Electrolysis: A Mother’s Beauty Standard

When I called my mother over a crackling international phone line to tell her I was pregnant at 19, she gasped: “My god, Tiniest, you’re too young.” She was silent, then she kind of moaned. “The teenage skin isn’t elastic enough to recover from the trauma of pregnancy. You’ll have horrendous stretch marks.”

I was homeless, hoping to find a squat with my boyfriend before I started showing–and before the weather turned cold.

My mother sent Clarins’ anti-stretch mark cream and toning oil care of the food bank in Barcelona.

I hitchiked home that day with an onion, a 5-pound bag of rice, and the $50+ tubes of beauty-hope that still had their price tags on them.

Morning and night, I diced onion, boiled rice, and I rubbed that cream and oil onto my tits and belly, hoping for miracles as the thick purple lines began to snake across my teenage skin.

My pregnancy wasn’t the first beauty crisis my mother had taken an interest in. Almost a decade earlier, when I was maybe 10 years old, she’d decided that the little brown-blonde hairs on my belly were a curse of Italian heritage and would soon turn black—rendering me, what? Unmarriageable?—so my mother made the necessary appointment with the electrologist.

“It will hurt, Tiniest,” she warned me as we drove across town. “It will hurt you to your core. But you’ll be fine if you have two screw drivers before each appointment and one afterwards.” She handed me a Sunny Delight container that smelled more like my grandmother’s breakfast orange juice than mine.

When I stepped into the electrologist’s office alone, still nursing my bitter orange elixir, I cringed. The wiry-haired old lady in her white-walled office held a shoe-box-sized electric-shock-box in her lap. I thought for sure my mother had sent me to the electric chair.

My mother did work on Death Row at San Quentin at the time, so in my drunk 10-year-old mind it all made perfect sense: I was sprouting unsightly hair, and so my mother had condemned me to death by electric shock. I had become ugly, and this was the price ugly women had to pay.

Still, I did as I was told. I lay down on the electrologist’s table willingly, and I lifted my shirt.

The grinding buzz of electricity as the old woman dug her needle into each hair follicle made my breath catch and even my teeth hurt.

“Oh, honey, enough with the crocodile tears,” the woman snapped, a little bit of spit flying from the side of her mouth. “Get used to it. This is what it means to be a woman.”

And I guess it was. What it meant. To be a woman.

All that was a long time ago.

I’m 43 years old now with stretch marks you might call “horrendous” and dark hair in all the wrong places.

I’ll jump on the bandwagon with you any day and decry “society’s” abusive beauty standards for girls and women—I know my feminist theory, after all, and I understand the historic and insidious nature of beauty-standards enforcement and internalization. But if I’m going to tell you the truth, I’m not so sure that society ever called me “cursed” for the way I looked.

Society never cared if it ruined my skin to be a teen mom.

And I don’t really think it was society who did as she was told, who lay down and lifted her shirt even when she thought the electrologist might be her executioner, who stopped crying when scolded, who kept rubbing expensive cream into her skin when she was also almost starving.

It was always other women–and it was me–who gasped at what we feared society’s reaction might be.

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