The first time I felt Latina was in sixth grade. It didn’t happen when my dad would make Salvadoran rice and beans or pan con chumpe or the chicken soup my abuelita used to make. It didn’t happen when I sang Caballito Blanco at our school’s multicultural day, when I wore my El Salvador shirt and the necklaces my dad had brought back for me during his last visit. It didn’t even happen when I went to El Salvador with my family the summer after fifth grade.
It was when my sixth-grade seat partner told me that he was going to buy me a razor for my birthday so I’d be able to shave my upper lip. The girls sitting in front of me laughed. I jabbed him with a pencil in response and told him I hated him. My head spun a little. I didn’t say anything else.
I went to a predominantly white Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade, where I was one of very few Latinas. I’m not going to pretend to embody some sort of Brown Experience; my mom’s white, and I can pass as white very easily. But what I lack in melanin, I more than make up for in body hair. It’s never been the thin, blonde, indiscernible kind that most of my classmates had. And It demanded the attention that I did not want as a self-conscious 12-year-old.
It was first noticeable as a smattering of thick arm hair as a fifth grader. I wore my school uniform sweater as often as possible to hide my arms from scrutiny, but it wasn’t enough. I remember one time when a girl looked at my arms and told me they were really, really hairy, as if I hadn’t thought of taking my dad’s razor and shaving them smooth.
And then came the upper-lip hair. It started to grow in thicker and darker at the exact moment I didn’t want it to, that point in the middle-school years where your body is horrifying. I already had the classic pre-teen combination of a bad haircut, poorly fitting hand-me-down clothes and braces. Now, I had another self esteem-destroyer to worry about.
My mom knew I was miserable. I never told her what my seat partner said, but I'd often ask her questions about removing body hair. Toward the end of seventh grade, she offered to take me to her esthetician, an old Irish woman whose office was filled with shelves of beauty balms and exfoliators and anti-aging creams, for an upper-lip wax. I took her up on the offer. The first trip to the salon was a blur of pink, sticky wax being slathered on my skin and ripped off by little strips of paper. 15 minutes later, it was done, and the patch of skin felt like someone had pressed a curling iron to it. The esthetician patted on witch hazel and creams to reduce the pain, and handed me a mirror to examine my face. The only remaining evidence of my former mustache was the pink, throbbing skin above my lip. I stared at myself for a while, trying to find one small straggler. None. I loved it.
Going to get waxes became a secretive ritual. Every month, my mom would send me to the salon with a $12 check. I’d lie there and listen to the esthetician talk about her granddaughter while I winced and felt my skin burn. It was worth the pain, though; I’d look in the mirror and know that nobody could say anything to me. I looked more like the rest of the girls of school, without the light mustache of a prepubescent boy. I felt beautiful.
Sometimes I wonder how many dollars I’ve spent on fixing my face. Every three or four weeks, I drop $12 on a service that none of my Salvadoran primas or tías have ever used. I wonder if I would feel more beautiful if I’d grown up in my dad’s village in El Salvador, where the women’s facial hair grows beyond the scrutiny of the white gaze. I wonder if I would feel more beautiful if Latinas on television sometimes had facial hair, to normalize it for me.
I critique white patriarchy and its dictates, yet I still fork over $12 every month to fix a non-problem. To white feminists, not shaving or waxing is supposed to be an act of liberation. Armpit and leg hair are supposed to be signifiers of not caring about the male gaze. But I also have to worry about the white gaze, the one that thinks that Frida Kahlo would look more beautiful without her stache or sells bleaching creams in CVS. I use waxes as a mode of survival. I’d never dream of walking into a job interview or the first day of a new class without a recent salon visit. Those trips help me feel in control, even if it’s just a illusion. It takes a lot to unlearn that gut response of seeing my hairless upper lip in the mirror and feeling beautiful.
My mom calls me Fridita when I’ve gone for a few weeks without visiting the salon, when life gets too busy for 15 minutes and $12. Little Frida, little Frida Kahlo. I wish I deserved that nickname. Frida was mestiza, too; neither totally brown nor totally white. But that’s where the comparison ends. She painted her facial hair, both her unibrow and her mustache, as a prominent feature of her self-portraiture. She didn’t make an enemy out of something that was a part of her. Even as a brown woman in a white supremacist world, she kept, and even emphasized, the facial hair that didn’t mesh with whiteness. She embodied the impossibly simple (and yet, still impossible) task of being honest about her womanhood, in a way that I am not sure I ever could. She was a radical.
I am trying to be one, too. I’m trying to figure out other modes of survival, of not caring about the gaze I oppose in theory and help perpetuate in actuality. To paraphrase one of my favorite tweets by Ayesha A. Siddiqi, I want to be the person I needed when I was younger. I want to normalize the dark hair that I inherited from my dad and my Mayan ancestors, within my white-dominated environment. I want to model for my future daughter, if I ever have one, the self-love and confidence required to shun the white gaze, both in theory and in practice.
I want to really be Fridita, for that occasional nickname to define my feminism and my life.