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Illustration by Julia Kuo

The Perils of Puberty as a Brown Girl After 9/11

Meher Ahmad

Meher Ahmad

In the year 2000, I was like any other girl in my elementary school. In 2001, I was a hairy terrorist.

Illustration by Julia Kuo

Two things happened when the planes struck the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11: I became acutely aware that my Pakistani background made me a fair target for racial slurs, and I hit puberty.

The combination of the two resulted in a slow but apparent shift in my social standing at Fox Hill Elementary School in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I spent my formative years as a Young Brown Girl in a flyover state. Kids are cruel, but their parents are worse, and whatever the parents of my classmates were saying while watching the evening news in the months after 9/11, their children were definitely echoing back to me. I went from fielding questions like "Can you do five cartwheels in a row?" to "Is Osama bin Laden your uncle?" and "Does your family live in caves?"

But this isn't a story about how Islamophobia in the post-9/11 world made me who I am today. This is a story about the mustache, the unibrow, and the eventual beard that crept onto my face in that same year, and then refused to leave.

I went from fielding questions like "Can you do five cartwheels in a row?" to "Does your family live in caves?"

In the year 2000, I was like any other girl at Fox Hill Elementary. In 2001, I was a hairy terrorist. Initially, the sudden onslaught of the combination of these two categories of insults left me stunned: When kids called me a terrorist and made fun of my mustache, hot tears collected behind my beady little child eyes, eyes that sat under my connected eyebrows. I begged my mom to get rid of the mustache; she caught me red-handed one night right before I tried shaving it with my dad's razor. I would stare in the mirror and wonder why I had to be brown and hairy. Couldn't I just have been one? Maybe if I only had to answer to third-grade Islamophobic bullying I could keep my confidence. But a fucking mustache on top of that? What the fuck?

My coping mechanism wasn't to curl into a ball and hide, though. Being relentlessly teased by my peers spawned a fierce bullying habit of my own, wherein I'd answer the cruelty of other 10-year-olds with far worse bullying from my end. I began bullying campaigns against girls in my grade—so bad that, years later, one told me she ate lunch in the bathroom because she was afraid of me. When someone asked me if Osama bin Laden was my uncle, I promptly responded, "Yeah, and if you keep talking, you can expect him to come knock on your door."

By sixth grade, I had conquered that specific category of teasing. A boy in my algebra class nicknamed me "terrorist" but I'd like to think it was because I called him "retarded" in front of the whole class almost every week.

Maybe if I only had to answer to third-grade Islamophobic bullying I could keep my confidence. But a fucking mustache on top of that? What the fuck?

But my facial hair remained. I had a peach fuzz mustache before most boys in my class did, and the desperate, cumbersome methods by which I tried to get rid of it resulted in a now-hilarious, then-traumatizing, set of results. My mom had already warned me that if I brought a razor to my face I'd end up with a permanent five-o-clock shadow, like Homer Simpson's twin sisters. I had no deeper fear at the time. With the razor being off limits, I tried Nair, and came to school with a swollen upper lip. Turns out I was allergic.

Then came waxing. At the bottom of every drug store beauty aisle is where they discreetly store Hairy Girl Products. I became acquainted with that aisle, buying a number of oddly colored Sally Hanson goos and waxes. For some reason, beauty companies think the earwax color of regular wax is unappealing to us hairy girls, so they make the hair removal substances purple or green, claiming an added dubious aloe or green tea extract as the reason for its alarming color.

Nonetheless, I bought into it—because what other option did I have? I would go into the bathroom I shared with my younger brother, waiting for my family to either leave the house or fall asleep, before taking gobs of the hot goo to my face with a popsicle stick. It was like frosting a hairy cake. I'd wait for it to dry, contemplating my existence and wishing I was a white girl, touching the hardened wax trying to gauge if it was ready to remove the cursed hair. After a few minutes, I'd rip off the strips in pieces, my eyes watering from the sting. Hot tears seem to be a constant in my struggle with battling hair, and when I was pulling purple chunks of wax off my face, they would appear again. I took in the results with a disgusting fascination, closely examining the strips of wax to see how much of my thick black hair it had managed to rip out.

Read More: Growing Up Muslim in a Post-9/11 World

The day after each waxing session, I felt like I was reborn. I didn't shy away from close conversations in natural light, where my hairs were usually the most obvious. If this were a short film, here is the part where I would insert a montage of me carelessly laughing and flipping my hair in the school cafeteria. Despite the abrupt gap in my eyebrows, I thought I looked as though they had never touched in the first place. "This is just my face! I look this hairless all the time!"

Inevitably, the fuzz would creep back. My peak moments of hairlessness were surrounded by hirsute valleys, which occurred when I was waiting for my mustache to grow back long enough to be ripped out again. I lived in this cycle for years, hiding my face at the end of the two-week period between waxings, ready to get rid of the demon that made my face a home.

Image by Suzanne Clements / Stocksy.

