Armpit hair: A trichotillomaniac’s romance

First published on my new baby, Kakak Killjoy:

Joan Jett: A bit of hair under there don't hurt nobody, right?

I have a pathological tendency to pluck my armpit hair out. It’s a mild form of trichotillomania, a condition in which a person gains gratification from pulling their hair out. The first few times, done when I was only 14 (you can never be too young for intensive self-grooming), hurt. But years later, the pain nerves seemed to have numbed or annihilated and I began enjoying pulling my black wiry strands out, one by one.

When each strand is pulled out, I inspect the bottom end of the roots where little bulbs of mitochondrial black ink ooze out from under the pressure of my fingertips. It’s a fascinating sight. Shaving is too easy and semi-effective. The hair will grow out into a prickly fuzz in less than 24 hours.

Despite what seems like an un-feminist peccadillo, removing one’s body hair in the name of “aesthetics” that is, I still like growing my armpit hair out. During long periods of intensive writing and research I turn into the naturally hairy person that I am, hair bursting out on every square inch of my epidermal landscape. It’s a liberating experience.

I still, however, remain a little self-conscious about going out in public in my sleeveless clothes with my arms outstretched (not any more than what’s normal) exposing – that untameable side of me. What does it take to be bold and hairy like Joan Jett (above), controversial writer Charlotte Roche, and hell, even Julia Roberts? Technically not that much as it involves zero shaving or plucking, but apparently much more in the societal and body policing stakes.

Armpit hair is an insignificant concern on a wider societal level. It’s a private grooming matter no more important than putting on lipstick or foundation. But the social prestige placed on smooth hairless bodies is no less significant than wanting to be fairer and having straight or artificially engineered wavy hair.

Warmer weather is upon us here in the northern hemisphere and I do want to overcome my irrational preoccupation with how my armpit looks. Besides, I can never win: my armpits are not even ‘white’ when they’re hairless anyway.

The complicated politics of being First Lady

Sensitivity and compassion are apparently not Rosmah Mansor’s, the Malaysian “First Lady”, best suits. In a recent press appearance, Rosmah intended to buck the trend of the silent and exceedingly proper politician’s wife, by making self-righteous remarks about the recent Japanese tragedy as a well-deserved lesson for all.

In the spirit of freedom of expression, there is a time and place for insensitive thoughts, i.e. in your private chambers away from the press and public. For motivations identified as “attention-seeking,” even the mouthiest of politicians (and indeed their spouses) may still reserve some taste and the little decorum they have and not chastise victims of natural disasters.

To illustrate Rosmah’s eye-wateringly asinine “pearls of wisdom”:

Ini pada diri saya adalah satu pengajaran pada negara-negara lain untuk apa-apapun mereka nak buat ataupun sebarang pembangunan yang mereka ingin seharusnya dikaji dahulu keadaan sekililing dan mengaitkan dengan climate change (perubahan iklim) dan green technology (teknologi mesra alam) termasuk juga negara kita.

This in my opinion is a lesson for other nations where whatever effort done in the name of development must be cautiously approached with reference to climate change and green technology, including our own country.

But the backlash against Rosmah is just as bad. In situations where heavy media criticism is targeted at female public personalities, the highly toxic level of sexism becomes too difficult to ignore. Several examples of Rosmah’s own misjudged public ambitions notwithstanding, her recent insensitive gaffe elicited a bumper crop of undue sexist comments bigger than all the male politicians in Malaysian history put together.

There is no equivalent of sexist diatribe against a male figure when he slips up in the public arena. He can’t be a dumb bitch, a cheap slut, or berated for overstepping his gendered status in the way Rosmah is reminded by Parti Keadilan Rakyat to play her “proper” role as politician’s wife and shut the hell up.

Politician’s wives are made to look like a unique breed of women from another age, a sophisticated Jahilliyah/medieval age. As politicians wives, they are captured in the media eye as women who lunch together while their husbands deliberate on the very fate of the world. They are women whose bland fashion sense (and toned arms) can whip up a media frenzy. They are women whose charity work reinforces What Women’s Issues Are, for they are women who, in the ever reliably “neutral” media, are nothing more than the adjunct/buttock accessory* of her man/leader/master.

