The Politics of Hair Removal



100 spring st ny

Neighborhood: Manhattan

Last August, when the Russian woman who waxes my legs in Brooklyn went on vacation, I made an appointment at a spa in SoHo. I’d actually been meaning to switch for some time. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Vicki—I did. She was dirt cheap, and we shared an interest in politics. Even though her accent was kind of thick, I was happy enough to nod and say, “Uh-huh,” when I didn’t understand her. It was actually very freeing, especially when I suspected she was probably saying something like, “I think George Bush is doing a great job.”

The only problem with Vicki was her wax. I knew gentler stuff existed for one’s face and bikini line, and that I should probably be searching it out, cost be damned. Still, I was jittery about my first appointment in SoHo. If you wear pretty much the same clothes every day—and no makeup—downtown tends to be a little intimidating. It’s no place for the style-less. The posh waiting area only made matters worse, not to mention the clients loafing by in their waffle-weave robes and slippers. Who were these people? How were they able to turn a public place into their own personal bedroom?

Soon Wanda, my waxer, came out to meet me. She was small, pretty and of some Eastern European descent. Like me, she wore no makeup, though her skin was dewy and clear from some kind of suitable cream. As I followed her back into her workroom, I began to panic at the thought of the Mediterranean overgrowth coating my body. Should I apologize to Wanda for the state of myself, I wondered? Was I an animal?

The first thing I noticed when Wanda opened the door to her room was the size. It was an actual room, as opposed to the walk-in closet at the back of the hair salon where Vicki worked. Soothing music came through the speakers, and the walls were cobalt blue. Most importantly, there was more than one type of wax heating on the counter. Balled up on the sheet-covered table was a pair of paper panties, which Wanda told me to put on before stepping out of the room to allow me some privacy. With Vicki, I was forever going home to find wax on my own cloth underwear.

Wanda returned a few moments later and got busy with my legs. We didn’t really talk, which made me nervous at first, but slowly I began to resign myself to what I assumed were the ways of SoHo. About halfway through our session, Wanda looked at me, smiled, and said, “Everything okay, Alicia?” I nodded, and soon we were engaged in some light conversation. I learned that Wanda had two kids, lived in New Jersey, and was concerned about my many ingrown hairs. She suggested I purchase an exfoliating cream sold by the spa, but when I learned at the checkout counter that it was $90, I took a pass. I did, however, leave Wanda a generous tip. It wasn’t the conversation that mattered anymore, I now decided. It was that my bikini wax had been unbelievably bearable, and that for once, I was leaving my appointment without a red burn mark in place of my mustache.

The next visit was different. Maybe I was in a better frame of mind—less intimidated—or maybe Wanda was. Or maybe we both were. For whatever reason, though, we started talking immediately. It was my first visit after September 11th, and somehow we got onto the subject of politics. I probably brought it up, my old standby. Laid out on all those vinyl tables over the years, I’d come to learn that no one followed world events like an Eastern European. Perhaps this was because they so often were world events. In any case, Wanda’s face seemed to brighten at the opportunity to share an opinion. “You know,” she began, “I grew up in Poland, and—”

“You’re Polish?” I interrupted.

“Uh-huh,” she said.

“I’m Polish.”

She looked at me, surprised. I’m a little dark for a Pole.

“And Egyptian,” I added quickly, filling in the missing piece for her.

She laughed. “Really? My husband is Egyptian!”

“You’re kidding!” I said, immediately remembering her two kids. I couldn’t believe it. As far as I’d ever known, my brother and I were the only two Polish-Egyptians on earth.

When I mentioned this to Wanda, however, she shook her head. “No,” she said. “My children are from a previous marriage.”

“Oh.” I tried not to sound disappointed.

She smiled at me then and said, “But I’m pregnant.”

“You are?” I looked at the small stomach under her loose smock. I hadn’t really noticed it before, but now I thought I saw it, the baby she was carrying.

Wanda nodded. “It’s a girl.”

We went on to talk about her husband, how his software job required him to travel, how upsetting it was to him to be stared at on airplanes. Before I left that day, Wanda said, “Looking at you, I have a very nice idea of my daughter in thirty-four years.” I wanted to kiss her. Actually, I think I did.

* * *

Wanda had her baby and went on maternity leave a few months later, and once again, I was in need of a new waxer. I made an appointment with a woman named Dina at the same spa.

Dina was the opposite of Wanda in many ways: chubbier, chattier, smilier. Her workroom was downstairs, not up, and the walls were some nondescript, pale color. Still, she used all the same wax, and clearly hailed from some Eastern part of the world.

After I put my paper panties on and laid myself out on the table, Dina came in and got busy on my lip and chin. “You have beautiful hair,” she said, and even though her accent was thicker than Vicki’s, I understood the compliment. We settled into conversation easily, and soon I was telling Dina all about Wanda, her husband and their new international baby. Suddenly, Dina stopped what she was doing, her waxy little Popsicle stick applicator held aloft. “Wanda’s husband is Egyptian?” she asked me.

I didn’t know how to respond. The look of alarm on her face made me think that she’d missed the point entirely. This was meant to be a charming story. “Yes,” I said finally, “he is.”

“Interesting,” Dina murmured. She then asked, “Is Wanda’s husband nice to her?”

I couldn’t believe it. Wanda herself had told me that sometimes, when she mentioned to people that she was married to an Arab—and this was pre-September 11th—they’d tell her, “I feel sorry for you.” It had seemed like a preposterous story, but now I understood that, while it remained preposterous, it was also true.

“Of course he’s nice to her!” I blurted out, though I’d never met the man. All I knew of his effect on Wanda was what I perceived to be her general good health and happiness.

“Hmm,” Dina said, apparently not buying it. “Tell me,” she went on, “do you know what Wanda’s husband does?”

“He’s in computers,” I said, which suddenly sounded terribly suspicious.

“Interesting,” Dina said again.

She went on to tell me that she was an Uzbeki Jew. “You know Uzbekistan?” she asked, and I nodded. She wanted to know if I was a Muslim, and when I said no, that I was an Arab Christian, she said she’d never heard of such a thing. She told me again that my hair was beautiful—a gift from both of my parents.

After a while, we stopped talking. She put gloves on to wax my bikini line, then took them off when she was finished. Interesting, I kept hearing her say, over and over in my mind. And I wanted to tell her no, that it wasn’t interesting at all about Wanda’s husband. It was only interesting that there were now at least three Polish-Egyptians on the planet. That we were a small but growing minority. That none of us would grow up to hurt another living soul.

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