On a Woman’s Body Hair

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Since I wrote that post about my body, I’ve tried to be aware of how I think of myself. Try to catch myself in negative self-talk when I look in the mirror. If I can’t replace it with something positive (why is that so difficult to do?) I at least try to let the thoughts go, rather than chase them down. These things have been simmering in the back of my mind, mostly, until yesterday.

There was an article in my Twitter feed about how 1 in 4 young women have stopped shaving their armpits. Later, I read an interview on Bustle with a beauty blogger who stopped shaving. This caused me to reflect on my own history of body hair. It’s something I’ve probably spent way too much time thinking about over the years, but such is the life of a person inhabiting a woman’s body, I suppose.

I must have been 18 or 19 when I first stopped shaving, both my legs and my armpits. I think I may have been prompted by reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth; it was around that time that I also started using cloth pads and a menstrual cup. Deciding not to shave was absolutely a political statement, and it was absolutely a hard thing to do. In the beginning, I’d get comments about how it was “time to shave.” I was told that it was unsanitary, to which I’d challenge: “what is less clean about my body hair compared to a man’s?”

Having dark hair on my legs and long, curling hair peeking from my pits wasn’t (isn’t) an easy way to walk through life. I often wonder why I was imposing this on myself. Why bother making myself uncomfortable every time I wear a tank top, or shorts, or a bathing suit? I suppose the answer is that my discomfort is a result of others’ discomfort. I’m uncomfortable because other people might be uncomfortable with my body hair. And that’s bullshit. I didn’t quite articulate it like that in the beginning of not shaving. I think in the beginning it was a pretty simple “fuck your beauty standards.”

That being said, I must acknowledge my many privileges. I’m white, of average size, and I present fairly feminine in general. I don’t have much facial hair (though my eyebrows have been called caterpillars, and I’ve had more than one hair stylist come at them with scissors and a wax strip).

There’s also something to be said for living where I do, in a bit of a “hippy” haven. There are a lot of women in my small town who don’t shave their legs or armpits. Living in the Yukon was the first time I went out in shorts or a tank top and didn’t even think twice about my body hair. Back in “the city” is another story. In fact, I started shaving again during the year we lived in Ontario. I stopped again when Charlotte was born, because someone has to show her that there are myriad ways to be in this world.

As I get older, I find dark hairs sprouting at random on my neck. More than once, people have tried to brush them away as though they are stray hairs from my head. I try not to feel any shame when I tell them that actually, that hair is growing from my neck. It’s not my issue that they squirm at the realization. It’s hard, though. It’s hard not to apologize for my body at every turn. I’m sorry my eyebrows are unruly. I’m sorry I have hairs on my neck, between my breasts, on my belly.

But on reading that article on Bustle yesterday, something struck me. The woman being interviewed, Dana Suchow, says:

“But I have decided I will not go back to shaving until I am comfortable with my unshaven body. I have to be comfortable being intimate with another person. And I have to be comfortable wearing shorts in the summer.”

It made me realize that I am STILL not fully comfortable with my unshaven body, after something like 15 years. For most of my adult life, I have been unshaven more than shaven. And while I may feel okay about it here in Dawson, as soon as we go to Ontario in summer, I am aware of the dark hair on my legs. I wonder if it offends. I change from pants to shorts and back again. When I do shave, I tell myself it’s my choosing. But is it really? Sure, no one is telling me, explicitly, to shave. But just feeling the pressure to do so, implied by media, movies, friends, family, all being smooth and hairless, is enough to remove my agency. I’m shaving because I don’t want to rock the boat.

Body hair should be neutral. Neither masculine nor feminine. It grows on us because we are mammals. We should all, no matter our gender, be fully free to choose if, when, and how to remove it. It bothers me that making that choice, as a woman, is still a radical act.

I wanted to close with a favourite poem of mine, by the late Al Purdy. I love it for its intimacy and its low-key celebration of body hair. Maybe I’ll go write an ode to my leg hair.

Winter at Roblin Lake

Seeing the sky darken and the fields
turn brown & the lake lead-grey
as some enormous scrap of sheet metal
& wind grabs the world around the equator
I am most thankful then for knowing about
the little gold hairs on your belly.

