"Isn't she beautiful?" I said to my 13-year-old daughter, a couple of months ago. We were looking at Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird," one of 14 of her artworks on display at the New York City Botanical Gardens.
She was startled by the question. "But Frida can't be beautiful! What about her unibrow? Her mustache?"
Immediately, I felt a pang of guilt. My daughter knows that I have my eyebrows and lip area waxed every six weeks. Unlike Frida, I'm blue-eyed and fair-skinned, but I have my own messy eyebrows and burgeoning lip hairs (far fewer than Frida, admittedly) to contend with. Yet here I was, asking her to admire and identify with a woman who refused to conform to society's mandate that a beautiful woman must be (mostly) free of body hair.
"I find you attractive whether you wax or not," my husband assures me periodically. But I don't feel pretty unless my lip area is clear and my eyebrows are separate, without a visible stray hair between.
In terms of body hair, I've been shaving my legs and armpits since I was 14, when my mother (finally) granted me permission. I'd been feeling out of the loop, since my friends were all shaving, tweezing and plucking.
Nowadays, my peers continue to do all these same things plus wax their faces and, in some cases, their pubic hair. Most of my friends consider themselves feminists who don't kowtow to patriarchal mandates—and yet, none of us want to appear hairy. What would happen if we did? Would some men and women perceive us as ugly or masculine? If so, why should we care about those who would judge us so harshly and superficially?
Growing up, I was insecure, the kind of girl who needed a lot of approval for my looks. My parents were stingy with warmth and compliments. My father lavished praise on me for one thing only: my looks. "Your face is as gorgeous as Helen of Troy. You, too, could launch a thousand ships," he liked to say. By adolescence, I'd figured out that in his mind, Helen was mustache- and unibrow-free.
In 2013, a Tumblr called toonsketchbook declared Frida Kahlo "a bit of a wreck," and decided to "prettify" her by posting a doctored image of the same self-portrait my daughter and I had just looked at. He eliminated her mustache and unibrow, lightened her skin and made her nose smaller. Many people, mostly women, protested online. One person reminded us that Frida's eyebrows and mustache were "a purposeful rejection of white colonizer standards of beauty," and that she "intentionally darkened them" for greater effect. I was furious at toonsketchbook for saying that Frida wasn't pretty on her own unconventional terms, exactly as she was.
A few weeks after our visit to the botanical gardens, I had a great time out at dinner with a male friend with whom I'd been close a long time. When I got home, I glanced in the mirror. Whoops! I'd forgotten to go for my waxing appointment that month. I was mortified: that faint, pesky mustache was there. Although my friend and I have never been romantically involved, even before either of us got married, I've always felt confident he liked my looks. But now? He'd become a stand-in for my father who couldn't love me unless I looked like Helen of Troy.
I'd like to be able to say that I didn't race the very next day to the salon to get waxed. I'd like to say that my daughter has come to me and declared that she now finds Frida, with her dark and evocative facial hair, to be breathtakingly beautiful. But I can't say either of those things.
What I can say is that I'm working hard on accepting who I am, a middle-age woman who adores Frida's bold, intense looks—unibrow, mustache, and all. A woman who wants her teenage daughter to grow up to be as brave and daring as Frida, in whatever ways she may wish. A woman whose own looks—by choice—reflect more of society's conventions, and that, too, is OK.