In Knee Length, poet and journalist Khalisa Rae navigates the nuances of an inherited conservative legacy. Pulling from memories of her religious upbringing and education, family history, and matrilineal teachings, Knee Length is a history reimagined and excavated—a rebellious relearning of desire and respectability, family and faith.
Howling at the Moon
I’m not going to say I hate hair, I just didn’t like the way it looked on me. When I turned twelve, I would stare at my bushy underarms and legs for days on end and seethe. Then I’d turn on Sister, Sister, The Cosby Show, Boy Meets World, A Different World, and grow green with envy. I was certain that Denise, Whitley, Tia, Tamara, and Topanga had smooth, sensual legs. Hair made me feel wild and untamed like I was morphing into a werewolf. And at twelve, I had no interest in howling at the moon. Plus, it was itchy and made me feel utterly unsexy, underneath my clothes or otherwise.
A part of me also wanted to be like Ella Fitzgerald in “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” smoking a cigarette in long gloves, a petticoat, side-tilted hat, and pin curls, with some man in a three-piece suit, bow-tie, and slicked-back hair eyeing me from across the smoky club. There was no way Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Portier, or Nat King Cole would sneak a hairy-legged broad like me into the back seat of his Model T Ford.
But these are things you can’t tell your mother at twelve, so you stick to the script. For me, it was the prickly pine feeling and itchy stubble coming through the porous holes of my nylon stockings that were so irritating. Plus, I was sure the boys in school could see my hair poking through and talked about me in the locker rooms. I’m certain “wolf girl” was my colloquial nickname. My mom would have to care about me being called “wolf,” right? That I was the laughing stock? Don’t even get me started on gym class. The sheer mortification of wearing shorts during kickball when my legs looked like Carl Winslow’s chest hair. No one would ever ask me to a school dance with taco meat saying, “hello, stranger” through my tanks tops and shorts. I was like the pretty-faced girl that seems attractive until she reveals she’s got a black, feral squirrel living under her arms and on her bean-pole legs.
Most of my life was spent wearing plaid button-up uniforms and church dresses in stockings, so hairy arms and legs in tights were embarrassing. If I had to be stuck in knee-length uniforms and long church dresses, the least I could do was have smooth underarms and legs. Smooth legs were the sure-fire way to still be somewhat alluring like Britney Spears in “Oops, I Did It Again.” She definitely wasn’t hairy anywhere.
Honestly, I really just loved the idea of freshly shaven legs—rubbing their sleekness against the sheets, running my hands up and down to feel the stumble-free, buttery surface. At night in the bathroom, I’d prop myself up on the toilet, one leg on the tub basin edge, and imagine shaving with Skintimate shaving cream in one hand and a pink Daisy razor in the other. I’d close my eyes, smile ear to ear, and feel sexy and grown-up like a pin-up model. It might have had something to do with all the black and white films and shows I used to watch—I Love Lucy and Casablanca— or maybe the fashion magazines that cluttered my room. Elle, Vogue, Seventeen, Marie Claire. Each cover featuring different smooth-bodied beauties whose legs had us religiously buying issues, millions of copies sold off those luscious limbs alone. Case in point, the 1996 swimsuit issue of Vogue featuring Cindy Crawford: though her perfectly perky breasts and devilish smirk allured me, what captivated me most were her legs that seemed to be a mile-long of silkiness. Her shaved legs seemed to be running off the page and I wanted to run with them.
But being the 90’s kid I was, that defense would not hold up in the Christian court of my house. Parents at the time were all convinced that media and MTV were corrupting their kids, so the fashion magazine story had to stay a secret. So I stuck to more practical reasons to plead my case. Shaving was synonymous with puberty: get your period, wear a training bra, shave your legs. I watched boys shaving peach fuzz with their fathers on TV, and I yearned for the sacred experience of the “first shave.” That’s it, I thought, I’d tug on my mom’s heartstrings and maybe say something about gender inequality.
I begged my mother every day for a year to be a part of this hair removal ritual.
“Please, momma. What if I just shaved a little patch?” I whined, trying to bargain with her.
“You’ll have to deal with itchy prickles while you’re under my roof,” she said.
“Why not, ma?” I pleaded.
“Because you’re not ready for that. Let’s wait until you’re sixteen.”