So are politician’s wives meant to shut up and smile for the public, and make humiliating official addresses about standing by her husband through thick and adulterous thin? We need not be reminded that today women have become more than their relationship status and that women can be individuals outside their marital set-up who have thoughts worth listening to. Shouldn’t current attitudes about gender apply to politician’s wives as well? What makes politician’s wives become a special category of scrutiny? Why must there be a “role” for the wives of heads of state?

There are several issues at play here; sexism as the public criticism’s arsenal of choice, the retrograde “role” of the First lady, blasé attitudes to devastating catastrophes, and the media’s ambivalent relationship with politician’s wives. Rosmah might never admit to the wrong of her ways, but Malaysians can be better judges of character without the sexism.

*As the saying goes, behind every great man, there is…

Kakak Killjoy, Malaysian feminist webzine

Something happened last week which I hope will become a beginning of greater things: I started Kakak Killjoy (Sister Killjoy), a feminist webzine together with a number of Malaysian feminist writers. The project I hope will foster a sense of online community for critical and transgressive Malaysian women. Blogging can become a hazardous pastime for women when they are silenced and intimidated by online bullying and misogynistic trolling, particularly when ‘hot’ and contentious issues like gender equality and privilege arise. The problem of bullying becomes even more acute when women writers are ‘pit against’ predominantly vocal male commentors, even in what appears to be a progressive online millieu. There are multiple other reasons why there should be a Malaysian feminist webzine, but I’ll save them for another day.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf – a review

There is something quite redemptive about the 2010 edition of Ntozake Shange’s experimental “choreo-poem,” For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf, which is published as a tie-in to Tyler Perry’s underwhelming film adaptation, For Colored Girls. Shange’s words restore the choreopoem’s original libratory message without the gloss and A-list names in Tyler’s bastardised version. Consisting of a series of twenty overlapping poems about rape, post-traumatic stress disorder, abortion, love, and liberation, among other topics, Shange brings to life and colour the unsung voices of Black American women that was once upon a time, in 1974, long overdue. The poems come with stage directions that guide the reader in an imaginary theatre bold with exuberance and pathos, or at least that was something I was persuaded to imagine.

Shange is clear in her preface of the latest edition that For colored girls is a battle hymn for all women of colour, one that was inspired by the pain that reverberated her apartment walls in Harlem, New York, and one that should resonate powerfully with women of colour today and presumably the world over. But as a woman of colour who isn’t black, American, or born into a long heritage of effacement and eventual self-discovery—a heritage that goes back to the brutal history of imperialist expansion and culminates in a present struggle for identity—I sometimes felt distanced from these verses. Despite my desire to connect to the ostensible potency of Shange’s poems, at times they were challenging, unfamiliar, and remote.

But this is not to say that Shange has failed completely in reaching out to all women and girls of colour on her work’s core issues, as For colored girls urges me to read beyond its contextual trajectories and instead traverse the annals of my girlhood and young adulthood to find the common threads of insecurity, racism, and uneasiness in my own skin that binds all women of colour. But with that said, one’s own way of finding the striking chord in Shange’s work should not be so imaginatively contrived or elusive, particularly as each poem is guided in detail how it should be experienced and appreciated. To read out loud with the same joy and pain requires the intertextual quality that lies outside Shange’s poems—out there in Black American communities, tangible and alive—that is absent in my world.

Nonetheless, there are stand-outs in Shange’s work. In her poem on abortion, Shange captures the inner horror and absurdity of undergoing a termination procedure for the first time alone: “eyes crawling up on me/eye rollin in my thighs/metal horses gnawin my womb/dead mice fall from my mouth.” Others are obvious demystification of rape: “a friend is hard press charges against/if you know him/you must have wanted it.” Perhaps the most powerful of all is “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” a defiant speech of reclaimed independence from lovers who leave and take with them a woman’s dignity, self-esteem, and faith in love itself.

The simplicity of Shange’s language and the mimicry of colloquialisms invite readers to rethink the highbrow nature of poetry, interpretative dance, and theatre. There are more tears than laughters of joy, and despite the coloured girls who are “movin to the ends of their own rainbows,” rainstorms of anguish are long while rainbows are fleeting and sometimes elusive. In other words, there is still a battle ahead for women of colour and the fruits of the struggle are shared in small moments, often beautiful in verse.