 

Sprung

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Last night, around 2 am, I was woken by the sound of banging on our shed. Coming out of sleep, it sounded like Paul was trying, unsuccessfully, to get in. Why doesn’t he just open the door, I thought in my haze. Then I came fully awake, and could hear him snoring softly in bed.

A bear, then.

I shook Paul awake, quietly so as not to wake the kids, and asked him to go downstairs and lock our front door. It opens out, but with the new handle we installed recently, a bear could potentially swing it open. A bear in the house is one of my greatest fears. I sometimes lie awake in bed, wondering what I’d do if a bear got in. Could it climb the stairs to the loft? What then? Could we jump out the window? Where would we go from there? I’d have to run back in to get the keys to the truck.

Stop. It will never happen.

Back to last night, and Paul and I standing in the kitchen with a flashlight, peering out into the rare darkness, watching the shadow of a big black bear lumber away from the shed and barbeque, in the direction of the garbage cans; heard the bear find the cans, knock them over, the “wildlife proof” lids no match for a bear’s strength; watched the bear lope off behind the shed towards the woods, dragging a bag of garbage with it.

Everything was quiet again. We went back to bed. What else is there to do? The bears are awake, curious and hungry. They’re not just a problem at our place in the bush: they are sighted in town, too, and on the hiking trails that surround town. As I drift off to sleep, I wish for a dog. I think about how the garbage cans are right by the outhouse, and of how I had to pee. If I’d woken with that urge just 20 minutes sooner, I might have encountered the bear in the yard, in the dark. Another of my greatest fears. Stash bear spray in outhouse. Learn to use a gun. Get a dog.

I’d intended to write about summer unfolding, and then a bear happened. It’s too good a story not to share!

The leaves are all coming out now: what was a buzz of new-green has become a roar. Wild lupin and bluebells push up from from the soil; the crocuses have already bloomed.

The ice has gone out on the river, and the ferry that carries people across has gone back in the water. Soon, the first tour buses will roll into town, covered in dust, off-loading people who will walk around town in matching jackets, all wearing name tags, standing in the middle of the road to take pictures of decrepit heritage buildings. They will creep past the bar, most too afraid to step foot in the local watering hole. The braver ones will find out we don’t bite and it is, in fact, the best time you can have in town. (But I’m biased).

I said I wouldn’t plant a big garden but of course I am busily getting all four of the beds ready, turning the soil, adding in sheep manure, digging out the grass that overtook two beds the summer we were in Ontario. In another week, I’ll plant potatoes, bush beans, sweet peas, radishes and lettuce. This weekend is the Gold Show, a mining trade show that has grown to include much more than mining: the local nursery, and the one from Whitehorse, will set up with bedding plants and herb and vegetable starts. I’ll buy flats of flowers and plant my pots the first week of June, hoping we don’t get a late frost.

We spend more and more time outdoors these days. Like with plants grown indoors from seed, I harden my children off, leaving them outside a bit longer each day until they can tolerate the elements, the change of atmosphere. They “help” me in the garden, or we kick a ball around or we walk in the woods. With bear spray. Singing loudly.

Summer here goes by in a flash: it is packed full of festivals, Saturday markets, friends, picnics, camping, and work. I try to slow down, savor each day. I hope you do the same!

Putting Myself in the Way

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When I first came to Dawson City twelve (!) years ago, I was struck by the different birds I saw. A sparrow wasn’t just a plain old sparrow anymore: it had a bold black and white striped head, and a beautiful song belted out from tree tops. Ducks were more than just mallards. Tiny, bright yellow birds flitted among the willows. I felt a desire to know them, to name them, and so my love of bird watching began. I got myself a field guide and a better pair of binoculars, and over the following five or six years, I became a bit of a bird lady.

I used to spend an afternoon sitting on a sandy spot of riverbank, my binoculars in hand. I watched the bank swallows skim bugs; watched a common merganser teach her ducklings how to dive; once saw a bald eagle defend its catch from gulls. Hikes to the Moosehide Slide, or on the trails in Tombstone Park, always included my binoculars, swinging around my neck. I started writing a bird column for The Klondike Sun, and friends would come to me with their bird queries: “What’s this little brown bird I see at my feeder? The one with the stripes?” Bird watching was a part of how I came to define myself; when people saw an interesting bird, they thought of me.