By the time I reached college, I was so sick of waxing that sometimes I would let my hairs run free—then catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and panic. But one break, after Thanksgiving, my mom sent a magnifying mirror—my frenemy when I lived at home—back with me. The mirror showed every thick hair protruding from my chin, my lips, my eyebrows. It was then I began plucking, a ritual of self-harm. I knew plucking was making my hair thicker and harder to deal with, but the satisfaction of pulling each one out of my face one by one was too great to let go. Every morning, I'd rush to my window where the light was best and tug at the hairs all over my face. I didn't care if it made me break out—acne is better than a beard.

I'd go through periods of lamenting my sorry situation. I thought about what would happen if I went on a long camping trip with my boyfriend. I'd wake up with a five-o-clock shadow just like him. Would he still want to kiss me at week two? Could I ever travel without my magnifying mirror and tweezers? Was I doomed to pick at my face for the rest of my life?

I sometimes worried that, when my friends looked at me, they saw my thick chin hairs first.

Mind you, these anxieties were not something I shared with even my closest friends. As recently as last year, I was so embarrassed about my facial hair, especially on my chin and neck, that I couldn't bring up the subject without feeling like I might burst into tears at any moment. Poop, sex, farts—everything else was fair game. I could poke fun at any number of natural hilarities, but my beard was not one of them. I sometimes worried that, when my friends looked at me, they saw my thick chin hairs first, and I would lose track of conversations thinking about how they saw me as their one hairy friend. I did not want to be the hairy friend.

Those anxieties came to a head when photos of Harnaam Kaur, a Sikh girl with a beard, began popping up Reddit. When Kaur bravely chose to defend her beard with confidence, instead of feeling inspired I felt a deep sense of horror. That could be me. If I stopped everything tomorrow, I could have a full beard in a few months. I felt, and still do feel, sick to my stomach when I see her photos. I give Kaur the upmost respect for the immense courage it took to embrace her beard, but that is not my battle. I am not going to walk around with a full fucking beard.

Every Upworthy-approved photo of Kaur proudly posing with her beard pushed me further into a state of panic. I was reaching the end of the list of sustainable methods for getting rid of my facial hair. As work-related travel increased, the dreaded hypothetical scenarios of how I could manage my beard were becoming reality. I couldn't keep packing my hefty magnifying mirror and plucking away, and week two on my work trips was always rough.

Read More: My Mom Wanted to Anoint Me with Bat's Blood to Make Me Hairless

That's when laser hair removal seemed like the only logical answer. The technology had always been there, but my bank account didn't have the kind of savings necessary to carry out the final solution. A magnifying mirror and tweezers are cheap—laser hair removal is not. After managing to make a livable salary in New York, I was capable of dropping a few thousand on getting rid of my beard for good.

When the day finally came, I lied down on the dermatology table and let a stern Chinese woman draw lines on my face. "This is really bad. You're really very hairy. You shouldn't have plucked this much. We have a lot of work ahead of us." I was shocked at her frankness. On top of her abrasiveness, this lady is someone who zaps peoples unwanted hair for a living. Was mine outstandingly bad, so much so that she had to tell me? I was certain she was going to take pictures of my ingrown stubble to use for a before and after photo. Was my "before" face going to end up on a subway ad?

At that point, I didn't care. All I knew is that this hair was finally going to be gone for good: Laser hair removal is the ultimate technology for getting rid of unwanted hair. Yes, that reads like an online advert for the procedure, but it's true. The machine, which became popular in the late 90s, pulsates directed light to your hair follicle, destroying it straight at its root. Destroying it. Not getting rid of it for two weeks, not bleaching it, but straight up bombing it. This is where my beard meets its maker.

I almost miss the familiar morning ritual of inspecting myself in the magnifying mirror, plucking my hair with satisfying pain.

It's not a one-time ordeal, though. The sessions cost thousands of dollars because the laser hair removal machine is only effective on anagen hair follicles, or follicles that are just beginning to grow. Follicles that have already grown are immune to the machine, but the surface level hairs fall out. The day after a session, my weakened hairs fall out because the roots they once held on to have been zapped away. A short time later, usually between 2 weeks and one month, the follicles are zapped again, only this time they catch what was missed by the laser on the last cycle of hair growth. This cycle—zapping every few weeks—continues as long as the hair grows back. I'm on my ninth cycle, but I may have to continue until my notoriously stubborn hairs are gone for good.

In the periods in between the treatment, I'm not meant to pluck or tweeze or do anything that would affect my roots because the roots have to grow back and await their eventual laser demise. What that means, though, is that the forbidden razor is the only upkeep I'm allowed to do for the hairs that still grow back. After years of hearing my mother tell me about the dangers of shaving, it feels fundamentally wrong to bring a razor to my face.

But while I wait for the laser hair removal to achieve its intended results, I almost miss the familiar morning ritual of inspecting myself in the magnifying mirror, plucking my hair with satisfying pain. It became the only constant in my young adulthood, my post 9/11, post-puberty reality. And with each zap, all the baggage that came with each hair is being wiped forever.