By Aymen Sherwani, January 23 2020—
Body hair has and continues to be a huge struggle for South Asian women because, well, we have a lot of it. As an 11-year-old, I remember getting myself into a hairy situation when I acid-burned the skin off my legs with Nair because I was tired of being a preteen with more leg hair than most of the boys in my class. I simply wanted to look “normal” like women in shaving commercials who somehow already had baby smooth legs before shaving. South Asian women spend hundreds of dollars per year on laser hair removal and waxing appointments, enduring so much pain just to avoid being shamed by society for something completely natural.
Harbir Kaur, a third-year nursing student at the University of Calgary and a devout Amritdhari Sikh woman, does not remove her body hair and wears a turban in the face of conventional beauty standards that claim she is doing everything wrong by following her faith.
“Being a Sikh woman who strongly believes in her faith, I try to embody my religion and culture in every way I can,” Kaur said. “Hair is also known as kes in the Sikh religion and has a lot of religious significance. I also tie a turban and try to follow a relatively simple lifestyle, focusing my attention on spirituality. I’ve never removed my hair from a young age. I have upper lip hair and body hair, which is of course not considered ‘natural’ for a girl in terms of conventional standards of beauty.”
They say beauty has a price, but what do you do when the cost of conforming to conventional beauty standards means going against your culture, religion and everything you were raised to stand for? In an interview with the Gauntlet, Kaur talks about her journey with self-love, being bullied because of her hair and how she empowers herself as a Sikh woman.
The Gauntlet: While growing up, were there any instances or times were you ever bullied because of the way you looked, and the way you practice Sikhism?
Harbir Kaur: Even though I grew up in the Northeast of Calgary — which is a relatively multicultural area — I was often bullied for the way I looked, most significantly for my turban and my hair. Stares and whispers from strangers, finger-pointing, whispers and laughter when I’m out in public and inappropriate comments and messages on social media aren’t unusual for me, but the teasing started around grade three and was consistent from there.
My worst experience with bullying was definitely in grade seven. There was a girl who sat beside me in my English class that made relentless remarks about my body hair. Every day she would make comments about how ugly she thought I was, and how I would look better without my moustache. At one point our teacher gave us an essay assignment, and this girl turned to me and said, “I’m going to write my assignment on how ugly Harbir is.” It was essentially a full year of this. The worst part was that she was fairly nice to the people around her and her friends, which made me feel like I genuinely deserved her teasing and that I was actually ugly. When so many people make you feel that you’re not worthy of kindness and love, it’s extremely difficult to get over that and give that love to yourself anyways.
G: Was there ever a point while you were growing up that you resented your identity and made you want to change yourself?
HK: There have been many times where I resented the way I looked and wanted to change who I am. My most severe episode of self-resentment was junior high. I was experiencing a lot of the lows that generally come with those confusing preteen years, and started to feel out of place among my peers. While they all began making new friends and becoming more beautiful, I only seemed to be getting uglier and lonelier. I questioned my faith a lot around this time and wondered whether it was worth all the pain that I was going through by being the “other” in every situation. Life was already hard enough as a 13-year-old — it was even harder when you were an awkward girl with a lopsided turban and a moustache.
G: How did you learn to accept your culture and henceforth your body for the way that it is?
HK: I was brought into the Sikh faith by my parents at a very young age, and practicing it became a habit rather than a daily choice. So when I stepped away from my routine and began doing my own research and forming my own beliefs, I fell in love with my faith all over again. I realized that by not adhering to conventional beauty standards, I got a chance to view the world from a different perspective. I learned to appreciate people for more than their looks. I understood that as humans, our value had little to do with our external appearance and everything to do with who we are on the inside. My faith taught me to love every living being because they all are connected by one universal energy.
When I looked at my sister, my friends and the people around me I realized how much I truly loved them. I began to question why I couldn’t apply that same love to myself and began to open up to healing. Although subconsciously it’s hard to let go of what we’ve been taught, I’m constantly reminding myself that from year to year, and culture to culture, beauty standards are social constructs that are constantly changing. From my understanding, beauty standards genuinely don’t exist, because beauty exists in everything.
G: What are some lessons in self-love that you want all brown women to know about learning to love yourself?
HK: I just want to remind my sisters that for some reason from a very young age, we’ve been conditioned to demean ourselves and subconsciously dislike ourselves. Whether it’s coming from the beauty industry, our local aunties or even our friends, certain features and characteristics are seen as undesirable on us. So even if it’s uncomfortable at first, or you just feel like you absolutely can’t do it, practice some self-love. Look in the mirror and tell yourself, “I am enough.” And if you’re like me and the idea of that scares you, just practice being more self-aware. Listen to the negative voice inside your head bringing you down. Dissect what it’s saying. Think, “Is this productive? If my best friend was doing the same thing I was, would I say these things to her? Why not? If so, then why is it okay that I’m saying these things to myself?” And slowly, step by step, try to build yourself from within.
You deserve to be content, comfortable and you deserve to love yourself in the skin you’re in. If there’s one thing the world needs more of, it’s empowered brown girls. Because an empowered girl can truly change the world. Self-love and acceptance is a really hard journey. And it’s so much easier when you feel like you’re not alone. People like Jasmin Kaur, @jusmun on Instagram and author of When You Ask Me Where I’m Going and my friend Sunroop Kaur, a painter who goes by @loquacious_lines on Instagram have inspired me immensely and shown me the value of what happens when brown Sikh girls step out of their comfort zones and follow their dreams.