On a trip to Mexico, weeks pregnant with Aedan, my friends and I went on a bird watching tour. We rose at dawn to be collected by our guide, and went out on a boat in a mangrove swamp. We saw something like fifty different species of bird that morning. Four or five different herons, frigate birds, cormorants, ibis, scarlet tanager, vermilion flycatcher, to name just a few. It was one of my last great bird outings, before having kids.

After having kids, birdwatching was one of the first things to go.

It’s hard to wear binoculars with a sleeping infant carried on your chest. And toddlers are not known for being quiet, or sitting in one spot for hours so mama can watch the birds. I let it go, like I did writing, reading, and hiking. I wasn’t sure if or when I’d pick it up again; a casualty of the intense early years of parenting, I suppose.

Lately though, like the other passions I let fall by the wayside, I feel an eagerness to get back to it. These past few weeks, with the spring migrants making their way through, I’ve had some exciting incidental sightings: a sharp tailed grouse displaying in our yard, its wings held out to the sides, thrumming; a bald eagle gliding over the driveway where we were playing; ducks, so many and varied ducks in the ponds we pass on our drive to town. The ducks were the tipping point for me. I just could not stand that I didn’t know them, that I couldn’t name them. I decided then and there to put myself in the way of bird watching again.

I’ve been putting myself in the way of poetry again, too, looking for poems just as I look for birds. Making sure to read some poetry every day. Committing to working on new poems, to writing down the ideas and lines that come to me, following different threads like I follow a bird sighted in my binoculars. In the past month or so, I’ve organized a poetry reading with Whitehorse poet Joanna Lilley. I’ve read at an open mic and have committed to read at two more in the coming months. I’m working on some poems to complete the chapbook manuscript I’ve been thinking of for the last year. If I let my vision go soft-focus, if I leap just a second before thinking, I find that I’m pulled in the direction of poetry, of a writing life.

Two days ago, out for a walk in the woods with Colm and Charlotte, what I think was a boreal owl flew over head, a pair of robins in pursuit. I wanted a closer look, but of course, I didn’t have my binoculars with me. The following day, as we got ready for our walk, I took my binocs off the hook by the door. I dusted off the glass, and slung them around my neck. Where we rested, while the kids threw rocks, I watched a yellow rumped warbler move from tree to tree, spotted a say’s phoebe (a bird I’d never seen before). It was exhilarating! It struck me how easy it is to pick up again. How easy it is, now that I don’t have to wear all the babies, to take the binoculars with me. How easy it is to sit and observe not just my kids, but the birds, too. I just have to open myself to it, to the birds all around me, the inspiration all around me.

To practice birdwatching, poetry, running, whatever it is, requires effort and discipline, yes. It is a choosing, every time, to do that thing over not doing it. But I’m also learning that it’s a matter of repositioning, if that makes sense, like an adjustment a chiropractor would make, so that things align again. The more I do this, choose these things, the more I put myself in the way of my passions, the easier it will be to get swept away by them.

 

Book Review: Even This Page is White

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April was National Poetry Month, and I found myself (finally) turning back to reading more poetry. I read two excellent collections, one of which I want to review for you today. I confess to being a bit nervous about reviewing poetry: unlike a novel, I feel like the experience of a poem is highly subjective and personal. I’ll give you a very general review, and then point you to some other more experienced poetry reviewers, if you’d like to read more (or, you could just read the book!)

The Book: “Even This Page is White” by Vivek Shraya

What It’s About: These poems explore Shraya’s experience of racism and its intersections with gender and queer identity. She also highlights anti-black racism, and racism towards Indigenous peoples in Canada.

What I Thought: I found this book to be incredibly eye-opening, causing me to think deeper on issues that I’d only had a cursory understanding of before. Shraya writes about the racism present in the Canadian literary scene, as well as in her personal life, with language that is stark and accessible.

The poems are positioned in the lower corners of the pages, emphasizing the remaining white space but also marking it, changing it. In the opening poem “White Dreams”, she writes: “even/this page/is white/so I protest this page/mask it with words/words about being brown”.

