To Wax or Not to Wax: A Meditation on the Bizarre, Frivolous and Deeply Satisfying Things Women Do for Appearance
“You look good,” my husband said, which is what I hoped to hear, but also didn’t, since I wished it didn’t matter, but it did.
I’d gone for a lip wax that day. This was the kind of female grooming I’d begun to feel more comfortable with in my mid-thirties, if not for the slight appearance boost that comes from having no visible facial hair, then at least for the solace of being reclined in a dimly-lit room, free from the urgent demands of my small children.
To wax or not to wax is a question that has long plagued me. This is likely related, at least in part, to where I grew up, northern Virginia, and the culture of looking good I was immersed in from a young age. By fourteen or so, I became a brand of self-righteous about all-things-beauty-and-grooming related that is particularly embarrassing to now recall. That my upbringing also provided a fair amount of contact with Southern grandmas who regularly used the creepy phrase “putting on one’s face” probably didn’t help matters much. Both the expression and the behind-closed-doors practice unnerved me. It was hard not to imagine a woman peeling back her face, adhering a mask. I’m not sure which of these images were more disturbing. What I knew with certainty was that the time all this fixing up required made me bristle with boredom and unveiled recrimination.
Add to this my critical attitude toward the girls in my suburban high school who appeared to spend more time applying eyeliner than reading anything. Watching them sit silent and statuesque in their straight-backed desks whenever a teacher asked a question made it all too easy to draw this conclusion: between a preoccupation with looking good and never knowing answers in class, there seemed to be an unnervingly causal relationship. Plus, all that examining one’s face in the mirror suggested to me an almost too-perfect metaphor for self-absorption.
Now firmly in my mid-thirties, whenever I find I’m getting into a tizzy about grooming or trite-seeming beauty habits, I try to remind myself of something Virginia Woolf, unabashed shopper, once wrote. “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have more important offices than to mere keep us warm. They change our view of the world, and the world’s view of us.” My conundrum about waxing is, of course, not directly related to clothing. If we’re talking self-care and self-presentation, however, it is undeniably on the spectrum.
Every woman I know has her rituals, the things she does and doesn’t do, grooming-wise, with reasons as rife with inconsistencies as my own. One friend does not wax her discernible mustache but spends a “fair amount of money” to dye the budding gray out of her wavy shoulder-length hair. She dyes it her natural color, a gorgeous sun-flecked auburn. So the dyeing is not natural, but the result is.
A nurse friend gets her eyebrows threaded and her hair dyed, from gray-streaked to ink black. She shaves her legs, all the way up, thighs and all, a task that exhausts me to consider. She does not, however, grow a wax-worthy mustache, so that frees up some time.
My former college roommate shaves nothing. She is a farmer and lives on the West Coast in a community of people who give little attention to grooming. Shaving or waxing would seem an almost aggressively strange act. For my wedding, after a fossil-fuel-consuming flight across the country, she shaved, to my dismay, her armpits. She said she didn’t want to draw attention to herself and this made me embarrassed for having the kind of wedding where that would be her concern. It also taught me that, for her, grooming is at least partly situational.
Another woman I’ve long cherished had her nose reconstructed in her thirties, a facelift in her late forties, eye work, a tummy tuck and breast augmentation in her fifties. In her sixties, she had updates to most of the face stuff, as well as permanent makeup. To my surprise, she finds lip waxing a waste of time and money and takes a disposable Bic to her upper lip.
Recently I was told by a neighbor who stays home with her kids that she tried to stop plucking and trimming her eyebrows because she felt it was a sexist, stupid waste of time and she had a 6-year-old daughter watching her. She lasted a week.
If I’m revealing grooming secrets, it seems only fair to divulge my own. I shave my legs, but only to the knee, and less carefully in winter, and not at all when I’m sick. Apart from the minimal shaving required to keep a swimsuit G-rated, I am relatively wild in the bikini zone. I used to get $15 haircuts, sometimes I get $0 haircuts (a friend trims), and more recently, I got a $90 haircut. My husband was aghast by this figure but lucky for me, he is able to compare that number with a figure from the past, a previous girlfriend whose short jagged ‘do with dye job required semi-regular expenditures that started with a two and had three digits. I’m glad she is no longer his girlfriend, but thankful she once was.
The hair-in-all-the right-places women, I envy with a sort of borderline mean-spiritedness, the only comfort imagining they have intractable b.o. or hidden fat stores in hard-to-exercise places. I recently had a friend tell me, “Wow, your armpits shave so smoothly!” I have, naturally, envied the armpits of others.