Alok Vaid-Menon is a poet and performance artist who campaigns on trans visibility with bold, colourful portraits on social media. But they are often trolled for the way they look.
When I told my family I was trans, one of their initial reactions was, “But you’re so hairy! It’s going to be so difficult to remove all your hair to be a woman, so you should just give up.” They were zeroing in on my body hair as the barrier for me to be seen as feminine.
People still have a limited understanding of gender as binary. Trans is not always about being a man and a woman – society is fixated on the idea that trans people solely want to become a man or a woman but they don’t really investigate the other possibilities of gender identification.
When I started to transition I would attend a trans support group where it was safe to talk about our experiences, figure out pronouns and stuff. When I would come wearing stereotypically “male” clothes, people would be confused, they’d talk to me as if I was a man. When I wore a dress, they treated me like a woman, “Okay, you’re one of us.”
Some people at the group would say, “If you want to be taken seriously as a trans person then you need to remove your body hair and start a medical transition.”
These comments were upsetting because I’ve already experienced so much unsolicited advice in my life. It hurt that even within this community that was supposed to be supportive, there was still this policing of gender and beauty norms – that somehow it’s impossible to be feminine and hairy at the same time.
I still get that same kind of “concern trolling” in comments on my social media. People genuinely think they are helping, but I wish they would think, “Why don’t I ask that person what they need from me?”
The first time that I learned that I was supposed to hate body hair was when I was 10. My older sister was 13 and grew a little hair on her arms. Somehow it became everyone’s business as to how she had to remove it. My aunties all had advice about waxing and threading for eyebrows.
I started being really conscious of hair anywhere on my body. I was 11 when soft, downy hair grew on my upper lip. I kept begging my dad to let me shave my moustache. He refused and I was devastated. I was ruthlessly teased at school for being a hairy kid. My classmates would say that I was an “animal” or that I was dirty.
I started to sneak razors belonging to my sister and my dad. I would grab opportunities to shave in the bathroom when I had some privacy. No-one had taught me how to shave and I was too afraid to ask to someone to show me, so I would be shaving in the wrong direction, with just soap and water, getting terrible rashes. I was itchy and uncomfortable but I couldn’t stop.
I would do it in the shower and try to hide the evidence from my family members. I would shave even if there wasn’t actually any hair to shave, because in my mind I felt like I could see hair on my body.
I wore full-length clothes so no-one could see my body hair, and I would avoid going swimming. Even after I started to shave, I kept myself covered up because I didn’t want my bullies to know that they were actually affecting me.
I was 10 when 9/11 happened and the public harassment was really intense. I grew up in a small town in Texas where my Indian family was in the minority. People called us terrorists. Once someone said, “Why did your people do this to us?” Suddenly having a bit of facial hair on our brown skin implicated us as suspicious and threatening.
The day of my 13th birthday was a really big day for me because my dad said I was finally allowed to shave. I remember that moment really clearly, I felt beautiful, and that I would fit in with my white classmates. And it worked because my classmates treated me substantially better because it was like suddenly I was normal and not scary.
In high school there was this total turnaround, suddenly everyone was impressed by my ability to grow a beard. I even joined a group called “Beards for Peace” where we talked about being anti-war – I was voted “Most Environmentally Friendly” as my beard was now sometimes seen as more “hippie” than threatening.
I wouldn’t totally rule out removing body hair, I just really want it to be my decision.
We have been taught such a limited narrative of what it means to be beautiful. White, hairless, thin bodies are held up as a standard of beauty, but they are an exception and do not reflect the majority of people in the world.
Body hair should not gendered. Everyone has a bit of body hair in different places and in different amounts. How can something so natural be so violently and painfully policed?
The body hair-removal marketing people have a lot to answer for. If we started to accept our body hair, then all those razors, creams, wax strips wouldn’t be so popular.
I love to touch my body hair, it’s comforting, it’s like my own warm blanket. I love to see a bit of hair peeking out of the top of my dress. I think of it like an accessory. It’s just another thing to go with my outfit and my look.
But there are big consequences for choosing to maintain my body hair as a trans person.
When you’re gender nonconforming, you’re never safe from bullying. There are no spaces where I can truly feel at peace. I could be harassed in the street, escape into a restaurant, be stared at in there, go into the bathroom and someone will make a comment there.
There is a crucial distinction for trans people between being made visible and choosing to be visible. Visibility is the reason we experience violence online and public. The truth is, every single day I get hateful messages from trolls on my social media.
It’s terrifying to receive such abuse. Studies have found that trans people have extremely high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder from constant harassment.
It has made me extremely anxious and I constantly feel threatened. It means that even when I’m alone or among friends, I still have traces of stress. Anxiety can be painful – it has had an impact on my body, manifesting as chronic pain and joint pain.
I feel compelled to be creative in order to release this stress and anxiety.
When I do portraiture, I am creating art, but I’m also adding to the representation of trans people in the wider world.
I think it’s important as a trans person to boldly occupy public spaces, because society is trying to erase us.
When I make myself visible, I am creating a resource for other people. By seeing me, someone out there will be coming across a non-binary person for the first time. The truth is that so many people don’t know it’s possible to live a gender non-conforming life.
But it’s liberating for me as well. To see myself depicted in this powerful way is like, “Wow, this is me at my most free.”
Life would be so much easier if I removed my body hair. But why should I shave to make people feel more comfortable?
Having body hair and styling my hair up is my way of saying to the world, “I’m here to stay!”
Photographs by Brian Vu.
As told to Elaine Chong.