’d put the lengths into an intricate braid (or push it back with a sparkly headband on special occasions).
My hair swirled around my body, frizzy and smooth. If my hair was in my face, my grandmother would tuck it behind my ears. Friends in junior high would play with it during hour-long school assemblies, and I’ve spent a fortune buying The Good Hair Ties. You know, the thick ones without the metal connector that rips hairs from the nape of your neck when you put your hair in a ponytail. I learned how to braid, curl, straighten and blow out, plop, mousse and gel.
For most of my life, my hair was the only thing about me people talked about. But the second it was on my arms, my hair was gross. I was gross. And ugly. And unloveable. And stupid for not realizing it sooner.
Thick black hair graced my body, from my head to my legs. It was everywhere, and for a long time, I hated it. Not because I thought I looked bad or that the hair was bad, but because everyone else told me it was. And I get it — decades and decades and centuries of colonialism taught South Asian people that their hair is disgusting and that their bodies are disgusting. I am disgusting. So when I would get teased — by kids and adults — for having body hair, I got rid of it.
And I was just a kid. Adults would know best, right?
Removing my body hair was a choice, but barely. When you’re told something is bad, you get rid of it — done deal. And though I hated the hair on my arms for years growing up, I never felt self-conscious about my eyebrows. I’m sure classmates teased me here and there for having hair on my face, but it never bugged me. Having thick eyebrows was cultural. It made me feel South Asian and it made me feel brown. I felt like I was connected to my culture in ways that I otherwise wouldn’t get the opportunity to, especially while growing up.
I don’t speak the language, whatever it may be — I never learned it. And growing up, I couldn’t help but feel stupid. My friends would talk to their parents in Gujarati or Kutchi or Hindi or Urdu, and I would listen intently, trying to understand one word from the intricate sentences flowing from their mouths. Maybe I’d catch “sambhar” for “listen,” or maybe “pani” for “water.” After focusing as hard as possible to understand what they were asking of me, I’d ask elders to repeat what they said to me, but in English. And I’d smile and nod when I knew they couldn’t. I’d point and use gestures, begging to connect with them on some level, any level, all while my brain beat me up for not knowing what to say back. Tears would well in my eyes and mascara would run down my thirteen-year-old face as I stared at myself in the mirror.
And I’d do this while wearing a sari, maybe even a bindi, after listening to Bollywood music in the car an hour earlier. I felt like a fraud.
Sometimes, I still do.
I did anything I could to physically reclaim my heritage. I adorned myself with jhumkas and tanned as much as humanly possible during the summer. I switched from silver to gold jewelry and got my nose pierced. I stopped caring about the hair on my arms and started to reclaim it as mine. For me, body hair is inherently political. I choose to keep and remove hair based on what I feel. Keeping my arm hair is political, but so is threading my eyebrows.
My first time getting my eyebrows done was in 2014. My mom was looking for a good esthetician and I felt like it was time to get the small, wispy hairs plucked from the centre of my eyebrows. I was an adult, you know, being twelve and all.
I know it’s paradoxical. Not shaving or waxing to feel more brown, to look more brown, to pay homage to my culture, but threading to do the same.
In a salon thirty minutes from my home, the edges of my brows were neglected while the centre was left bare. Red and hot, I walked away complaining, swearing to my brothers that I would never let someone touch my brows again. Being a woman hurts.
That all changed when I met Rajan.
The prairie cold pierced through my skin. Heavy backpacks, clear mascara and chapstick and an itchy green Roots sweater. Hair pulled back, probably in a ponytail with front pieces pulled out. Metal retainers lined the inside of my mouth, orange high-top Converse, leggings, baby hairs poking out from behind my ears. That’s how she met me.
Rajan was gentle, she asked me what I wanted and she talked me through the agony of threading the tail-end of a brow.
My eyebrows were thick and dark. I liked them that way. So Rajan kept them thick and dark, but with each twist of the thread, they became louder. They became what kids at school would talk about (because what else would they talk about?), and they became a symbol of womanhood and power to me. I took such pride in my eyebrows, the clean line between my skin and the hair, angular and harsh. Bold, assertive.
Rajan threads and plucks my eyebrow hairs with the tiniest scissors known to man. She always makes sure to go easy on my left brow since that one always brings me pain and she gives me a tissue after she threads my right since she knows I could sneeze at any second.
Though my mom would hold my eyebrow skin taught, when I looked in the mirror, I’d smile at myself. Not because I thought I looked better — or fundamentally different, even — but because I felt better. I felt like an adult. I felt like a woman. And I felt brown.
I learned to stand up for myself and for my hair. As I shaved it, waxed it, cut it, grew it, styled it, braided it and plucked it, from the top of my head to the tip of my toe — I’m conscious of what I do and why I do it. Hair is political — from the braids I’d wear to school that made me confident in my heritage, to the arm hair that made me upset with it — and it will always be political.
As each eyebrow hair was plucked with white thread, the hairs of my mother and her mother and her mother before her were plucked, too. As my eyebrows grew sharper, so did theirs. I was there with them. I saw every heartbreak, every hardship. I saw them yell and shout and complain and I saw them become bolder, stronger and more powerful. I saw them in my mom beside me in the car driving home from volleyball practice and in me sitting in Rajan’s studio, smiling as I told her I loved the brows. The long line of women with thick eyebrows and body hair watched me grow while getting my eyebrows done.
And Rajan was watching too. She might not know it, but she’s seen me through so many firsts — I saw her every two weeks for six years. She’s seen me through my first period, my first failed exam, my first time playing the saxophone, my first friendship breakup, my first date, my first week-long stint of not biting my nails, my first time feeling genuinely insecure, my first job, my first volleyball games, my first heartbreak, my first drama productions (and my last) and my first set of Invisalign.
She’s been silently in the background, watching me grow up with a thread between her teeth.
This article is a part of The Ubyssey's 2023 creative non-fiction supplement, beauty.