Every two weeks (or more), I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, that essays is “Sugarcoating,” by Taleen Mardirossian. Taleen is currently working on a collection of essays about the body and identity. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, where she has taught undergraduate writing. This essay is the first of her collection, and was edited by Meg Pillow.
My mother and I never named our body parts below the neck and above the thighs. Not in English or Armenian or the three other languages she speaks. Not at home, not in doctor’s offices, not when we went to buy my first bra, not even when she pulled me into her room to warn me about my soon-to-arrive period. She simply said that I would start bleeding soon. I was terrified.
Like a nosebleed?
I wanted to ask but I could see that she was already nervous, pacing back and forth while I sat on her bed, biting my nails.
She explained that when she was my age, she kept seeing blood in her underwear. She went to the bathroom every 15 minutes to wash and rewash it, but it wouldn’t stop. She thought she was dying. Her mother never told her that she’d get her period, and so she wanted me to hear it from her.
“When it happens, don’t be afraid.”
She gave no explanation as to why my body would change, only a warning, a courtesy notice that it would.
Perhaps my mother never said the relevant words because like me, she was the only daughter in her family. Or perhaps it was because she had been taught that naming female body parts was shameful. Or perhaps because she knew that I too would learn to listen to appropriate words and understand that they implicated inappropriate ones. After all, what is spoken is not always the same as what is being said. And by 12, I understood that saying she saw blood in her underwear was my mother’s way of telling me you’ll bleed from your vagina.
Instead of using words, we used our hands, fingers, and eyes to look at or point to the unnameable parts of ourselves. They’re showing too much, my mother would point to my low-cut top. Or we’d refer to our body parts as locations. It’s burning down there. Singular meant vagina. Plural meant breasts. Context was everything.
When I started middle school, my mother was 30 years old. Like her mother, grandmother, and the women who came before them, she was a wife by 18 and a mother by 19. While the boys in my class ogled her, the girls dreamed about our mother-daughter relationship. She was the chaperone all my friends wanted on class field trips. Though her lips were always colored with a bold, dark brown lipstick, the words she spoke were always soft and subtle. Unlike the other mothers, she never yelled at our group to stay together because no one ever left her side. She’d treat us to funnel cakes at amusement parks and sodas at the theatre. She gave the impression that she was a cool mom, the kind who told her daughter everything. Consequently, my friends assumed I had all the answers to questions related to sex. What they didn’t realize was that although my mother was the youngest of all our parents, she was also the most traditional.
Despite the fact that I was born in Inglewood, California and my mother was born in Beirut, Lebanon, the rules in our respective households remained the same. I wasn’t allowed to play with the boys next door. I wasn’t allowed to attend school dances. I wasn’t allowed to sleep over at slumber parties. I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend or even say the word “boyfriend” out loud (my mother had deemed it a bad word). I wasn’t allowed to wear nail polish, eyeshadow, or a two-piece bathing suit. And I certainly wasn’t allowed to learn about the body I was living in: not from her, not from school, not from anyone.
In seventh grade, when I came home with a permission slip to watch the sex ed video in health class, my father refused outright to sign it so I asked my mother to sign it instead, begging her to protect me from social death. Instead of siding with me and convincing my conservative father to allow me to participate, she corroborated him and made sure I didn’t see it.
“You’re too young,” is what they told me, but what they actually meant was you’re a girl. They signed the same slips for my brothers when they reached seventh grade.
I was the only student who did not watch the sex ed video. I told a series of lies all week to safeguard my reputation and that of my immigrant parents. First, I told my friends that my parents couldn’t sign the slip because they were out of town.
Why doesn’t your grandmother sign it? She can’t read, I lied.
When they saw my father drop me off at school the morning of the video presentation, I lied again and said I had the signed slip. At lunch time, I said I must have forgotten it at home.
Why don’t you call them? Our phone is broken, another lie.
While all my classmates sat and watched a video about birth control and herpes, I sat in the principal’s office, wondering how many more lies I’d have to tell to convince my classmates that I was no different from them.
When I returned to school the following week, there was plenty of sex ed talk going around. I pretended to know all about vaginas and penises, but the truth was that I really didn’t know anything about my body or any other body. Most memorably, I realized that week that giving head didn’t mean what I thought it did. I’d heard the expression used by boys about several girls at my school. I assumed it meant giving good advice, which seemed to be consistent with language we used to describe some of the kids in our class—dickhead, crackhead, knucklehead, shithead, pothead, airhead. Airhead, for example, implies that the head can be empty. Goodhead, I assumed, was a synonym for smarthead, a term associated with intelligence. And to give good head seemed generous—not only are you smart but you shared this smartness. It seemed like the best of compliments. I remember wondering if my friends said this about me. I hoped they did.
