How I Stopped Starving and Learned to Grow My Armpit Hair | Rena Oppenheimer

I am a recovering addict. For most of my life, I was obsessed with approval and beauty. I would look in the mirror and search for proof that a pretty, skinny, happy girl lived somewhere deep inside me, underneath it all—a trick of the light, my ribs protruding, I felt I was getting closer and closer to the life I wanted. I was addicted to starving and puking, to saying yes when I wanted to say no, to numbers and makeup and mirrors and smiling for photos while I withered inside. I was addicted to perfection.


Since beginning treatment in 2012, I had this idea that my eating disorder came from some kind of abnormal glitch in my brain. I thought I was shallow, irrational, and disturbed. Everything changed for me a few months ago when I read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I found it on a bookshelf in my apartment, dusty and neglected, left behind by a past tenant to be mystically delivered into my hands, Jumanji-like, at the exact moment I needed it. I had never heard of the book, but was drawn to a photo on the cover of a thin, naked women taped up and displayed like some horrible piece of living art. I thought about the years of my life I’ve spent afraid of food and myself, driven by discipline and self-hatred, and I thought: I am that woman.


I read about the ways in which American women have been instructed to behave and display themselves, oriented toward unattainable perfection: with the feminist movement of the 1960s, idealized images of femininity evolved from Stepford wife-like duchesses of household-appliance-kingdoms to size-zero working woman glamazons. This book placed my entire experience and self-image as a white American woman in the context of this falsehood that I swallowed whole: if I am skinny and beautiful enough, I will be loved and my life will be boundlessly happy. If I look perfect, my life will be perfect, too.


Perfection is the secret weapon of the patriarchy. It’s impossible and it’s inhuman. Women know it, in theory, but we fall for it nonetheless. Perfection—selling it, expecting it, comparing ourselves to it, is what keeps women and girls hating ourselves, spending money on weight-loss and makeup, and easily controlled by men. Conspiracy theory? Yes, absolutely. But the truest one I’ve ever encountered. The patriarchy is in itself a conspiracy, and not enough people are talking about it and realizing how it shapes their worldviews, aspirations, and daily routines.


The myth of beauty-happiness goes beyond plucking and curling and bleaching and starving and all other measures of bending ourselves into physical forms we are not: it also affects our behavior and relationships. Women are constantly in competition with one another. Even in the intensive outpatient program at the eating disorder center where I received treatment, this sort of hellish holding cell for women who have been taken apart and turned upside down and driven insane by the patriarchy, I thought: that girl is gross and fat; that one is trying too hard; she’s a mess; that one over there is pretty, but stupid. I know I’m better than her, or, rather, the me that’s hiding under the ten (no, fifty) pounds I need to lose before I realize my full beautiful potential. Just when I should have been reaching out to others for support, and seeing them with kinder eyes than they could see themselves, I only noticed how utterly pathetic they were in their imperfection. All of this competition and judgment keeps women from realizing their most powerful tool against the elusive, destructive fantasy of the beauty myth: self-love.


Only now I am learning to take off my patriarchy glasses and work toward accepting myself with compassion and respect. I started growing my armpit hair just a couple of months ago, a decision I never thought I would make. In the past, when I would encounter women who didn’t shave, dark bushes protruding from their t-shirt sleeves, I would think, dirty. Smelly. That’s someone who doesn’t care about being beautiful—or, maybe, is too afraid to try.


I have a garden of my own now. I raise my arms and check in and see the little seedlings and smile as they blossom and become full. I love them. I am proud of them. I cultivate them. Having hair in my armpits, hair that sprung up so quickly and joyfully when I let it grow, is beautiful to me. Because it’s mine and I want it. Because I am building a home in my body instead of feeling ashamed of it and trapped inside it. I have come to the deeply human and sweet realization that love (for ourselves and for others) is a crucial tool of feminist resistance.


So—I would like to share how liberating and caring and kind it feels to let go of perfection and be a human being. I am in the midst of an internal research project, a mad-feminist-scientist investigating what makes me feel mindful, fulfilled, and in control of my own body. It was terrifying to stop wearing makeup; I felt naked and ugly at first. Turns out my eyes look really tiny without all of that black shit around them. Now I am learning to recognize myself without the lighteners, darkeners, concealers, and all of the other potions and bottles I’ve been dependent on since middle school.


I got rid of my full-length mirror. I try and focus on how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking about, and the real ME who is learning that how I look is actually quite irrelevant to who I am. I got rid of my scale; it never told me anything except for what I was looking to see. I take time to journal, sketch, create, and pay attention to my thoughts. I am becoming my own best friend. I am working on letting myself eat cake: frosting-smothered, quadruple-chocolate candy-covered cake and allowing myself not to give a fuck afterwards. I seek out books and essays and articles that expose the conspiracy of female repression around us. I tell myself, out loud sometimes, that I deserve love, that I am a kick-ass, fascinating, funny person, that I matter, and that none of these things are conditional. I tell my friends that they deserve the same.


Beginning to let go of destructive behaviors and negative self-talk ingrained in me is so much easier said than done, and the journey to self-love can often feel more vulnerable than liberating. Thankfully, there are no rules; there is room for experimentation and change and finding what feels right. I still do eyebrow maintenance sometimes, when I want to, because it helps me feel more confident in facing the world. I’ll occasionally throw on some dark vampire-red lipstick for a night out. I analyze my freedom, I exercise it, and, most importantly, I share with others. It is only now that I can see this untapped source of communality, strength, and support in the women around me, who have also been stunted and damaged by the patriarchy and need each other to rewrite what it means to be beautiful. As someone who is privileged enough to dissect my own repression—to look, speak, and feel differently than my Barbie blueprints—I feel I have a responsibility to myself and to women around the world to keep doing just that.

Rena Oppenheimer is originally from Boston, MA and studied anthropology and Arabic language at Tufts University. She has been living all over Israel-Palestine over the last year and a half, engaging in women’s rights advocacy and Jewish anti-occupation work.

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