I am up close to the mirror, straining to see the finer hairs near the left corner of my upper lip. It’s near daylight, and I am trying to finish shaving before my husband gets up for work. He knows that I shave my face every day, but it is not something for which I welcome an audience. My awkward, unskilled handiwork would probably make most observers nervous and often results in nicks and missed hairs. Although my mother taught me to shave my legs when I was around nine (lather them up good and shave up, not down), no one ever taught me to shave my face.
And why would they? Women aren’t supposed to have mustaches and beards, right?
I dry my face and apply moisturizer and make-up, just like thousands of other women do each morning, but I can still see the shadow on my upper lip. I have tried lightening creams and lemon juice with little more results than burned skin. I have tried special concealers that only seem to darken the hair, black and stiff, just under the skin.
My endocrinologist has recommended electrolysis, but even she has said that it is not a true solution, given that new hair is still growing in. The cost of having the hair on my face, chin, and neck lasered off month after month for the rest of my life (or until my body decides to stop growing it) seems like torture both to my household budget and my skin. And plucking! I have no tolerance for that kind of pain.
My hair is the result of a condition called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), which affects 5–10 percent or more of all women. In addition to the facial hair, PCOS promotes male-pattern baldness, cystic acne, infertility, reduced or no periods, anxiety, fatigue, brown patches of skin, and obesity. Although diet and other lifestyle changes have helped me manage many of those symptoms, the hair on my face continues to grow thicker as the years go by.
I have considered just letting it grow. I could embrace it, like other women with my condition have, and yet I find myself morning after morning with razor in hand stumbling through the motions of hair removal. I have let it grow out over long, do-nothing weekends, and I am always surprised to see how quickly it takes over my face.
Most of the time it is a non-issue. After all, I am certainly more than the hairs that sprout from my face, but other times I am acutely aware that it is there, calling me to question how people see me and how I see myself. It is more apparent in photos and videos, which I use frequently on social media and in my college classroom. And sometimes a friend or family member will mention it to me as a means to recommend a hair removal method they have heard works.
Indeed, for a while, hirsutism seemed like a crisis. I was desperate to find something that would get rid of it forever. I would cry if my hand accidentally grazed the stubble on my chin. I took a razor with me everywhere and would do five o’clock shadow touch-ups before having dinner with friends or a late afternoon meeting with colleagues.
Recently, though, it has become less relevant to how I see myself. Shaving is as much a part of my morning routine as brushing my teeth and drinking green tea. The turn came about through gratitude. I entered recovery for binge eating disorder two years ago, and part of my healing was to learn how to love my body just as it is. I had been struggling with body dissatisfaction since puberty, but finally, more than 30 years later, I can embrace my body as it is and for all it does each day, despite chronic illness, stress, and all the ways my eating disorder pushed me to punish it.
Of course, I have days when I wish the hair was gone, but I try to remind myself of all the good in my life. Thankfully, though, I no longer worry about “who will visit me in the nursing home to pluck my facial hair,” as my friend Peggy once said. My dad never taught me to shave, but I get by just fine. After all, I am not defined by one perceived flaw but by my whole, and the whole me is pretty fantastic.
Christina Fisanick Greer is an associate professor of English and a professional writer. She is the author of nearly 35 books of non-fiction, including a recent memoir about her 20-year struggle to become a mother. She is currently working on a new memoir about her recovery from binge eating disorder, and is the founder of optimisticfoodaddict.com.