That is, until an eighth grader confided in me that week, “I gave him head and it was disgusting.” I didn’t understand. How disgusting can giving advice really be? Instead of asking this question and making my ignorance known, I said “tell me everything.” And she did.
I quickly realized that those three magic words—tell me everything—were my key to unleashing a repository of information I otherwise had no access to. Often, I’d be horrified by the knowledge I was summoning. It’s how I learned about anal sex and childbirth. And because I always pretended to know about these things and because all the girls assumed I knew these things from my ultrahip mother, they would confide in me and sometimes even ask for help when they were too embarrassed to seek resources alone. I went to Planned Parenthood and asked for a Plan B pill at a Rite Aid pharmacy counter before I’d ever even been kissed.
I could never tell my mother about these incidents or ask her questions about the illicit information I was harboring. I was mad at my father for being so strict, but I was livid with my mother. I believed that a mother’s loyalty should always be to her daughter. Mothers were supposed to talk sense into fathers. Mothers were supposed to cover for their daughters. When I’d confront her with stories I’d heard from my friends about their mothers siding with them, she’d ask me not to compare her to other moms.
“I’m doing this for you,” she’d remind me.
Still, she was selectively progressive. She didn’t want me to be married young, as she had been. She didn’t want me to drop out of school, as she had done. She wanted me to be independent but not too much, forward thinking but traditional. She wanted me to be American, but she wanted me to be Armenian first.
It seemed to me that to be an Armenian woman was to be in the dark and to be an American woman was to be in the know. The pressure of having to be both, yet being neither, made my body feel like a site of alienation.
My body developed faster than my mind and I often felt alone in my pursuit of catching up with myself. As my legs grew longer and my cheekbones more prominent, my resemblance to my mother became more and more apparent. Everyone was always telling me that I was a replica, a carbon copy, a mirror image of my mother, except my skin was starting to look less and less like hers.
My mother’s skin was always bare and smooth like my Barbies. I had two sets of them. One set were the Barbies I used to play with every day. These dolls were always in mismatched outfits, their hair uneven from failed attempts of haircuts with dull scissors. This set was tossed in the garage somewhere. The second set was a collection of collections: Barbies from the Hollywood Legends Collection, the Great Eras Collection, Society Style Collection, the Grand Entrance Series, the Classic Ballet Series, and so on. My mother taught me to treat these Barbies with utmost respect and care because they were not like the others. These were collectible, which meant that their boxes could not be opened. If I opened them, they’d be worthless. So I kept them in pristine condition and on display around my bedroom—one on my desk, another on a bookcase, another on the dresser, the rest in my closet. I’d alternate them every so often, but they all remained unopened and untouched. I understood that the female body was an object to be displayed for the viewing of others, an object to be admired, but my body felt like it needed hiding.
Hair was taking over my skin. I was too embarrassed to be seen in shorts that showed my hairy legs, so I stopped wearing them until it became too hot to wear anything else. I’d seen a commercial that introduced “Venus from Gillette, the first razor designed to make you feel like a goddess.” The body of a goddess, a beauty, a Barbie, is one free of hair, so I searched my mother’s bathroom for a razor and confronted her when I couldn’t find one. She was appalled.
“I don’t get it. Why can’t I shave? Tabitha’s mom lets her,” I asked. My mother said nothing but grabbed a Tupperware of what looked like burnt caramel and motioned me to follow her into the bathroom.
The women in my family do not believe in shaving. They believe in sugar, or as we call it in Armenian, shakar, but shakar is more than just sugar. It’s sugar and lemon juice mixed with a wooden spoon until it turns into gold, silky wax. This secret recipe was shared by only a handful of women on my mother’s side of the family.
She dipped her finger in the Tupperware, taking out just a bit of wax while instructing me to open the small bathroom window to let some air sneak in. She stuck the wax on her hairless arm to demonstrate as I pulled off my pants. She didn’t even blink as she pressed the wax onto her left wrist with her right thumb and quickly pulled it off, which made me believe it couldn’t be all that bad. But it was. The warm wax soothed me as she smoothed it onto my skin but then she counted—one, two—pulling suddenly on three. She yanked both hair and root from my legs, and I let out a scream.
