A love letter to my little sister, my younger self, and my bikini line
I think I was around 14 years old the first time I felt like I wanted to jump out of a moving car. Or at least the first time I can remember. No: I hadn’t been abducted. No: I wasn’t fantasising about being the female version of 007. I was in a car with my aunt, and she was trying to talk to me about puberty.
I wanted to hear none of it, evading questions and cutting short sentences that sounded like they could be leading down the route of “you might feel some changes…”. Yet, in retrospect, I realise that what my aunt was trying to do was something that was actually very good.
Growing up, girls learn not to discuss pain, pleasure, or anything that happens ‘down there’. Indeed, we are not even taught the correct vocabulary to name our bodies, instead erasing our anatomy with euphemisms spoken in hushed tones. A 2022 study found that only 9% of women could accurately label a diagram of female genitalia. And the words we do have? They are named after the men who ‘discovered’ them.
Yet, our bodies have been here for far longer than men have been discovering ‘new worlds’.
I didn’t talk about periods with friends; ‘girlie chat’ made my stomach churn. Though this is not necessarily attributed to feelings of shame – as an intensely introverted child, this was in part my personality – every time the ‘time of the month’ was brought up in conversation, I actively sought out an escape route. I felt physically ill. During (abysmally inadequate) sex-ed lessons, I had to excuse myself to sit in a bathroom
cubicle with my head between my legs. So, it wasn’t just my personality. It felt like shame, and it was visceral.
Unfortunately, these feelings are not uncommon. In fact, it is all too common because, without shame, we could never fit the mould we are cast in under the patriarchy. It angers me. I do not believe necessarily that the silence itself carries shame; rather this silence allows the possibility for shame to grow. And if on top of that we are not taught the accurate language, what can we say? Well, we can close our mouths, cross our legs, and look pretty, which is exactly what I did for a long time. I evaded the conversation, crossed my legs, and stared out a car window as a world whipped past me.
The car journey took me wherever it was we were heading that day. More importantly, it took me on a long journey of shame and discovery and curiosity. Bit by bit, I have very consciously worked to unbind
myself from these chains. What led to this ‘feminist awakening’ I have to attribute to my trans sisters and brothers across the world.
Trans women, particularly trans women of colour, have been silenced for centuries and yet often they are the ones who continue to resist the loudest. Once I started dismantling internalised transphobia, as a white cis woman I began to understand the intricacies of the patriarchy; how it is a delicate and insidious web woven with transphobia, homophobia, racism, colonialism… you name it. And by delicate, I do not mean easily broken. I mean it sits perfectly; silently; prettily. Crossing its legs.
I soon realised that not talking about my experiences, my body, and my pain wasn’t going to get me anywhere. So, I started talking about my period. The crimson that blossoms in my underwear every month; stains my duvet and seeps into my bed linen at night. I started opening up to some friends and women I know about the life experiences that shame has trained us not to talk about. When we do not discuss how a web is more a cage than a home, the web becomes stronger; the spider fatter. That talking became acting. Small steps that I have taken to unbind myself include educating myself on feminism and the gender binary. More intimately, I decided not to regularly shave my underarms or legs, which felt not only like a reclamation of my womanhood but also my queerness.
But this morning, I encountered a problem. I wake up, tired, feeling like letting my body move through water would be the best way to start my day. When I am two minutes from the pool, I realise, with a glimmer of dread, that I have not shaved my bikini line. My stomach drops a little.
The walk home isn’t long but if I turn around now, I don’t know in all honesty if I will have the energy to come back. But, I want to swim so badly, because to me it is so freeing.
The swimming centre is in sight. So, I push one step in front of the other and move toward it. I find myself in the changing room, hyper-aware of my body as I change then sort out my locker. My costume is cut high and close to my bikini line. And there: a sign of my adulthood, of my reaching and experiencing puberty – that thing I so desperately wanted to avoid. I walk out of the changing room, into the pool area, and I swim. I let my body move through the water.
Choosing not to shave is often considered a ‘feminist’s act’. Not dressing or manipulating our bodies should not be revolutionary, yet it feels – like this morning – like a reclamation of my body from the male gaze. We are taught not only not to talk about our bodies – particularly our vulva and vagina – but to spend money on shaping the hair that protects it so that it cannot even be seen. In this way, keeping body hair (if that is our choice) can be a small but fierce act of destigmatizing our bodies and relinquishing shame. I can’t help but feel that if we were more open as a culture in the West to understanding female genitalia, and were less embarrassed to call it what it is, then fewer girls and non-binary folk would grow up with shame. Forgetting to shave one’s bikini line would be less of a big deal.
Now, almost ten years on from the car ride where my aunt tried to force a conversation down the throat of a girl who was severely unable to express anything more than an “I’m fine”, I understand that she was trying to do the right thing for me. So, in this way, I want to be like her when it comes to my little sister.
I want to let my sister know that she can break any silence that she feels she has to keep about her own body. However, I will start the conversation a little differently than my aunt. I will be gentler. I will show her through referring to my body with no shame and embracing other people’s bodies with no judgement, that when and if she wants to, there is space for conversation. She can speak.