The poems that follow include lists of the books on her lover’s shelf, found poems gleaned from comments on a petition to ban Kanye West from playing the closing ceremonies of the Pan Am games, from newspaper articles and interviews, and from another poet’s biography. One of my favourite pieces wasn’t a poem at all: titled “A Conversation with White Friends”, Shraya asks several friends questions on whiteness and white privilege. This piece has the epigraph: “because i still believe in the value of dialogue/and because white people listen to white people.” And to that end, I found the answers to be incredibly enlightening.

Reading this book, I felt grateful towards Vivek Shraya for bringing these words into the world, for teaching and informing me through them, and for reminding me that while it is important to be quiet and listen to the voices of marginalized folks, and to amplify those voices, it is also my job to call out (or call in) and educate other white people.

If you don’t usually read poetry, if you’re afraid of poetry, this book is for you. The poems are highly accomplished, yes, but also very accessible. They don’t make you “work” too hard to discern meaning, but they do lead you into deeper contemplation and understanding of racism and gender identity. I can’t recommend this poetry collection enough!

From the Book:

Cycle of Violence

without seeing a white cock i knew
my teenage penis was too dark
no patch of my brown body is safe
from white sovereignty not even between my legs

without means to under my over colour
i warned potential lovers:
i nicknamed it “oprah”
shifting shame into a joke about a black woman.

Further Reading:

Speaking Past Whiteness by Gwen Benaway

Learning to be Comfortable with Uncomfortable by Kyla Jamieson

Daily Practice Revisited

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Yesterday, I was thinking about my word for 2017: Practice. I was thinking about how, like so many things in my life, I figured that I could just set it and forget it. Practice! I’m going to practice. Every day. Writing, being a writer, mindfulness. Poof! Done.

I feel like I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again because apparently I’m not getting it: it’s not that easy. It seems funny to me that I chose such an active word. The word itself exhorts me to do something, and yet, I don’t. I just sort of expect it to come, I’m just magically writing every day and it flows like water, easy. What I am coming to realize is that practice is hard (how embarrassing! I’m just coming to this realization?!) Developing any kind of daily practice takes a lot of effort. It feels really awful, in the beginning. Each day, I have to drag myself to the thing I want to do and basically force myself to do it. After the doing, I might feel better, but not usually. Often, I feel disappointed. Like, is that it? That’s what daily practice looks like?

This may be a function of social media and the sharing of carefully selected moments of life. I scroll through Instagram and see a lovely photo of someone doing a headstand, or sitting in a peaceful spot writing, or their running shoes on the ground. What these pictures don’t show is everything that led to that moment. I’m realizing that what goes into those moments is a lot of push, a lot of preparation. A lot of choosing to be there. That is the rub of it, for me. I have to choose to practice.

This week I have: gone for a run that was mostly a walk; gone to a yoga class; not purchased a big bag of chips to inhale; meditated once; sat down to write this blog post; gotten out of bed to work on a poem. All of these things took monumental effort. Took me getting outside of myself for a moment, acknowledging what I reflexively wanted, recalling what I wanted ideally, and taking a step in that direction. So much of my life is just reacting, reacting, reacting. Thinking “I want to eat a whole big bag of chips” happens in a fraction of a second, and in that sliver of time my hand reaches for the bag and puts it on the belt at the grocery store and then opens it in the truck and eats it on the drive home. If I don’t stop and check myself, before you know it, it’s gone.

I am realizing that I will take the path of least resistance, always and forever. If I don’t push myself a little, I’ll never make any changes. I’ll sit and stare at my phone and let my kids binge-watch The Wiggles until they’re ready to move out of the house. I’ll never write another poem, climb another mountain, or drink a glass of water if I don’t make myself do it. Practice is a series of choices, every single day. I choose and choose and choose again. Sometimes, I choose the easy thing: the whole bag of chips, the staying on the couch, the not-writing. And often, I think, “that’s it. This is me, forever and ever. I’ll never be different.” But that’s not true. The beauty is that there will always be another choice to make, right around the corner, and I can choose differently. The hard part is remembering that. The hard part is not listening to the nasty voice in my head that tells me no, never, not good enough, give up.

I did not want to write a blog post today. I do not want to work on some poems. I don’t want to read a book, or go for a walk. Today, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted. But I will do some or all of these things, because I know that this is how I build a practice. I just fucking do it.

What will you do today?