Frida Kahlo is famous for her unibrow, but there’s another reason she was a godsend for me as a teenager. Her upper lip hair.
For someone who was teased at high school for bearing a faint moustache and then taunted for the razor cuts that marked my upper lip, the idea that a woman could proudly own her hirsute deviations from an entrenched norm was thrilling.
Yet I’ve never been brave enough to deliberately sport a moustache. Not when waxing strips can remove every shred of embarrassment.
I was reminded of my admiration for the Mexican artist when I read the Frida Kahlo Foundation had partnered with US cosmetics retailer Ulta Beauty to create a makeup range in her name.
“Never apologize for who you are,” Ulta Beauty declares on its Facebook page. “Inspired by Frida’s strength, this collection is full of bold colors, bright lips, a glowy highlighter & more.”
Fans of Kahlo have been swift to criticise the company for using images of the artist on their packaging that downplays her unibrow and shows no moustache.
It’s valid criticism when you look at the photos her lover Nickolas Muray took of her between 1937 and 1948, which all feature her lush co-joined brow and conspicuous moustache.
Kahlo was an unconventional beauty. She described herself as having the “face of the opposite sex” and photographer Julien Levy saw her as “proud and absolutely sure of herself, yet terribly soft and manly as an orchid.” Ulta Beauty’s aim of empowering women to “express themselves with the same confidence that Frida embraced” will manifest as well-defined brows and red lips, but not more facial hair.
If gender identity and expression is a spectrum, then perhaps we can progress to the stage where a woman with a moustache is acceptable? But I don’t believe we are there yet. Waxing parlours and laser clinics are doing brisk trade and the only sign of defiance among celebrities is armpit hair.
Madonna, Beyoncé, Dakota Johnson and Miley Cyrus have all flashed some serious fuzz and the novelty of it has amused gossip columnists and bloggers. Gosh, wow, titter.
I follow musician Amanda Palmer (she’s married to author Neil Gaiman) on Instagram and she shows off her hairy armpits in a recent post.
“It took me about 20 years of not shaving to finally get 100 per cent comfortable and shame-free in my own flesh body,” she writes.
Among the 627 comments, “berijune” responds: “I remember as a teen, the first time I saw a woman at work with a tank top and armpit hair. I probably stared, but bc (because) my mind was bending and reshaping to the idea that it was OK.”
How powerful those teenage years are in shaping the way we feel and the actions we take. I revisited my teenage years through my children and kept my hirsutism under control so I wouldn’t embarrass them in front of their peers. But now their friends are teaching me a thing or two, with a few of them embracing pilosity in their 20s.
Ellen, 22, who works in the music industry, tells me she stopped shaving her legs five years ago and she only shaves her armpits if she’s feels a “bit smelly”.
“My reaction as a teenager was to remove all my body hair because that’s what I saw on TV and in the media and that’s what my friends were doing. I thought it looked ugly,” she says.
“But one day I just stopped. I stopped caring. It wasn’t necessary for my happiness or my health, so why bother?”
Ellen says her body hair has never been an issue for any of her boyfriends.
“If someone is looking at my legs and thinking ‘Ugh’, I don’t want to know that person, if that person is going to judge me on my hair,” she says.
Hairy legs is one thing, but embracing a hairy face is quite another. On YouTube there’s a video of three women letting their facial hair grow for a month. Their brows thicken, hairs grow out of their chins and faint moustaches appear. Francesca worries she is perceived as a slob at a job interview. Dani decides she is hideous and Tanha starts “ripping out” her moustache hair because she feels paranoid.
Their feelings resonate with me, especially their fear of rejection. I think the only thing that would make me grow my moustache is a good cause.
It could be Movember, but I like the idea of ‘Shocktober’ and going shaggy in October to raise money for a charity that helps girls and women develop a positive body image.
Kahlo’s self-portraits, after all, are about much more than her facial hair. They also show her pain and suffering. The artist was involved in a horrific bus accident when she was 18, had more than 22 operations and suffered chronic pain. She has miscarriages and never had the child she so desired. Legendary Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, in his introduction to The Diary of Frida Kahlo, wrote that her self-portraits were beautiful because they showed us “the successive identities of a human being who is not yet, but who is becoming”. That’s not something you can make up.
Blanche Clark is a freelance writer. You can follow Blanche on Twitter @_CarteBlanche.