Most people who identify as women have experienced trauma around hair at some stage.
For cisgender Pākehā women this might be a bad haircut, not being allowed to shave your underarms or legs at the same age as your friends, or facial and pubic sprouting publicly and unwanted. For other such as immigrant and transgender women, these experiences carry greater cultural and social complexities - some of which are beautifully unpacked in Hair Now, a documentary series by Malaysian Chinese NZ wāhine Michelle Ang, running on The Spinoff.
The six part series focuses on six women of different backgrounds and examines these complexities in intimate, personal detail.
In an upcoming episode Iranian actor and model Roxie Mohebbi talks about the journey she’s been on for the past five years to reclaim her “monobrow, sideburns, upper lip hair and curly hair”.
Roxie, who arrived in Aotearoa at age five as part of a refugee resettlement program, describes starting with weaning off hair straighteners and having to wait for society to catch up at every step of the way - the last bastion of acceptance being her upper lip hair.
“It’s fascinating to me what is acceptable and what’s not - and why,” she says in the series. Roxie says that the fashion industry celebrates her authentic appearance, “in a way”, but she struggles with the film industry. “People want diversity in casts, but they don't want authenticity. They want me to be a person of colour but they don’t necessarily want me to look like that. Which is really confusing and complicated.”
For Serena Mani, a 22-year-old Fijian Indian transgender woman, hair forms part of a complicated relationship with her ideals of femininity. “My morning routine is that I wake up, exfoliate, and then shave my face.”
With the rest of her body she uses hair removal cream. Serena explains that her father was against her transitioning (which she started at 15) and used to make her cut her hair.
“My idea of being pretty was having long straight hair because that’s what I was used to seeing.”
She attempted to emulate that look for a long time, but “recently I’ve found a lot of meaning in my hair. Before it was just something that was part of my body”.
Serena explains that looking after her curls reminds me of her ancestors; it makes her feel connected to who she is. “I feel like before my hair was for other people and now it’s for me.”
Palestinian Jordanian NZ woman Yasmine Serhan was 15-years-old when she decided to wear a hijab. Her family were mortified and wondered how she would ever be married if she was unable to show her ‘beautifulness’ to the world.
“I wondered why being physically beautiful was the only thing to consider. It was the start of a rebellion in my existence as a woman,” she says in the series.
The wearing of a hijab (which Yasmine describes as a fashion choice she has a lot of fun with) isn’t the only way she pushes back against cultural conformities. “As an Arab woman I’m quite hairy. Why do I have to pretend I don't have body hair? It’s normal and it’s natural.”
Yasmine explains that she’s expected to be “completely clean” and have no body hair. When she graduated from university, her grandmother offered to pay for all her laser hair removal. “And I thought, yes!”
But after an initial consultation she decided to only remove the hair on her underarms, upper lip, brazilian areas and lower legs. “I decided to keep [the rest]. It reminds me that I'm human, and that I can grow hair like the mammal that I am.”
Kenzi Yee, a 24-year-old Malaysian Chinese, says she’ll shave her armpits and legs sometimes but “when I want to, not because I feel like I have to”.
The push/pull relationship Kenzi has with her hair, and an example of the power it has over us as women, is shown in the series in her excitement at having her eyebrows threaded and her eyelashes lifted.
The stories that these women and others share as part of the Hair Now series are both uniquely personal and collectively important. As Kenzi explains, “I follow this DJ. Her insta handle is @half.queen, and she’s so open about her body hair, I found it so inspirational. If someone can look like that… looking so sexy and rocking their body hair… I feel like I can too.”