Riding the trains recently, I am often reminded of one of the – if not the – first times I rode on subways. I was with my mom and two brothers, and we were on vacation in Washington, D.C. I was around age ten or twelve. Throughout the trip, we used public transit.
While we were on the subway train one particular time, I was hanging on some of the handles that dangle from above, and chatting with my mom and brothers. One of my brothers then commented to my mom that she needed to start teaching me how to shave. I had only just recently begun having hair growing under my arms, and this was the first time I ever really noticed.
I was totally embarrassed, but that was no surprise / nothing new for me, since I was with my brothers. They regularly said and did things that had me be embarrassed. Not in mean ways, or anything – they just called me out on things. Like the time I did everything backwards in my dance recital, because I was watching the teacher off to the side. They weren’t being mean to me after the performance, but simply pointing out in a slightly teasing way that I had done everything backwards. So, it was definitely teasing, but out of love and good humor.
Anyway, I remember that experience. I was a bit embarrassed to put my arms up to hold onto the handholds on the train, because I had hair growing from my underarms.
Now, fast-forward to today. I have hair growing from my underarms, as well, but, just as it was new to me then, this is new to me now. I have only recently given up shaving. It wasn’t even entirely intentional – it kind of just happened. I can talk about it more at another time, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.
So, I have hair on my underarms. I don’t have purely clothing that covers my underarms. I use public transit here in Japan. Therefore, there are times at which I am on the train in something like a tank top, and don’t have a seat, and so need to hold the hanging handholds. Doing so, of course, exposes my underarms. Each time feels a lot like that time in D.C.
Except, this time, I consider things a bit differently. At first, I worry, of course, as it reminds me of the D.C. experience. Then, however, I consider what my specific worry is. Is it about looking good? Mostly. Is it about social standards? Somewhat (part of the looking good aspect). Is it about concern for exposing people to something distasteful? Barely.
The only reason that actually holds any merit after these considerations is the distasteful one. As odd and harsh as it seemed at the time, I still believe that the Scientology guide we read in high school held merit in it. Long story short, I did a summer symposium at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. There is a Scientology place on one of the main strips around campus, as a couple of us picked up the free guides one day, and ready through them. The guides were kind of like a list of rules, so to speak, of how to do certain things for daily life, so as to be a good person. Some were entirely normal and standard concepts for being a good person.
One, in particular, struck us, and has stuck with me ever since then. I don’t remember the exact wording, and so I won’t attempt to quote it. However, the words we used to explain it were, “So, don’t be ugly, because that’s displeasing to others.” Our words, of course, were a bit abrasive, but they relate the idea. Take care of your appearance, because who wants to look at someone with matted hair, rotting teeth, dirt-caked skin, and the rest of that kind of package? I don’t know anyone who truly enjoys seeing people like that. And I do know that, for myself, I rather enjoy seeing people who are cleaned up nicely. Who doesn’t enjoy a chance to see someone beautiful?
This isn’t a matter of dressing to impress, but simply dressing to be appropriate, so to speak. What I gathered for myself from that guide was one simple question that I ask myself: Do I enjoy looking at myself? Whatever I am wearing, however things are, I just check in with myself. Am I okay with what I am wearing, with how I look? Would I be offended seeing someone in my place? It is not a question that often is answered with a negative, and so it is often more of a background idea, as opposed to a conscious effort. However, this is what comes to mind with situations like this whole train thing.
That being said, I consider this Scientology guide’s note of personal appearance whenever I am in my train circumstances these days. Is my showing arm hair actually offensive, or merely unexpected and outside of the ordinary? I believe it is the latter.
At this point, I consider things in terms of male standards of acceptable behavior. Yes, it would be rude to put my underarm into someone’s face, I think. I would be totally annoyed if some guy had his pit in my face on the train. Though I would be totally fine if he were in a tank top, holding onto the handholds up above, if his pit were not in my (or anyone else’s) face. I know that guys traditionally have underarm hair, but they don’t exactly flaunt it at everyone. And so I want to do the same. I don’t love seeing guys’ underarm hair all the time, but I’m also not offended when it shows up here and there.
And so, I go ahead and hold onto the handholds most of the time.
I am cautious due to cultural standards, and I don’t need to freak out these poor, unsuspecting Japanese folk. However, that just means that I don’t flaunt it. Perhaps I’ll turn a bit one way instead of another, but it is specifically so as not to scare people (even though I find it silly that such a thing would scare people, I keep in mind my own former comfort levels with female underarm hair, and my own in particular – it has been a process). I am not stopped for a fear for myself. I am not worried that these people will dislike me – not at all. It is kind of like how I don’t walk up to fat people and tell them that they would do well to eat a good diet and get a significantly greater amount of exercise than they are currently getting – it is entirely unnecessary, and could be incredibly rude. (Though, I currently don’t really see a scenario in which that wouldn’t be totally rude.) I do not fear for myself, and have that stop me. That fear ends at the first round of questions regarding my worry. It just becomes a matter of whether people can handle that part of me, or whether it is best to leave that out of the social conversation.