Orgasm Inc – My thoughts

The orgasm. Feminists laud it, good lovers work hard to give it, pharmaceutical companies make it a business model. The inability to experience an orgasm is thought to be as devastating as the inability to delight in the joy of wine, sunrise, spring flowers, and other wonderment. But this is hardly an overstatement. Last week in London, I had the sheer privilege of attending a hugely popular talk by a doyenne of second wave feminism, Shere Hite. Her most well-known publication, The Hite Report, was a groundbreaking feminist version of the Kinsey report, a comprehensive study on female sexuality in ’70s America that overturned all taboos of its day.

Hite contends that the traditional model of sexual intercourse privileges male pleasure and disregards any sense of pleasuring women to the point of orgasm. Not climaxing is tantamount to self-abnegating one self’s right to wholeness, and women have long been denying their selfhood by committing to the patriarchal rituals of sex, argues Hite. She does have a point of course about the significance of pleasure, but her assertion that the “lack of sexual satisfaction is another sign of oppression of women” poses serious implications on how women must rethink sex. Woe betide the women who feel inadequate when they have difficulty getting sexually aroused, much less with orgasm during intercourse.

And so the many women who were once frustrated, frigid and unfulfilled are now medically certified as casualties of a new epidemic—female sexual dysfunction (FSD). But in a pill-popping culture such as the U.S., help is at hand and pharmaceutical companies are quick to exploit cultural expectations and women’s most intimate insecurities. In Orgasm Inc., by first-time documentary film-maker Liz Canner, we are treated to the dizzying unravelling of pharmaceutical businesses devoted to the “female Viagra” and its role in creating, as it were, female sexual dysfunction (FSD). Canner is initiated into the shams and often shambolic world of drug companies through an invitation to edit an erotic video used during a clinical trial conducted by Vivus, a company dedicated to developing a cream for sexual arousal.

But when Canner delves deeper into Vivus’s business plan, some things are amiss. Women on both active drug and placebo appear to be equally aroused when subjected to erotic videos, but Vivus goes ahead anyway pushing to get themselves on the market. Not that Vivus’s drug was initially designed to treat male impotence really mattered, as the researchers placed their bets on a hunch that it can turn women on as well. It appears that the business of discovering a cure for the purported female sexual dysfunction is masculinist and penis-centred at best, one that is isolated as a problem related to the sexual organ and a matter of hormonal imbalance. There is little reference to how women get on with their partners in the bedroom, the happiness or lack of it in relationships, history of abuse, and lack of self-esteem. Furthermore, cultural expectations which are mistaken as “universal” sexual norms prescribe that sex without orgasm is a sign of abnormality.

Canner interviews other pharmaceutical companies that have also been founded on dubious science and run by “research” consultants who aren’t able to explain in definitive terms what FSD is and react as if they are assailed by trick questions. When promoted by drug company-backed doctors and scientists who frame sexual inadequacies in often obtuse and intimidating language, lay persons beset with perceived medical disorders are like putty in their hands. The stage is thus set for a no-nonsense competition—a race—to win FDA approval and multiple million-dollar glory.

Soon companies dropped one-by-one off the race like flies due to unconvincing science, including a strong contender, Intrinsa, a trans-dermal testosterone patch. It did not, however, stop Instrinsa from being sold in the European Union. Fallacies poised to eternally discredit FSD notwithstanding, very few could stand in the way of the monstrously indomitable spirit of pharmaceutical companies. Like Hite’s grand manifesto, much of drug research posit that desire and pleasure are like a switch within an autonomous body. I raised my hand to ask Dr. Hite about women who were unable to experience orgasm yet live happy and fulfilled lives, to which she struggled to offer a coherent answer other than there are no two ways about how important sexual satisfaction through an orgasm is.

Suffice to say, I felt equally dejected by her response and the outcome in Canner’s thought-provoking film as the mystery of female sexuality is thrown further into abyss. How helpful is the medicalisation of perfect sexuality when desire, pleasure, and fantasy are made to fit a disease model, a model designed to reinforce crude normal/abnormal typologies? Yet we are besotted by medical science but unaware of its cultural and moral underpinnings that are adept at demonising “bad” bodies. Canner’s film peels away much of the objectivity purported by pharmaceutical science, sexology, and medicine, and invites us to reassess the social values of health and happiness in radically new ways.