My Bible-toting momma wasn’t having it. She was worried my silky sleekness would lead to desire, convinced that I wanted to be smooth for someone else’s touch. But truthfully, the sexiness I so longed for wasn’t for any boy, it was for me. To pluck and de-fluff every follicle would make me feel more like I was becoming a woman, and maybe that’s what she was afraid of. So I started to resent her. I’d mumble during movie nights, “See, she gets to shave. It’s not hurting anyone,” crossing my arms in frustration.
My anger would fizzle out, and then spark up all over again when it was time to put my stockings back on during fall and winter. I blamed her for making me sit through judgmental gym class glances. Eventually, I became the only girl with hairy armpits and legs. “Does your mom let you shave?” I’d ask each of my classmates. And they’d always say yes. Most girls in class were shaving when they started their period.
“Ugh. Mine won’t let me. I’m stuck being Tarzan until I’m sixteen,” I’d say. When I walked out onto the soccer field in shorts, the other girls would point and laugh. “Eww, she’s a fur baby.” Mortified, I would run home, hoping my mother would be sympathetic.
“Mom! The girls in class are making fun of me. C’mon,” I begged at thirteen. “Can’t I shave my underarms at least?”
“That’s their problem. We don’t concern ourselves with what other people think.”
We? I thought. I didn’t know about we, but I most certainly did.
Eventually, my mom caved, and we compromised around fifteen, the only caveat being that I’d have to foot the bill. Though she’d conceded, you know how they say be careful what you wish for? Keeping up the smooth appearance was exhausting. My mom didn’t warn me how quickly my hair would grow back. With my wonky, soon-to-be sixteen hormones, a shave only lasted a week tops. The shaving life was for the birds— razor bumps and itchy armpits. Spending my allowance money on shaving cream and disposable razors. My first time shaving, she took me to the drug store to get the coveted Nair wax kit. I’d been dying to do the hot wax and rip method I’d seen on Teen Vogue, and while she conceded, I could have sworn I saw a smirk.
When we got home to the bathroom, I tore open the package, glossed the caramel-colored goop on my legs giving them a good slather, and waited. Then, I stuck the sticky strips to the hair, pressing down hard to make sure it got all of it. I would never be called “fur baby” or “wolf girl” again. 5-4-3-2-1, I counted down, staring at my mother with a crazed look, eyes wide, all but salivating at the anticipation that I was seconds away from becoming a hairless beauty. My mother stared back smiling, slowly backing up like she knew where the chips were going to fall. On ONE, I yanked the sticky strip, and let out noise so high-pitched it could only be heard by dogs and wild animals.
“OUUUUCH!,” I yelped. “Owwww. Ahhhhhhhhh. Mom! Why did you let me get this?”
“Oh, no you don’t,” she laughed. “You begged and begged, whined and cried. This is what YOU wanted. Now live with the consequences,” she said, grabbing a cold rag to ease the pain.
“So I have to do this again?”
“Yeah, unless you want to walk around with mismatched legs.” She chuckled.
Needless to say, my first waxing experience had such an impact on me that when I turned sixteen I decided to only shave when I had to. I’d get excited on shaving day, but the smooth bliss wore off with the appeal of being a “lady.” And what did that even mean? To sit properly with legs crossed at the ankles in Mary Jane shoes and ruffly socks? That was me. My life was plaid skirts and white button-ups. Lace and tea parties. Somewhere between rinsing our mouths out with soap after saying dirty words and getting paddled for hiking our skirts up above the knee, I grew bored with the daydream I once had of being the good little girl that followed the rules or was liked by all my classmates. The less I wanted to be the male-gaze version of Britney Spears or Dorothy Dandridge, the less I wanted to stay slippery and glossed.
And what was wrong with the rough edges? When I left private school, something cracked open. I saw girls in torn shirts and ripped jeans, expressing their individuality, and I wanted that. Who was I when I wasn’t in uniform? When I wasn’t performing what I thought femininity meant? To this day, I wonder if that had been my mom’s plan all along. To show me maturing is nothing like the movies and magazines make it out to be. To teach me how to howl at the moon. To embrace not just my wild lady bush, but who I was at my rawest—uninhibited and free. In the movies, they don’t show you the nicks, razor burn, and bumps after. They always leave out how actually, howling at the moon isn’t half bad. Plus, I kind of liked how my raspy howl sounded when I let her out. Nowadays, I go to my proverbial mountain and let her roam free. Life would later teach me that embracing my wild, untamed side would lead to sexual freedom, but how I arrived at that realization is a story for another day.