I begged her first in English, then in Armenian for a different method but she stuck the wax back onto my leg. “We don’t have time for this. It’ll melt and go to waste.” She pulled. I wailed. She kept repeating that none of my friends, including Tabitha, would ever get a hold of this homemade wax. Even if they wished for it, even if they begged for it, even if it were the only thing they ever wanted, they could never have it. I clasped my hands and squeezed them as she stuck the wax back on while counting again and again—one, two, deep breath, pull. I hadn’t realized that the beauty of my mother’s skin was evidence of this pain. If I wanted to be beautiful like her, I would have to learn to endure like her. I squeezed my hands into fists, and the tears in my eyes and the hairs on my legs began to disappear.
By 13, I knew my skin intimately. I’d wait for my hairs to grow just enough to wax them off. I’d sit naked on the edge of the tub in my mother’s bathroom and rub the wax on every inch of myself, compulsively pressing and pulling. It was difficult at first. The mind knows something the body doesn’t. My hand would caress my skin with warm wax only to deceive it. My fingers would do the pulling despite knowing the pain that’d come from ripping out hundreds of hairs from their roots at once. I’d strip my skin of its protectors. I’d irritate it. I’d make it bleed. I’d make it bruise. I’d breathe in and out and onto my skin to tolerate the violence I was inflicting upon myself and, before I could even process the pain of the first pull, I’d be pulling again. Pain atop pain. Then more pain.
With each pull, I’d yank a patch of black hairs off my skin, stare at the roots, and stroke the soft, white hair bulbs that hovered over them like a balloon. The more I waxed, the closer I felt to my body. I learned that my upper lip is the most sensitive part of my skin and that the hairs on my bikini line are the most stubborn. The ones on my thighs are the faintest, and the tiny few below my belly button grow upward. I understood the extent of my body’s flexibility when I needed to reach the backs of my thighs. The pain didn’t lessen with practice. I simply learned to bear it. And with each pull, my hands slowly became quicker.
Learning to endure this pain was how I earned my way in with the women on my mother’s side of the family. My newly acquired waxing skills and the start of my period granted me access to the sacred space of shakar. One afternoon, my mother and I joined my grandmother at her sister Aida’s house for what I thought was just another family gathering but to my surprise, there were only women there. As I exchanged kisses with my great aunts and their close friends, my grandmother blurted out that I had started my period. The announcement was shocking, especially because my mother had explicitly advised me that no one was to know about my bleeding, not even my father. I was to be sure not to have loose pads hanging around in the bathroom or in my backpack. When I changed pads at home or at school, I was to carefully wrap the bloodied one along with the wrapper of the new one in toilet paper before placing it in the trash. I took my mother’s words seriously and made sure my blood was invisible. But suddenly, here, secrets were spilling.
My grandmother’s face radiated without any makeup on, and the three gold bangles she always wore danced on her wrist. Her nails were painted with her usual red polish and, as always, she wore denim capris with a loose top. Her outfit was predictable but I was seeing, for the first time, that she was not. While she rushed in and out of the kitchen, setting the table and bringing out food, she paused and began laughing hysterically as she recalled the start of her own period. She was 11 and living in Syria. No one had ever warned her about bleeding. When it happened, she yelled for her mother who told her that this was natural, that women bled once a month. Naively, she asked her mother if the Arab girls next door bled too or if this was happening to her because she was Armenian. Even at that young age, she saw being Armenian as being someone who suffered steadily. She said she wished her mother had prepared her for her period. I knew my mother was thinking the same.
When my grandmother finally took a seat, she signaled to her youngest sister to bring out the shakar. Aida appeared in the living room with a palm full of wax and started playing with it like a baker does her dough. Their other sister Vio pulled off her dress, extending her leg as she rested her foot on the coffee table, waiting to be waxed. As the wax took its shape with each pull, Aida told me that my bleeding meant I was now one of them and revealed, “this means you will have babies one day.” If only I had seen the sex ed video, I’d know how the two were connected, but I understood then that my bleeding was some kind of milestone.
When the wax transformed into a pale gold, Aida showed it off, proud of her creation. She was the wax maker, a skill she’d learned from her Arab neighbor while living in Lebanon, and it had become her way of nurturing the women in our family.
“Shaving cuts the hair on the surface. Waxing pulls the hair out by its root,” she explained.
