Pushcart Prize Nominee
Peluda: Hairy One. A mythical beast that terrorized the environs of the River Huisne, France, in the Middle Ages. The Shaggy Beast in English. The monster had a serpent-head and body covered in green fur. In folklore, it was excluded from Noah’s Ark, but survived the deluge. In modern Spanish peluda is a derogatory term for a hairy woman.
In Latin-American culture the quality that we as little girls are taught is of greatest significance and virtue is our beauty. We need to presumir, look good, and not like mamarachas, unkempt women. While boys are taught to be macho, we are taught to “fix” or “hide” or “disguise” anything that obfuscates our beauty. I wish we were taught acceptance and to not myopically focus on physical charms. Beauty is like a bird in your hands. It pecks furiously, cutting your palm, biting on the exposed muscles, wearing you down, until finally you limply open your palms and watch the bird flutter above and away. And you are simply left with the memory and the scars from when you once held the pajarito, your beauty.
I thought of the school days where I covered my forearms because they were coated in coarse, black hair that zipped across the sides like field grass. It was (and is) so swarthy it made my arm look a shade darker or like I was wearing a sleeve. Then there was facial hair. The dark twisted spires that formed along the lengths of my sideburns. My abuela called them “spider legs” and would grab at my cheek to pluck them out. We would sit on the sofa, watching some telenovela when suddenly I'd feel the attack--her sharp and precise sewing fingers tugging at my cheek as if attempting to free Excalibur.
“Beauty is pain,” Abuela said.
She held up the strand, examining it in the air, marveling at the black curl in her palm against her ivory skin. I think she was surprised at how hairy a young girl could be, especially one from her family.
Abuela made it known that she was of “pure Galician genetics,” and would flaunt her hazel eyes and blonde hair (before it wilted to white), as if to say I was not of a superior stock, and this hirsute little problem of mine was brought about by the unfortunate darker members of my gene pool. You get that from that father of yours, she’d say in the summers when my skin turned a dark tawny.
Despite my grandmother's protests, I didn't mind these little cheek hairs because I could hide them under my hair. They also tickled my hand when I washed my face, my little whiskers I called them affectionately, unaware that I needed sheering.
At twenty-seven years old, when I was already a working public relations professional, I stared at my knuckle hair, combed down like a flattened stalk of wheat. There was a candle on my desk, a small lavender scented one with a high wick. I put my hand over the fire, and I slowly rotated my skin over the flame. I was trying to singe the imperfection off. I dipped my knuckles into the fire one by one until all the hair was seared and all that was left was a mild sulfurous odor and turgid burnt skin. I bit my lip and looked over the cubicle walls. Slowly and with measured resistance I held flesh to flame. I didn’t care how much it burned or how much I wanted to pull away. I held the skin down as if I were drowning someone. I kept going. I bit harder into my lip, my skin burning, pink and tender. I pressed it, watching as the fire climbed the hair and crumbled it quickly.
When I was done, my hand convulsed, and I was surprised by how much I could tolerate. And shocked by what I could inflict on myself.
Pubic hair—yet my autocorrect insists on public hair, as if it too is trying to correct the overarching shame of a shock of fuzz, peaking over and out of a bikini. Hair, publicly and privately, condemned. In Spanish, it’s pendejos. A word that has come to mean coward or fool. In all languages and spaces (to an audience; to the self) these climbing vines must be beaten back, trimmed, cut, salted—so nothing may grow in its place.
When my pubic hair comes—brown wisteria that makes me look away from the mirror when I change— puberty is announced. Once it grows in, I look at my bathing suits and underwear differently, noticing little black spikes poking through the material, or spidering out the sides as if trying to spread.
“Can I shave it?” I asked, following my mother from kitchen to minivan as she packed for the beach. Stacks of ham sandwiches, Cheetos, Capri Suns, and aluminum bundles of codfish croquettas. “It looks ugly.”
Her oversized Panama hat flopped into her eyes. She pushed it back like she did with her fringe bangs. Already her arms and chest are red (the sun, an opportunist). “Not until you’re older.”
“You shave it. I can tell.”
“And it’s not fun.”
To this she laughed, hips swaying up the driveway back to the kitchen. I’d seen her in her bikini, the bare flesh, unmarked and unspotted. Sometimes she walked around naked, the towel on her head and not on her body, making me think she wanted me to see. An exhibition, a recital, a lesson in what girls turn into—an echo of girlhood. Even she rejected this aspect of adulthood, I thought, taking that to mean my feelings were right.
“Come on,” I shouted.
From Barbara McKay’s “Hair Removal History” Washington Post article: North American doctors of the mid-1800s had tried numerous harmful procedures in futile attempts to remove hair permanently. These included: inserting into the hair follicle needles dipped into sulfuric acid, injecting carbolic acid directly into the follicle or rapidly twisting a barbed needle in the follicle. Pain and scarring were the most common results.
At thirteen, my grandmother, Mima, referenced my pubic hair whenever she wanted to remind me that I was a woman and that I needed to do womanly things around the house, like wash the dishes, devein the thawing shrimps, place the washed items on the clothesline, clean the countertops, or bring my grandfather his flan de coco dessert.
"Ya tienes pendejos, ponte a fregar; you have pubes now, go do the dishes," Mima would command with a specific rage that made me wonder if this had been done to her.
I still felt like a child, I was thirteen and I still couldn't understand why this patch of hair added more responsibility to my life. What had changed? When my younger brother turned thirteen there were no commands made of him, no new household responsibilities, no prompts to make all the beds in the house or to wipe down the dried crud on the stove elements. It’s not atypical in Latin culture for boys to be coddled by their mothers and grandmothers.
I asked Mima why I had to do all this housework (a broomstick in my hand and a game controller in his), and she said, “you are the girl.” She said it with such detached objectivity, I believed her in that moment. I believed she was reciting a plain fact, a truth of the universe like what comes up must come down or blue is the rarest pigment in nature.
“This way you’ll be a good wife,” she added, pointing at the corners of the living room where the swirled clouds of dust accumulated. “A useful one.”
I wanted to respond what about him being a good husband! Shouldn’t we both have to learn! But as I dragged the thick clumps of matted hair and dust into the pan, I studied her as if that was what awaited my future. Perhaps she too had made these useless protests; perhaps these obligations were as inevitable as hair. Mima was trying to instruct me, prepare me for life—a type of life—and pubic hair signaled the end of childhood and the beginning of womanhood. This made me detest body hair even more. It had taken away my care-free summers and games on the street that ran until the streetlights came on (or someone’s mother called them back in). Childhood was over and I swept it out the front porch along with the dust and all the undesirables of the home.
Madari Pendás is a writer, painter, and poet. She was the college 2021 Academy of American Poets Prize winner. Her work has appeared in Minerva Rising, Pank Magazine, Lambda Literary, Jai-Alai Books, Sinister Wisdom, and more. Her latest book, Crossing the Hyphen, will debut in February 2022 with Tolsun Books.