The first time my body became “my body”—a thing separate from me—was at 6thgrade lunch period when Hannah Wiessgarber informed me Paul Ferris would never date me because I had hairy kneecaps. She’d asked him about me, and his answer, given in the presence of the other 7thgrade boys, had been, according to Hannah, quite definite.
Now I had not given a lot of thought to dating Paul Ferris. I had not given a lot of thought to dating anyone. But in 6thgrade, the nuances of wanting to date someone and wanting someone else to not NOT want to date you can sometimes get a bit blurry in the hormonal smog.
What I knew was that Hannah Weissgarber with her very large mole with the very long hairs that I never talked about (she seemed to feel sensitive about the whole thing), wanted me to know I was undatable. And it was my body’s fault.
“Ok…” I said, in an unbothered kind of way, according to the rules of 6thgrade. That afternoon, I went home and told my mom I wanted a razor. It was procured readily.
Standing in the kitchen that evening, me in aquamarine polyester pjs and my mom all confident encouragement, she offered instructions for the task at hand. (Mom and I were never big on her “showing” me how to do anything. Verbal instruction suited us both). “Now, you don’t need to do the tricky parts like your knees and ankles right away, you can always work up to those after you gain some practice.”
Oh, I will be addressing the tricky parts.
So began a month of blood sacrifices on my journey to datable womanhood—something I didn’t want yet, but was worried I would be left behind in. I had no idea that day would concretely lock into place one of the things I have always felt a bit sensitive about—leg hair….and, for that matter, all the other hair.
Isn’t it a little odd how young it is when women start “helping” women with what they should be feeling about their bodies? Where do we learn that?
Fast forward fifteen years and my sister Libby is twelve and tentatively ready to start shaving. I’ve been thinking about this day ever since summer, when the sight of her long legs and pre-teen sass pulled me straight back to the 6thgrade classroom. Libby and I share some resemblance at 12. She’s more woman than I was then, but not much more. Every question, every roll of the eyes, every awkward interaction, and every ounce of dread around belonging pulsates through my chest with familiarity.
So today, the day she’s going to start shaving, I’ve driven 45 minutes to “happen” to be around the house for dinner, because as it turns out, I have a lot of feelings about this moment. I’m there as much for the 12-year-old me as for her, and I know it.
It’s surf and turf tonight. Mom’s seasoning shrimp. Dad’s prepping the grill, and I’ve taken up a spot on the big red couch before Lib finds me.
“So I’m going to start shaving,” she says.
“Yeah?” As if this is all news.
“Yeah…I just am not feeling sure about it.”
“Well, do you want me to show you?”
“Sure,” she said, her tone just a half note above monotone, according to the rules of 6thgrade.
Downstairs in her bathroom I inspect the scene. Mom has done well: a 5-blade caliber instrument that didn’t come from a company that also made pens, and luxurious lather to keep those legs feeling damn fabulous.
I took a look at my sister, “What are you wondering?” I said, as I began to lather my leg up to the line of my shorts.
“Well, I just don’t think I want to worry about the knee. I am worried I am going to cut myself, and do I have to shave up high?”
“So first,” I bent over to apply the razor to my shin, “notice that I’m not pressing too hard. That was my first mistake shaving, I tended to push. But actually, it’s just a bit of pressure here, not a push. Now, everyone does this differently. Some women shave, some women don’t. Some women shave up high and some women don’t. It’s all a blend, and it’s about what makes you feel comfortable and good inside your skin. And that’s allowed to change over time. What feels best to you right now?”
“I think not shaving my knee or upper leg.”
“Great! Well then I’ll do my lower leg and then you can do your lower leg. How does that sound?”
“That sounds good!”
As we took our turns, I thought about the space still in Libby’s world. No one had told her what she needed to feel about this yet. It left a lot of room for permission inside her as she figured something out that felt a bit foreign. I hoped the words I found blessed that space within her. And, I hope those words might trickle down deep into the 12 year old within me still learning how to bless.
Bodies are curious, sacred things. More often than not, they simply need to be celebrated for what they are rather than pointed at, judged, or instructed to become different.
At least, that’s what a couple of twelve year olds have taught me.
Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world. She’s a 30 year old, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called Will I Break?, and someday, that manuscript may see the light of day. For now, she shares her thoughts here.