Uprootedness was their inheritance. My grandmother and her sisters were born in Syria where their grandparents escaped to during the Armenian Genocide from Marash, a city now in southeastern Turkey. At different points in time, each of the sisters relocated to Beirut with their husbands for work. After years of living through Lebanon’s Civil War, they sought refuge elsewhere. My mother’s family fled to Marseille and later to Los Angeles. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that these women move from Armenian to Arabic to Turkish to French to English seamlessly, as though the blending of the five is a tongue of its own. Yet still, with so many languages at their disposal, they were taught to approach their bodies and each other with silence.
Vio once revealed that when she was pregnant at 19, she didn’t know exactly where the baby would come out from and although she had four sisters, she was too ashamed to ask any one of them. Herip, the eldest of the five, explained that this was their upbringing. “We were taught that ignorance was in our best interest. That keeping silent and withholding information from girls somehow protected them.” Aida added, “but ignorance is what puts them in danger.” I took a piece of wax and started pressing and pulling on my knuckles, pretending to practice but really intending to show off. My grandmother pinched my leg.
“My beautiful girl,” she whispered.
“It is not a woman’s beauty that matters, it is her luck,” said Vio.
I glanced at each of them, trying to decide who was most beautiful—my grandmother with her emerald eyes, Vio with her olive skin, Aida with her striking smile, my mother with her high cheekbones. They saw themselves as both beautiful and unlucky, or rather, unlucky because they were beautiful. They blamed beauty as the source of their suffering. They say it was why each of them had been married off before they were even 18, I wondered why we were going through so much pain to remain beautiful then?
Aida nodded her head in agreement as she pressed and pulled the wax on Vio’s ankle, repeating the movement upward until she reached Vio’s knee. Vio was wearing nothing but a bra and spandex shorts. Not a squint or hint of discomfort appeared as she shamelessly reached for her “water bottle” filled with what I now realize was vodka. Looking at her, one would never imagine that she had agreed to be engaged at 15 just so she could be allowed to go to the movie theatre. As Aida pressed and pulled the wax, Vio sat unfazed, answering calls mid-conversation for her fashion line.
I was not only fixated on the wax, but on the women themselves. I had never known them in this way. I was used to the large family gatherings, the hearty dinners, the sugarcoated conversations, the hours of cooking and preparing and cleaning. They only ever had time to eat while cooking. A spoon of pilaf here, the stuffing of unwrapped grape leaves there. They would adorn their tables with food and soups, make sure the plates of husbands and children and guests were full. The men would sit at the head of the table and ask for a larger spoon, a sharper knife, warmer bread. And they would travel back and forth, retrieving and handing one another the spoon, the knife, the bread. A team of relay racers with no finish line. One more spoon of pilaf here, a bite or two of sarma there. They would prepare Tupperwares of leftovers, having memorized what each man liked and disliked. I wondered if any one of these men even knew what his own wife liked.
Once the food was distributed, one sister would take over the sink, washing the dishes. Another would dry the plates and put them in place, all of them familiar with the drawers and cabinets of the others’ kitchens. Another would make the coffee. I would help bring the desserts to the table– baklava, cookies, cakes, and dried fruits. The men argued about politics and religion while the women argued over who’d host the next gathering.
But here, the women sat freely, their breasts pouring out of their bras, flaunting their legs, spider veins and all. They all knew how to wax on their own, as they often did. This tradition of waxing was less about beauty and more about an occasion for communion. It was the only time the men wouldn’t dare show up. The one time a husband came home, he sat on the front porch for hours, too embarrassed to knock on his own door. Simply put, our exposed bodies guaranteed privacy.
In this sacred space, the women indulged in truth. One woman confessed her husband’s infidelity. Another woman confessed about having an abortion. Another opened up about her son’s struggle with addiction. Each confession was a revelation that freed me from the shame of all the things I did not know.
One of the first things I learned about my body was how much pain it could tolerate. It is a dangerous skill to teach and an even more dangerous skill to acquire because the repetition of pain leads to painlessness. Perhaps by waxing, the women in my family were preparing me for a life full of pain but this pain paved our road to intimacy.
I no longer react to the pain of waxing. The pain that initially felt unnatural has become natural to me. By this same measure, the words that initially felt unspeakable no longer are. What may feel “unnatural” can become natural. The “natural” is a construction, one that we choose to maintain or deconstruct.
By waxing, we learned to uproot ourselves and each other. We learned to work against the silence we had been taught to uphold. By waxing, we found language, and with language, we found the power to create a new tradition—one where women equip their daughters with words. For years, Aida pressed and pulled the wax on the women, extracting secrets and stories. I sat in my sports bra and listened.