When I was 13 and a half the boy I had a crush on said to me, “I’ll shave my mustache if you shave yours.”
Up until this point in my short life I’d never really given a thought to the follicles on my face. Puberty was yet to strike so my body wasn’t sprouting wiry hair anywhere. As far as I was concerned, didn’t we all have fluff on our faces?
But I really liked this boy. He was loud, handsome and volatile in a way that would shut down dissenters. A heady combination when you’re nearly 14. His attention felt like encouragement, rather than the reality; an insult wrapped up in a sly cloak of faux camaraderie.
I went home that evening and subjected my upper lip to a serious analysis in the bathroom mirror. If I peered really closely I could definitely see a light down of hair wisping the stretch of face between my nose and my mouth. It wasn’t long enough to pinch between my fingers but if I ran them lightly over the area I could feel them floating in the breeze caused by my smooshing.
There was nothing else for it. I dug around in my older sister’s room for a razor and found one at the back of a drawer. It was a bit rusty on the edges of the blade which would have given me pause for thought under normal circumstances. But a fever had gripped me and I was fairly certain I could feel the hair above my lip growing. If I didn’t take action immediately I’d be covered in a thick pelt by morning and the situation with my crush would be doomed for failure. Young love thwarted by a unruly thatch.
Back in the bathroom I raised a good lather with the soap and daubed a generous amount on my mustache.
“That’ll teach you to mess with my A-game”, I muttered as I picked the razor up and without pausing, proceeded to shave the offence off my face. I didn’t really know what I was doing so I performed a couple of up-strokes, then followed with a few down-strokes to catch any stragglers. The blade kind of rasped against my skin, removing the soap although each time I peered at the blade I couldn’t see any of the Rapunzel hairs. So I put a bit more soap on and repeated the process a couple of times. By now my skin was starting to feel hot and itchy. I’d never shaved anything on my body before but I had a suspicion that it wasn’t a side effect worth celebrating.
Job done and a splash of water on the area revealed an atrocity. My upper lip was now a concerning shade of maroon with raised white splots, no doubt from when the blunt razor tore through my facial hair’s habitat like a malfunctioning attack drone. There was even beads of blood among the carnage. And everything was throbbing with the rhythmic intensity of a bass beat at an illegal rave; look. what. you. have. done.
Things had calmed down a little by dinner time and my facial renovation got a few raised eyebrows from the other members of the family but no comments. I think this was largely down to the fact that my parents and sisters were fairly decent human beings who weren’t into shaming people for their questionable choices. But even so, I was acutely aware of the visual evidence I was carrying around, and the fact that my mustache area was now naked. It finally stopped it’s throbbing and now just felt a bit … cold.
The next morning I inspected my handiwork before leaving for school. There was definitely no hair left but the skin still looked puffy and sore. At school the boy in question took one look at my face and started hooting with laughter in that strident, hysterical way that pubescent boys use for protection. Like a coat of armour that shields them from incoming insults, deflecting the humiliation onto the next person in line.
“Oh my GOD, what happened to your face? Did you actually fuckin shave your mustache.”
His friends all gathered together noisily, the smell of a public shaming drew them from all corners of the classroom. I couldn’t really deny it when the evidence lay across the top of my mouth like a splotchy distress signal.
Instead I tried to shrug it off, “Whatever bro, I was going to do it anyway. Why don’t you just fuck up.”
Inside, the mortification had solidified in my stomach, tight, restrictive and very hard to ignore. The rest of my face bloomed into a shade not far off the one I’d given myself last night.
Thankfully my mates rallied around and we all traded insults for a few minutes until the teacher turned up for class. But I could feel the boy’s eyes on me, his gaze held an air of ownership. And why not? His throwaway comment had prompted a response from me that was ominously compliant.
I’ve thought about this exchange many times over the years. Particularly when I’ve had cause to examine my formative years for moments that were significant in the context of how I relate to men, and also crucially, how I see myself. It’s always left me feeling shame and sadness for being that kid. That girl who seriously thought that attention from the handsome class bully was good, even if it was bad.
And in a wider context; Are we conditioned as young girls to want to shape ourselves into a version that is pleasing to the male gaze? And is that because of invisible power dynamics that a patriarchal society puts in place, for all of us, almost without any of us noticing?
Like, how hard is it to go against the grain of wanting to fit in when we’re kids? Or making a decision to refuse to bend our will, our opinions as girls, our appearances so that some little bully will speak nicely to us at school?
It’s taken me decades to understand some fundamental things about myself. That my romantic relationships with men have been largely problematic pretty much since the mustache debacle, but that things can change, I can change these patterns. And that praise from any external factor will only slip off the sides unless I learn to love and respect myself. In understanding these things, I have been able to live in my own skin a little more comfortably.