This week, the Cut explores women’s complicated relationship to beauty standards and the effort required to meet them.
When I announced my fifth-grade desire to start shaving my legs, my mother’s protective wisdom was that I put it off as long as possible. Once you start, she explained, you can never stop. Stubble — which is more unpleasant than blonde tween fur — will come and keep coming until you die. I stole my dad’s Bic and jumped on the hamster wheel.
But the advent of laser hair removal has inverted the teen hair-removal equation. The sooner have your follicles obliterated by a beam of concentrated light, the more hours of your life you might reclaim for pursuits more stimulating than shaving and waxing. And as laser hair removal gets cheaper and more convenient (especially in New York, where you don’t need to be a doctor to do it), the rites and humiliation of puberty remain pretty much the same. Once a pricy last resort for teen girls bullied for their mustaches, laser hair removal is now a plausible first choice for young women finding hair in new places. But is it actually a good idea?
Children’s fashion designer Bonnie Young suspects that some of her tween models have already been lasered and for that, she’s grateful. “Nobody wants to see a photograph with hair all over their legs,” she told the Cut. But when her own 13-year-old daughter came home recently asking for laser hair removal for herself — and reporting (as 13-year-olds do) that everyone at her downtown Manhattan school is getting it — Young had mixed feelings, specifically about the safety.
Used improperly, the lasers can cause disfiguring burns. But in the hands of a physician (for whom, alas, there is no Lifebooker deal), it’s safe at all ages. Dermatologist and clinical researcher Dr. Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas told the Cut that her own 15-year-old daughter hasn’t shown any interest, but “the moment she says the word, she can be zapped!” In Dr. Alexiades-Armenakas’s experience, laser hair removal is well-tolerated in older teenagers; in other words, they won’t back out once the — admittedly uncomfortable — procedure has begun. Treating someone in the 12, 13, 14 age range requires making sure the child isn’t being coerced by her parents and is “mature enough to understand that this is a means to an end.” But Dr. Alexiades-Armenakas says that when parents bring in children as young as 10 or 11, she advises them to wait.
My friend, whom I’ll call Sally, was that child. When she was 11, her mother took her to get her eyebrows lasered — it was one of the many beauty treatments she purchased for herself in bulk and shared with Sally and her little sister. It didn’t make her any more or less self-conscious, Sally told me, to learn at such a young age that her eyebrows were “wrong” and correct them with laser hair removal. It did, however, bore her. “I was like, ’Why do I have to go sit in that chair after school?’ But it wasn’t traumatizing.” (What was traumatizing, she said, was the chemical peel that turned her face purple: “It was right before this important, for me, Jewish youth retreat where this guy was going to be that I was flirting with.”) Of course, Sally got lucky in that her mom preferred then-unfashionable Brooke Shields–brows to the thin arches of the ‘00s, and so Sally held onto her thick eyebrows through their fashion renaissance.
This is the true risk of laser hair removal: It’s permanent. Our feelings about body hair, less so. In fact, a woman’s beauty regimen is rarely more masochistic than immediately post-puberty. No one would allow a teen to make her raccoon eyeliner and flat-ironed hair permanent. Is body hair so different? Second only to passé brows, in terms of regret risk, is a passé bush.
Because laser hair removal works best where the hair is darkest and the skin is lightest, Dr. Alexiades-Armenakas said, pubic-hair removal is very permanent. She’s had to talk women out of the landing strips. Cameron Diaz, of all people, is on a similar mission. She advised women against lasering their pubes in The Body Book. “The idea that vaginas are preferable in a hairless state is a pretty recent phenomenon,” she wrote, “and all fads change, people.” And by some measures, hairless vaginas are already on the way out.
I too have dialed back grooming from the extreme waxes I got in high school, back when I would drive myself to a downtown salon where nobody’s mom went. I’m so grateful lasering wasn’t an option. I didn’t see the “full-bush Brazilian” on the horizon, and I definitely could not have imagined the extent to which I would stop caring.
Is it so crazy to hope the same might one day be true for leg and armpit hair? That the “normcore of pubes” heralds the resurgence of all female body hair? That one day women with smooth legs will look as oppressed as women with corset-waists? Laser hair removal, like a permanent beauty treatment, asks women to weigh the likelihood of a total overthrow of a beauty norm against the cost of adhering to it, even minimally, over the course of a lifetime.
For now, Young and her daughter settled on leg-waxing as a compromise, but she’s not losing any sleep over the permanence of laser hair removal, to which she will relent once her daughter is old enough to follow the rules about sun exposure pre-procedure. “I don’t mind that leg-hair removal is permanent,” she said. “I think that’s a good idea.” Although the overhead for laser hair removal is steep, for now it seems unfortunately likely to pay off in time saved and money not spent on waxes and razors. If I were a teen today, I would get that shit lasered off before my parents cut me off.